Japonisme Grafted as the New Branch of Danish Design

Exhibition space built by architect Elisabeth Topsøe, with reference to Japanese tea ceremony.
Exhibition space built by architect Elisabeth Topsøe, with reference to Japanese tea ceremony.
Hans Sandgren Jakobsens Gallery stool, showing the Danish do not only learn about Japanese woodcraft, but also its form of simplicity.
Chair designed by Thorvald Bindesbøll with cloth cover with appliqué from the first part of the exhibition, showing how the Danish are nature-inspired as the Japanese.
Knud Holscher’s Club Manhattan serving series shows how Danish adopted the minimalistic forms, with reference to Japanese cutlery.
Japanese ornamental sword fittings from the first section of the exhibition, illustrating how the European Japonisme is not limited to exoticism but also about the mutual fascination of nature.
Paper lamp by Le Klint in 1970s shows how Danish are inspired by Japanese origami.
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What draws the link between inspiration from replica? Held by Designmusuem Denmark, the exhibition, Learning from Japan, pinpointed the differences between adaptation and regurgitation.

Text: Dawn Hung
Photo courtesy: Pernille Klemp, Jeppe Gudmundsen Holmgren & Designmuseum Danmark

Exhibition space built by architect Elisabeth Topsøe, with reference to Japanese tea ceremony.
Exhibition space built by architect Elisabeth Topsøe, with reference to Japanese tea ceremony.

Learning from Japan reminds me of The New Original, an exhibition curated by Droog Design in 2013. It was an examination of the infamous Shenzhen, the world capital of replica, and it raised debate upon how copying would generate new and original, and perhaps, better design. Stepping into its counter version in Copenhagen, I cannot help but wonder, what marks the difference between China and Denmark, in their history of making the new originals.

Hans Sandgren Jakobsens Gallery stool, showing the Danish do not only learn about Japanese woodcraft, but also its form of simplicity.
Hans Sandgren Jakobsens Gallery stool, showing the Danish do not only learn about Japanese woodcraft, but also its form of simplicity.

Curated by art historian Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen, Learning From Japan might give us just the right answers. Based on her well-research book Influences from Japan in Danish Art and Design 1870–2010, the exhibition subtly rearrange the east wing of the Designmusuem Danmark into two parts, following the two major peaks of Japanese influence, or Japonisme, between the period of 1870 to 2010. The first surge was in the 1850s, when the American forcefully re-open Japan, and exposed the western world to oriental exoticism. You can find some beautiful ornamented Japanese sword fittings, paintings and ceramics pottery in this section, which infused the foundation of the nature-inspired Danish design.

Chair designed by Thorvald Bindesbøll with cloth cover with appliqué from the first part of the exhibition, showing how the Danish are nature-inspired as the Japanese.
Chair designed by Thorvald Bindesbøll with cloth cover with appliqué from the first part of the exhibition, showing how the Danish are nature-inspired as the Japanese.

The Second wave, on the contrary, is about the functional simplicity in the 1950s. Focusing on treatments of materials, the second half of the exhibition showcased works by the likes of Knud Holscher, Snorre Stephensen, Jacob Jensen and Rasmus Fenhann, who are all inspired by Japanese minimalism but progressed to create distinctive Danish form of expression.

Knud Holscher's Club Manhattan serving series shows how Danish adopted the minimalistic forms, with reference to Japanese cutlery.
Knud Holscher’s Club Manhattan serving series shows how Danish adopted the minimalistic forms, with reference to Japanese cutlery.

Japanese and Danish modern design do share many superficial similarities but rarely out of soulless imitation. Poul Kjærholm’s origami-inspired Folding Stool and Rasmus Fenhann’s wooden-window-frame-inspired Hikari Lampe both show how Danish designers learnt from the country of the rising sun beyond exoticism. As the curator emphasised, it is about aesthetic kinship instead of one-sided influence. The kinship is based on the mutual respect to nature of the two countries. They both cherish and make good use of the sacred natural resources through a high level of craftsmanship. The Danish is famed for their cabinet making as much as the Japanese is renowned for their wooden architecture. With an affinity with wood and wood crafts, Danish designers absorb and distill Japanese forms into their national design tradition. The Danish has also imported many techniques from Japan, like woodblock printing, stencils and Raku-ware. However, Danish design seems to be able to grasp the Japanese vocabulary in their tongue.

Japanese ornamental sword fittings from the first section of the exhibition, illustrating how the European Japonisme is not limited to exoticism but also about the mutual fascination of nature.
Japanese ornamental sword fittings from the first section of the exhibition, illustrating how the European Japonisme is not limited to exoticism but also about the mutual fascination of nature.

Inside the comfortable exhibition space designed by architect Elisabeth Topsøe, you can also find many design icons, such as Hans Sandgren Jakobsens’s Gallery stool and Poul Kjærholm’s PK61 table, which follows the form of tatami.

As the curator shared, “The encounter with Japanese art provided Danish art with stimuli, which were implemented practically in several areas of applied art. For Danish art, Japanism was a catalyst with a long-range and long-lasting effect. The trend was a major precondition for the modernism, which, in the course of the 20th century, turned Denmark into a design nation.” The Learning From Japan exhibition is a good game for the curious mind, spotting that piece is from Denmark or Japan.

Paper lamp by Le Klint in 1970s shows how Danish are inspired by Japanese origami.
Paper lamp by Le Klint in 1970s shows how Danish are inspired by Japanese origami.

Exhibition Details:
On display from 8 October 2015
Address: Designmuseum Danmark
H.C. Andersens Boulevard 2
DK-1553 Copenhagen V
Denmark


Dawn Hung, a design and fashion focused writer who currently travels between Amsterdam and Hong Kong, after earning his Master of Science (Architectural Conservation Programme) from the University of Hong Kong. Graduated from the University of Hong Kong in Philosophy and French(BA), since then he has been working as a creative writer and journalist. Currently contributing to Ming Pao and other publications including his website www.sedimento.co.

 
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