A group of New York interior design students takes an educational jaunt through Scandinavia
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 11/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
A student exhibition at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. Photo by Kim Rothberg.
Study-abroad programs have long been accepted as a valuable add-on for college students. But they're an even more essential boon for students of design—and an eye-opener for those who accompany them, as I discovered when Scott Ageloff, dean of the New York School of Interior Design (where I've taught for six years), invited me to conduct a two-week study-abroad class in Scandinavia.
The tour, an elective in design history, was full in a matter of days, evidence of both the students' interest in destinations beyond the usual London-Paris-Rome triumvirate and their eagerness for a serious educational experience. It was also a pricey one: Students' expenses totaled at least $8,000—and they had to make their own travel arrangements. But as NYSID president Christopher Cyphers notes, "Globalization has made understanding different cultures, aesthetics, and practices essential to an interior designer's education."
Mirroring the diversity of NYSID's student body, the 10 participants ranged in age from 19 to 50, and came from several parts of the U.S., as well as France, Japan, and Colombia. Several held prior college degrees, and professional experience included everything from fine art and fashion merchandising to advertising and real estate.
The curving entry ramp at Helsinki's 1998 Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma by Steven Holl Architects. Photo by Kim Rothberg.
The schedule was planned to show the students a broad swath of historic locales and new design developments in each of three major cities: Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki. (The limitations of time made it impossible to include Oslo.) Thanks to acquaintances and contacts made while researching a book I recently published on Scandinavian furniture, there were opportunities for private visits and behind-the-scenes tours, with knowledgeable experts such as museum curators, factory principals, designers, historians, and educators.
In two weeks of nonstop activity, we visited 14 museums, four factories and workshops, three palaces, three design centers, three concert halls, three libraries, two city halls, and a design school. We participated in two private bus tours during Copenhagen's annual Architecture and Design Days (where the tour guide graciously spoke in English rather than Danish), an architecture-oriented boat tour in Copenhagen, and a tram tour in Helsinki.
Of course, last century Scandinavia attained worldwide renown for design and architecture that put a priority on function and humanitarian concerns. This venerated history was vividly brought to life for our group in tours of the house-museums of two 20th-century Nordic giants: Finn Juhl's, outside Copenhagen, and Alvar Aalto's, in Helsinki. The strength and depth of the tradition were reinforced by visits to the Copenhagen factory of the 136-year-old manufacturer Fritz Hansen, and to the colorful factory and showroom of the Finnish textile company Marimekko, established as recently as 1951.
The Nordic countries retain a reputation as an eye-opening source of fresh ideas and innovative design, and my students were keen to see in person what both the emerging and currently established generations had to offer. To this end we visited Stockholm's Beckmans College of Design, which impressed us with its open-minded approach, and admired witty yet practical furniture and ceramics by young Finns at the Design Forum Finland in Helsinki. For insights into the way some of today's most influential studios operate, and for a preview of their latest work, we met with Boris Berlin of Komplot Design, a multidisciplinary Danish firm; Claesson Koivisto Rune, Sweden's most prominent architectural firm; and Kaisa Blomstedt, a celebrated Finnish interior designer.
Brilliant colors in a display at the Marimekko textile and clothing factory showroom in Helsinki. Photo by Andrea Sher.
Based on this rich exposure, group consensus was that while the Scandinavian's fundamentally humanist orientation toward architecture and design remains, contemporary practitioners show an openness to cutting-edge materials and technology and an astonishing sense of fantasy that makes their buildings, interiors, and products even more functionally innovative and aesthetically pleasing than much of the output of their celebrated mid 20th–century forebears.
These conclusions were reinforced by much of the recent architecture we saw: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects' 1999 Black Diamond addition to the Royal Library, Copenhagen; Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitektur's 2006 circular university dormitory in Ørestad, Denmark; and JKMM Architects' 2007 library in Turku, Finland, to name three outstanding examples. International starchitecture was well represented by Steven Holl's 1998 contemporary art museum in Helsinki and Zaha Hadid's 2005 extension to the Ordrupgaard museum in Denmark.
Although mostly modernists by inclination, our group was equally enthusiastic about the 19th-century neoclassical ornament in Copenhagen's Thorvaldsens Museum, the spectacular proto–art deco spaces of Eliel Saarinen's 1919 Helsinki railway station, and the 18th-century baroque interiors of Sweden's Drottningholm Palace. Whatever the period of the buildings and objects, the students filtered their perceptions through an acute visual sense that magnified details of material, workmanship, color, and ornament. They marveled over the execution of wood joints, the shape of doorways, the variations of wood grain, the textures of fabric, and the unique qualities of Nordic light. Accompanying them to places I had visited many times, I was continually made aware of details I had forgotten, or never noticed. Most importantly, they reported finding inspiration for their own design ideas everywhere they looked. And that, after all, was the point of the trip.