The Scandinavians may be the last designers to believe that the shape of a teapot will change the world.
In the 1950s, when people believed in the perfectability of man, Scandinavian style swept Europe and the United States. Now, when the Bauhaus followers have lost the faith, Scandinavians still believe that simple, pared-down, no-nonsense everyday objects will make us healthy, wealthy and perhaps even wise.
Everything, from cups to chairs, is designed (with varying degress of success) in basic colors, to feel good to use, to knock down and ship compactly, and to rest lightly upon today's smaller quarters.
"Scandinavian Modern: 1880-1980," the exhibition opening today and continuing through Oct. 10 at the Renwick Gallery, shows 330 objects, many of them household words.
But the knowledgable viewer may wish the organizers had instead brought over more of the earlier and unfamiliar works in the exhibit, which show that Scandinavian design wasn't always so pure and classic.
What the "Northern Lights" exhibition last year at the Corcoran Gallery did for painting, the Renwick exhibit does for decorative and useful objects, showing romantic work totally unfamiliar in these latitudes.
The early works in the show are a revelation. The designs are in the fantastic art nouveau spirit that imbued much of the arts and crafts of late 19th-century Europe.
In England, the first manifestation of art nouveau, the arts and crafts movement started by William Morris, took its motifs from British legends as well as from Gothic motifs and organic forms. With its ethnic overtones, Germanic art nouveau--Jugend style in Germany, Secession in Austria--resembled the British, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian movements. The Danish designs were more in the Oriental spirit espoused by Belgian and French art nouveau.
The national folklore style was called Karelian in Finland, after the province where the national epic, Kalevala, originated. In Norway it was called the dragon style, after its principal motif.
Scandinavian folkloric design came from tales told around fires in the winter forests of Karelia and from traditions of the Viking ships and their fire-breathing dragon figureheads.
These mythic objects have a power and a presence that no latter-day Scandinavian knockdown bookcase can hope to equal.
An example of the dragon style is the armchair designed by Gerhard Munthe for the fairy tale room of the Holmenkollen Turisthotell, Oslo. The hotel (1895-1907) was decorated all over with Viking themes, including dragons executed in flaming colors.
"Tapestry: The Three Suitors, 1897" is also by Munthe, a well-known Norwegian painter who also appeared in last year's Corcoran show. (As was customary in that period, some painters also designed tapestries and other objects.) The charming and funny tapestry was designed for the Exposition Universelle, in Paris in 1900. In it, we see three women in nightgowns with their orange hair standing on end in geometric shapes suggesting fire. Three polar bears have stalked in from a starry night into the women's elaborately decorated tent. Two polar bears smile. One bear at that very moment licks the toes of one of the women.
Other folklore influences show up. An 1897 porcelain vase on which two swans have unaccountably nested (their necks make the handles) is by Alf Wallander of Sweden. He is also guilty of a hilarious 1899 pewter wine pitcher, shaped like a fish coming out of water. The fish mouth is the spout and the tail is the handle, the base is swirling waters. A similar piece, a 1903 covered bowl by Aron Jerndahl, is ornamented by human figures who look as though they are trying to pull themselves free of primeval mire. Both exploit pewter's plasticity.
Another swan (a recurring motif) swims through a 1900-05 bowl, enameled in the plique a jour technique, attributed to Gustav Gaudernack.
Those who know the early modern work by Eliel Saarinen and, later, his son Eero, will appreciate the armchair in oak and leather he designed in 1918 for his studio home in Finland at Hvittra sk, an enclave in the artists/craftsman guild/brotherhood tradition revived by Morris, the Weiner Werkstette and, later, the Bauhaus. Several of the chairs show the influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh of Scotland and Josef Hoffman and Otto Wagner of Vienna: a 1906 chair by Carl Bergsten and a 1900 chair by J.A.G. Acke, both of Sweden.
A rare revival of the romantic spirit crops up in Lars Hellsten's "The Red Square," a glass sculpture made in 1965.
Chris Addison made the best of difficult circumstances, installing the show into cases from the recent Celebration exhibit. David Revere McFadden, of New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum, did a good job as curator of the exhibit (which opened at the Cooper-Hewitt as a part of the Scandinavia Today project, supported by the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, the Scandinavian governments, Volvo, Atlantic Richfield Co. and the American-Scandinavian Foundation). McFadden is editor of the useful and well-illustrated accompanying book, "Scandinavian Modern Design: 1880-1980," which serves as a catalogue.