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Matilda McQuaid: Danish design elevates everyday life
24. May 2019
Matilda McQuaid is is deputy director of curatorial and head of the Textiles department at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Danish design has been part of several of the exhibitions she’s curated throughout the years. We spoke to her about the influence Danish design has had on the global design history.

This article was originally brought in Shaping The Next: The magazine we recently published on the occasion of our 40th birthday. If you don't get your hands on a copy at one of our DesignAM events (stay tuned through our newsletter), you can find the magazine as a digital publication below. 

How has Danish design shaped global design history?

Danish design has helped shape the notion of timelessness in design with its longstanding tradition of intrinsic craftsmanship. It combines the best of craft with the best of industrial design.

Danish design has helped move the focus to the user. It invites user interaction and centers around a positive user experience. There is a tactility and warmth about Danish design, that also places significance on function. And let’s not forget that designers are users, too. Design is more than aesthetic and form-for-form’s sake. It is humanistic, and Danish design incorporates this in their best designs.

Cecilie Manz’ Pluralis Chair combines table, step ladder and chair in one.
Cecilie Manz
Cecilie Manz’ Pluralis Chair combines table, step ladder and chair in one.

We see this in the current generation of designers, such as Cecilie Manz, who Cooper Hewitt included in its 2010 National Design Triennial. Her multifunctional Pluralis Chair combined table, step ladder and chair into one artifact, while drawing on the tradition of minimalist art. Artist/designer Olafur Eliasson is playful and accessible on many different levels, such as “The Little Sun,” which has now become an important social enterprise for solar energy.

The high-tech character of some industrial design has it limits, and the pendulum keeps swinging back to a closer relationship with nature and the touch of the designer’s or maker’s hand. Danish design encapsulates this moment.

"When I think of Danish design, I think of home, but the utilitarian aspects of home, like a table setting or functional gadgets."

Matilda McQuaid

Which trends from Danish design have made a lasting impact in the US?

Danish design has been influential in elevating everyday objects to a higher level. When I think of Danish design, I think of the comforts of home, especially those utilitarian objects that provide that comfort — from furniture to table settings. Most of our time is spent outside our homes, so we want efficiency combined with pleasant experiences in those precious hours we spend at home and interact with our objects. In the United States, we look to Danish design for guidance in reducing design to its minimal components without sacrificing tactility, comfort, and function.

In addition, traditions of craft have become quite important in the US, and we look at many different maker cultures around the world, including Denmark. More recently, comfort in the form of “hygge” has seeped into the American culture and language.

The US look to Denmark for inspiration — in health care, an example is the Danish therapy garden Nacadia.
Nacadia
The US look to Denmark for inspiration — in health care, an example is the Danish therapy garden Nacadia.

The concept of design has changed significantly over the past 40 years, perhaps particularly in the last decade. How do you see Danish design contributing to this shift — and to solving future challenges?

One of the greatest strengths of Danish design is its tradition — there is a solid foundation on which contemporary Danish design stands. And in areas like healthcare, the US looks to many Scandinavian countries, like Denmark for inspiration. For instance, in Nature — Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Triennial opening in May 2019, Nacadia Therapy Garden, is being featured. Nacadia is a research-based therapy garden for patients suffering from various mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can be considered a model for certain types of mental health treatments.

The concept of craft has also evolved. Craft used to have a negative connotation, but this has changed in the last decade, and there is a greater appreciation of it with many initiatives taking place that are helping reinvigorate various craft traditions. It has also become closer aligned with design. In Danish design the importance of craft has always been there, but we are now looking at it in a new context that is more welcoming to tradition, which has resulted in craft being more relevant than ever before.

Matilda McQuaid

Matilda McQuaid (MA, architectural history, University of Virginia and BA, art history, Bowdoin College) is deputy director of curatorial and head of the Textiles department at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Prior to the Cooper Hewitt, she worked at The Museum of Modern Art, NY, where she curated over 30 exhibitions, including the highly acclaimed “Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles.”

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Shaping the Next

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