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Freedom Furniture

How did Americans come to love “mid-century modern”?

During and after the Second World War, Taft tells her readers, a pair of schools in Copenhagen—one training architects and the other cabinetmakers—formed the center of gravity for Danish design. Juhl had attended the demanding and prestigious Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi, Arkitektskole (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture), graduating in 1934. Around that same year, Wegner moved to Copenhagen from his hometown of Tønder, where he had worked for three years as a journeyman in a cabinetmaking shop run by Hermann Friedrich Nicolaus Stahlberg. As people moved from the countryside to the cities (and thus from houses to apartments) during and after the war, a new generation of Danish designers focused on creating pieces of furniture that could fit easily into small spaces and were adapted to the realities of postwar urban life. By the early 1950s, designers and furniture makers in all of the Nordic countries—not just Denmark—had ventured forth in search of new markets. Pooling their resources, they first targeted consumers in the rest of Europe. Eventually they found in the United States a growing base of customers with deepening pockets who, thanks to government assistance, were purchasing larger homes that they needed to furnish.

In order to fill all those homes with Danish furniture, however, the makers and producers had to find ways to get people in the US to buy it. So they employed what Taft calls “tastemakers”—magazine editors, architects, and curators, among others—to help sell the style. Danish Modern furniture, according to the story these tastemakers told, was simple and long-lasting, humble yet refined. It was built for urban and urbane living, but it could also be purchased by the masses—thoughtful, tasteful, and perfect for those with small apartments. “Even the poorest Dane” could afford it, reported a Cincinnati Post article quoted by Taft. Yet none of that was close to the truth: From the outset, mid-century modern furniture was not for anyone but the well-off. The designs were delicate and often mannered, and the pieces were out of the financial reach of the vast majority of Danes—most of whom still outfitted their homes in the bulkier neoclassical styles—as well as most consumers elsewhere in Europe and the United States. But the idea that this furniture was long-lasting and already hugely popular took hold regardless, helping to boost its reputation among American tastemakers and consumers alike.