An important precursor to modernism, functionalism — the doctrine that the design of buildings and objects should be determined by their function — sprang up throughout Europe in between the wars, disseminated by the teachings of the Bauhaus and fed by massive social change. The mechanisms through which the aesthetic was popularized in Scandinavia are particularly fascinating, given that each country brought a unique strength, and yet it was their ultimate unity that rendered Nordic-style modernism a dominant force for decades to come.
Sweden had been grappling with a series of fascinating historical styles since the turn of the century, beginning with National Romanticism, a Scandinavian-specific version of Art Nouveau that re-emphasized craftsman techniques and national identity. The movement was prevalent from the late 1800s until about 1920, dwindling significantly in the teens. It was replaced by another referential style, Swedish Grace, which made nods to Greco-Roman tradition. While similarly historical, the two styles personified the age-old dichotomy between rational and romantic styles. But in the wake of World War I, ever-increasing industrialization, and rising concerns over social welfare, the cycle of these decorative styles began to feel supremely out of step with reality. It was clear that something new was necessary on a societal level, but how architecture could respond to the challenge was still unclear. In search of an answer, Sweden’s leading architect, Gunnar Asplund, who had begun a promising career designing buildings in the Swedish Grace style visited mainland Europe. As he fell under the sway of unfettered simplicity and lack of historical reference that typified the International Style, an idea began to take shape. Functionalism, the philosophy behind these sleek constructions gave both a name and an appealing, avant-garde face to many of the humanist dilemmas Sweden had been pondering.
In need of a PR boost, the Swedish Functionalists, knowns as “Funkis” began to plan a massive propaganda push (er, exhibition) that would showcase their new viewpoint across all areas of building and product design and stress their relationship to a balanced life true to Scandinavian values. Gregor Paulsson, the secretary of Svenska Slöjdföreningen (The Swedish Industrial Design Association) and another leading proponent of Functionalism, convinced the city of Stockholm to host the event. Initially, it was hoped that Le Corbusier would consent to the lead architect role on the project, but when he declined, Asplund was asked to step in.
The vision was realized on Djurgården, one of Stockholm’s islands with a large recreational area. Asplund and his team, including architects Sven Markelius and Uno Åhrén, engineered a glittering temporary city on the southern bank of the island. Exhibition spaces would showcase furniture, glassware, ceramics, textiles, and printed materials, while “developments” throughout the grounds would provide illustrative case studies for villas, working-class homes, and semi-communal social housing projects. The architectural installations would also showcase complete interior visions as well, where the new functionalist objects could strut their utilitarian stuff in a fully actualized program for living.
Ultimately, Corbu’s rejection would be a net positive for the planning team as Asplund was able to infuse the enterprise with a necessary Scandinavian spirit. He utilized bright colors where the International Style employed stark whites and metals while ensuring that swaths of glass would let in plenty of chilly Stockholm sunlight. Asplund and Paulsson shrewdly emphasized the celebratory nature of the fair in verbiage and advertising materials. This point was further driven home by the gathering point of the exhibition, a huge, light-filled restaurant called Paradiset (the Swedish word for paradise…subtle) where the eager throngs sat in Thonet chairs — bentwood was so hot in 1930 — and surveyed the engineered utopia of the grounds.
Jorn Utzen, the Danish architect responsible for the Sydney Opera House recalls his parents’ trip to the exhibition when he was twelve, and the nearly immediate effect it had on his life. “My parents returned home, filled with enthusiasm and new ideas and thoughts, and our entire home was redecorated. Everything was light and friendly…so much are architects capable of. And it influenced the entire society.”
For many Swedes, the 1930 exhibition was their first encounter with modernism in the flesh. So while critical reception was largely favorable, a stiff resistance arose from more conservative corners. These “Tradis” as they became known, argued for reliance on craft techniques as a remedy for the ills of the industrial age. Ironically, both sides were advocating for a regional response to industrialization, and promoted a vision of the future rooted in essential humanity; their main conflict was over how this future should relate to machines. From our vantage point well into the aesthetic future they imagined (and were ultimately essential in shaping), it was only through melding these two viewpoints that modernism succeeded. It was only where the streamlined practicality of the International Style was mitigated by the Scandinavian use of traditional natural materials that the movement found its commercial appeal. British design critic Philip Morton Shand was first to call out this “Nordic sanity” and it became a rationalization for further steps in a modernist direction.
Differences of interpretation existed within the functionalist camp as well, particularly falling on the shoulders of Axel Einar Hjorth. While Hjorth’s work has found new audiences and admiration in contemporary design circles, at the time he was criticized for something called “NK Functionalism” – perceived as a watered-down version of the doctrine that presented similar outlines but continued to make nods towards the decorative elements favored by upper-class buyers. The “NK” of the sobriquet stood for Nordiska Kompaniet, a high-end department store for whom Hjorth did the majority of the design work. A Finnish contemporary of Alvar Aalto, reviewing the fair wrote of Hjorth’s contribution, “The worst shock for all of us was what we called ‘NK Functionalism.’ This involved impractical interiors and utility goods in a quasi-modern style, false functionalism from the start.” Ouch.
All sick burns aside, upper-class tastes and so-called “false functionalism” would prove to be key in establishing the modern aesthetic — this remark is best understood within the context of the exhibition as a propaganda machine. Perhaps the most amusing instance of which was the publishing of a manifesto, Acceptera! by Asplund and the other architects involved in the planning and orchestration of the exhibition. In Swedish, “acceptera” is the infinitive command to “accept.” This is a curious (and to those of us with the benefit of hindsight, humorous) call to action as it echoes the verbiage of modernism’s most strident critics, who felt the aesthetic was imposed on humanity in the name of progress, rather than responsive to the needs of the very people it claimed to elevate— they might as well have named it “SUBMIT” and see how that went over. Dubiously effective name aside, Acceptera! actually proposed something much more reasonable: a general thesis statement that we must acknowledge the hard truths of our present moment along with its promise, writing, “We cannot tiptoe backward away from our own era. Nor can we skip past what troubles and confuses us into a utopian future. We can only look at reality in the eye and accept it to be able to master it.” This retroactive manifesto attempted to smooth over some of the controversy surrounding the exhibition and elucidate its celebratory themes. The argument employed modernism’s signature critique of historical styles— that they were silly and escapist— while cleverly positioning their own movement at the friendly center, citing an unseen vanguard too bent on imposing an irrelevant utopia on unsuspecting civilians as an equal threat to society’s health.