This is one of my favourite exhibition medals, a small example from the exhibition in Stockholm, 1930. Just 52mm x 35mm it depicts a naked athletic male figure climbing some steps and holding a leafy branch aloft. Importantly he is climbing the stairs but has not yet reached the top, it is simple in concept and promises of achievements yet to some. Rejecting the beaux-arts elaboration of traditional medals, we don’t see and elaborate surface with a depiction of industry shaking hands with the arts and a winged figure looking proudly on. This piece gives us something different, as indeed the exhibition did, it represents a moment in a nation’s history and in design and architectural history and this hope for change, progress and something worth striving for is clearly represented in this small bronze artefact.
The Stockholm exhibition was an important exhibition in many respects and something of a ground breaking event, important not only in terms of Swedish cultural history but in art and design history throughout Europe and America. Some see this exhibition as marking the moment when a Northern European country became ‘Modern’ with Gunnar Asplund’s ‘functional’ architectural language uniting the site and creating a startling visual language. Not a traditional ‘Great Exhibition’ or ‘World’s Fair’ this was a national exhibition to showcase the best craft, design and architecture that the country could produce and to present their ambitions for the future of their country to their population and visitors from far and wide.
Four million visited and the many political problems, high unemployment and poor housing were forgotten for a moment. The exhibition promised functional, affordable and comfortable living spaces for the masses, it offered a prototype for Sweden’s future welfare society. An ethos that we now readily associate with the nation and that other countries look to with envy. The Swedish Society for Crafts and Design led the initiative, they had shown well received work at previous International Exhibitions such as the 1925 exhibition in Paris where they received many awards and much international praise. The confidence the society took from this success led to the announcement in 1927 of the exhibition to be held in the summer of 1930. Three sections were proposed: household goods, the home and the ‘extra-domestic urban framework’ or what we might call town planning.
The literature that surrounded the event promoted the purpose of the exhibition and explained clearly the purpose of this national event:
The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition of Industrial arts, art-crafts and other handcrafts aims to present Sweden’s contribution to contemporary strivings by utilising artistic resources to endow dwellings and household goods, particularly such as are intended for the public at large, with good quality and an attractive appearance, and to show the results of similar strivings in adjacent fields. The Exhibition is also intended to show the best of present-day Swedish handicrafts.
Influential in Sweden and further afield the Exhibition can be seen as a model for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and a significant departure from the traditional format of international pavilions and extravagant industrial displays such as had been seen at Wembley in 1924. The focus for international exhibitions or ‘World’s Fairs’ as they became known moved to the United States of America after the Second World War. There are few great post-war international exhibitions in Europe that spring readily to mind, Brussels in1958 being the obvious exception.
Eva Rudberg’s book The Stockholm Exhibition, 1930, from 1999, is well worth a look if you are interested in this exhibition, not only for the exhibition history aspect but for the moment in the development of Swedish Modernism that the event marks so clearly. When looking at an exhibition like this we can see just how important they can be in a nation’s development and in presenting ideas to a wider population, they create a focus and provide momentum.
The tenets of Swedish Modern Design were neatly summarised by Alva Myrdal in 1940:
- High quality merchandise for everyday use, available for all by the utilisation of modern industrial resources.
- Natural form and honest treatment of material, with pure and simple lines, rational forms, white buildings, open floor plans with lots of glass to let in natural light.
- Aesthetically sound goods resulting from the close cooperation of artists and manufacturer.
A nice clear summation of the development of Modernism at the middle of the twentieth century. Today the Swedish contribution to this history is well known and this exhibition an important point in the dissemination of the ideals. From our British perspective we can seen the antecedents in the Arts and Crafts movement and teachings of John Ruskin and Pugin developing over time to attempt to meet the needs of the people. International Modernism was just that .. International and Sweden’s contribution is to be seen all around us. Ikea was founded in Sweden in 1943 ….