• Emily

Connecting the design dots...and other fun discoveries in Copenhagen



Along beautiful (if touristy) Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

Last month, thanks to a very lovely and generous (and fun) professor at University of Copenhagen, I was invited to give a couple of talks to university students. One was on Cannibals (Cannibals: Myth and Reality, still on view!) and the other was on my own research on Japanese Christians and imperialism (really exciting! read all about it here!) But I also got to do one of my favorite things, which is to aimlessly wander around in cities.


This was my second trip to Copenhagen. But my first trip there was during a time when I was just beginning to learn how to travel well in Europe, and I didn't make the most out of the very brief time I was there. I was also in a very different phase of my life--I had just finished my first year as an assistant professor, and was more concerned with starting the process of revising my book manuscript than anything else. It was another lifetime ago. That book is done (see link above!) and now I'm on to new and other things! Like searching out ways that my design influences might intersect and converge, and what new discoveries will inspire me towards other kinds of creative experiments.


Copenhagen did not disappoint. On my first day there, I meandered down one of the major thoroughfares to the Design Museum where, much to my delight, the ongoing special exhibit was on Japanese influences on Danish design!


Cheesy reflection self-portrait at the Design Museum

The exhibit, Learning From Japan (I mean, could this trip have been any better?! It's like they did this just for me!) presented a chronological exploration of the ways Denmark's introduction to Japanese objects (ranging from exquisite and expensive to humble crafts) transformed Danish aesthetics and approaches to design. In other words, the similarities between Danish and Japanese design IS NOT AN ACCIDENT! I am usually a very fidgety exhibit visitor (occupational hazard) but I lingered in front of every case full of beautiful Japanese objects and marveled at how this chance encounter of two seemingly disparate cultures had resulted in a style and aesthetic that influences me so much today.



Color chart of common Japanese colors--this is so similar to the yarns I use the most!

Close up of a section of an early modern pattern book.

[WARNING: HISTORY LESSON ABOUT TO HAPPEN]


So apparently this is how this happened: Denmark, like so many other European countries along with the US, got into the Japanese object craze in the late 19th century right after Japan was forced open to foreign relations. For a brief period, as intellectuals and politicians and various hand-wringing public pundits bemoaned Japan's sorry state and blamed lots of things, but especially China (DAMN IT, CHINA!) for leading Japan down the decadent and frivolous path of Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism, and ultimately, vulnerability to those smelly but better-armed foreigners. A bit overwhelmed by the shock of everything going topsy-turvy and feeling insecure about, well, everything, for the first few years these smelly foreigners were in the country, Japanese just started getting rid of everything. I mean, everything. Buddhism was one of those bad Chinese influences under attack, so lots of ancient and irreplaceable Buddhist statues, mandalas, scriptures--you name it--ended up outside of the country (for a great selection, check out the Boston MFA collection!) Ukiyoe prints--now considered fine works of art--were used to package similarly detested ceramics shipped off to Europe or the US. (And it was these prints used like old pages of newspapers that post-impressionists like Van Gogh and Monet discovered and used for inspiration.) Some of these things turned up, as it turns out, in Denmark.


Some more examples:


The exhibit highlighted the many lovely examples of Japanese design in the museum's collection, and then introduced early examples of how Danish designers and craftspeople drew on these things to produce objects for Danish consumers. Apparently, Japanese emphasis on natural motifs pushed Danish designers to reexamine the flora and fauna in their own environments. The minimalist style with which we are so familiar now was also informed by Japanese simple lines and understatement.


Example of Danish design inspired by Japanese influence.


It was a lovely exhibit, and I'm still kicking myself for not getting the companion book. But I wanted to save that money to buy actual yarn, which of course I did!


Stay tuned for at least one more post on my trip (including a brief jaunt over to Malmö)!


The last month has been a bit hectic between the trip, numerous writing deadlines, and a separate conference, which has made it a little hard to keep up with this blog. But I'm hoping to be able to return to at least a bi-weekly schedule again. (fingers crossed, but not making promises...)


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