Seeking Scandinavia

Susan Weber Soros on bringing long-overlooked European design to the public eye.

At a recent dinner given by Swedish consul general Ulf Hjertonsson to celebrate the opening of Bruno Mathsson: Architect and Designer, Susan Weber Soros toasted the success of the exhibition, adding that Scandinavian design has played a crucial part in the good fortunes of the Bard Graduate Center.

The BGC founder, director, and professor wasn’t just charming her host. In 14 years, the Manhattan-based school and gallery has grown from an idea to an institution, and in that period Scandinavian design has been the subject of six exhibitions. (The center hosts or originates three exhibitions annually.) While Weber Soros credits Nina Stritzler-Levine, the director of exhibitions, for “bringing in” the Mathsson show and shepherding its implementation, here BGC’s original visionary speaks about her personal interest in Nordic design, the decision-making process behind mounting an exhibition, and the ins and outs of Bruno Mathsson.

At the Swedish consulate dinner, you told the audience that you were familiar with the famous Pernilla chair, but you were unaware that Mathsson was the designer responsible for it.
I think for a lot of people in the U.S. he’s a mysterious figure. Mathsson was a bit of a recluse—he was not a good businessman and there haven’t been Mathsson shows. Aalto’s a household name in design circles and so is Georg Jensen.

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But when you look at the breadth of Mathsson’s work, including the architecture, he was not a minor figure at all. One of the strengths of doing the show, and of this great catalog, is that he will get the recognition that he deserves, particularly in the U.S. No one knows very much about him beyond the chairs. And he’s incredibly important in terms of function. He thought about the ergonomics of the seat so early on.

Does Mathsson’s work shatter or validate outsiders’ notion of Scandinavian design—for example, that Swedish Modern was all about ergonomics?
When you think of how much modern design was based on new technology and new materials, I don’t think that designers took into account the comfort level. Someone like Josef Frank found modern interiors and seating and furniture very cold, and he designed all those wonderful patterns and colors. I think there’s more to modernism than that cold, structured minimalism that we know.

Speaking of Josef Frank, who was the subject of a past Bard Graduate Center exhibition, what other Scandinavian showings have there been? Frank, Mathsson, Georg Jensen, Marimekko, what am I missing?
There’s also been Finnish design and Swedish glass.

That’s a really good batting average!
That’s because the Scandinavian design world, particularly since World War II, has understood the need to promote itself in the international arena. Their curators are very hungry for a larger audience. The government works hand in hand with the museums there to promote design abroad.

How do you first become engaged with the region?
It was Marianne Aav at the Design Museum in Helsinki.

And that led to the Finnish design exhibition.
It’s very funny because I had only known Marianne through mail, and the museum’s letterhead includes a picture of this beautiful, huge building. I fly into Helsinki to meet her, I get into the taxi and ask the driver to take me to the museum, and he pulls up to this little house. This can’t be the museum, I say. I pull out the letterhead and show him, but indeed it was the museum. Now we’ve worked on many, many shows together. And she’s about to work on a Nokia show that we hope we will take. It’s been a wonderful collaboration.

You hope to take the Nokia show—that doesn’t sound like a guarantee. What factors help decide which shows make it through your door?
Particularly for us, it depends on whether or not we’re going to be doing something new that will bring new information to the decorative arts world. We like to show under-recognized figures—we can do shows that big museums can’t, because too much of their funding is based on the number of people who go through their gates. We’re not so interested in gates. We’re interested in doing high quality. And we have graduate students—future curators—whom we’re teaching how to do a show. We can pull off a small, highly intellectual show that another place might not able to do.

In addition to your meeting with Aav, at the consulate dinner you said that you’re planning an autumn trip to Sweden to seek inspirations for the next exhibition. How do these trips work?
We’re always looking to see what other museums are doing, because we often borrow shows as well as organize our own. And the Swedes have a very effective consulate in New York and I let them know I’m going and will meet with museum directors there to see what’s the tempo, what they’re working on, what’s interesting to them.

I look in the galleries. For instance, craft in Sweden, particularly now in jewelry, is very cutting-edge. Trips are also for reconnecting with old contacts and seeing private collectors, who are interested in things that big museums aren’t.

Often, too, people in their own country aren’t interested in things that a foreigner might be interested in. I might see something amongst their collections that doesn’t seem so interesting to them.

Because natives take something for granted, it’s too familiar.
Exactly. But a foreigner may see value in it.

Are there other regions of the world that are as ripe for the picking as Scandinavia?
I think it’s very productive to work with French institutions. We’ve had very good collaborations with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. They sent us a wallpaper show and a catalog show—they’re like a sister organization for us. As is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Our Athenian Stuart show is at the V&A now and our Thomas Hope show is there. It’s sort of ironic that an American organization is doing all these British shows and exporting it back.

It sounds like one of those situations in which outsiders saw more of potential in the material.
I think that’s true, but they’re also the type of shows that are small and have an elite audience and are not very popular. At the V&A today there’s this Kylie [Minogue] exhibition, that’s their big draw. It’s sort of sad. But when you run a museum you need a popular audience as well. If you get them through the door to see the Kylie show, they’ll go and see other things.

Back to the Scandinavian design world’s prominence in your galleries. We’ve discussed that the countries have a well-oiled machine for getting their exhibitions out there. But do you have a bias toward the work, too?
The fun of being the director of the BGC is that I’m constantly learning. When I started 15 years ago, I was a Victorian scholar. Every time we do a show, I’m broadening my range. My knowledge basically stopped at 1903 until I started at the BGC.

What’s your favorite Bruno Mathsson work?
I like the original classic, the Pernilla.

The exhibition design is unique. Swedish designers Anna von Schewen and Björn Dahlström created a touch-me environment where visitors can sit in Mathsson’s furniture.
We have a whole room set-up. The function is so important in his work that we asked: wouldn’t it be nice to go to an exhibition and really experience the objects?

It also might wear down misconceptions. People solely looking at Mathsson’s multiple curves may not think this stuff suits the body well.
I think it breaks a barrier. When my exhibition director first saw the installation in Stockholm she wasn’t quite sure it would work in our space, but it’s adapted beautifully. They had it in one big exhibition hall, where here it’s set in more domestic-scale rooms. You also have a sense of his architecture, the way he used light and broke down the division between inside and outside.

To complement their Mathsson experience, should BGC-goers also check out the exhibition of 17 contemporary Swedish women designers, chez Pascale: Sjutton Svenska Formgivare at Tribeca’s Just Scandinavianshowroom?
I always think it’s interesting to see what this next generation is doing. Are they interested in function or are they more interested in form, what is this dialogue—we’re a new century now, where is it leading?

It’s fascinating how Mathsson tweaked his designs to accommodate different uses, different consumers like the Japanese market, and even new phenomena, such as computerization. Do you think he could just as easily take on today’s issues? I’m trying to envision his response to the obesity epidemic.
Mathsson is an interesting, contradictory character, because in one sense he was isolated where he lived and yet he could think about different cultures. It’s pretty amazing. I think he would have been really terrific nowadays.

What’s next on BGC’s exhibition roster?
For Scandinavian countries there’s the Nokia show. We’re thinking of a Gustavian show. The Swedes aren’t so interested in 19th-century work, because the inspiration came from France and they’re more interested in things that are homegrown, but we are. I think the [Sigvard] Bernadotte show is a great idea. The number-two man in silversmithing after Jensen was a man named Andersen. We’re thinking about doing work on him now.

When you start a project, you never know if there’s enough interesting material. Some things are better as books than shows and some things are better as shows than books. Also, you have to determine whether or not there is an audience.

Some exhibition concepts, and perhaps research, must get aborted.
Always. Mentioning names would get me in hot water.

Could you say how many efforts have not yielded fruit in the last 14 years?
I would say probably five. Sometimes you can’t get the loans, sometimes you can’t find scholars who are interested. Or you can’t find any funding at all.

Can we revisit your comment that Scandinavia has helped make the Bard Graduate Center? Obviously, the region has provided inspiration as well as real content for exhibitions. Has the Scandinavia affiliation somehow boosted the center’s reputation, too?
Yes. Otherwise we’d be a small graduate center with students. These exhibitions have given us an international reputation and help us get international students. Schools spend money on football teams, we spend a lot of money on exhibitions. They bring us a larger audience. It’s like our catalogs: You go to a book fair in Europe and you see all our publications with Yale University Press. I’m even impressed by how much we do.

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