Modernism & japonism

The big clash

Ever since I started to be interested in aesthetics and interior design years ago, I have felt under my skin that for some reason - unknown to me at the time - Japan has a strange bond with Scandinavia. That the similarities were striking and that it could not be a coincidence or a mere convergence of values, such as the love of natural materials and handicrafts. I felt that at some point in history there must have been some kind of strong direct clash between these cultures, which resulted in certain elements of Japanese interiors being transferred into the design of European houses. I was somewhat shocked by the thesis put forward by some researchers that without Japan there would be no modernism, which the world has been admiring for over 70 years now.

It was from the 1930s that Japanese architecture and interior design elements such as furniture and accessories began to inspire European architects, arriving in successive waves in Europe. In the 1950s it was the Japanese who began to come to Scandinavia to study art and design at local universities, which only accelerated the cultural exchange. The breakthrough came in 1955 with the "H55" architectural exhibition in Sweden, which allowed European architects to see an authentic Japanese living space up close. It received widespread media coverage, with a special report in one edition of The Times at the time calling the Japanese exhibition pavilion an example of the common denominator between the traditional Japanese home and the ideal living space that European architects were looking for. An interior that was simple and full of space, which was the opposite of the typical house in Europe. Similar exhibitions, presenting Japanese architectural and interior design ideas, were later held elsewhere in Europe, including Italy. It was also then that the Japanese concept of "everyday art" or "applied art" first entered the mainstream.

In this article, with the help of the invaluable Dr Mirjam Gelfer-Jørgensen and her book "Influences from Japan in Danish Art and Design 1870-2010", I would like to take a look at some of the solutions and interior design elements that - further supported by influences from the Bauhaus and Danish functionalism - changed the face of Danish single-family homes.


Let me start with a small detail. For my whole investigation began with this detail. Do you remember those beautiful sliding doors on Danish teak sideboards? And the wooden handles with finger grooves on teak chests of drawers and cupboards? Or the handles so popular now in vinyl kitchen fronts in the form of small round holes that reveal traces of plywood inside? This is precisely an example of the Japanese influence from the 1950s. Japanese metal handles for sliding doors were one of the objects that Gunnar Biilmann Petersen, a professor at the Danish Academy of Fine Arts and one of the designers of the cult brand Le Klint, brought from Japan to the Danish Kunstindustrimuseum in the 1960s. He was one of those Danish designers in whose works one can subconsciously sense the Japanese aesthetic.

The 'Boligens Byggeskabe' wardrobe systems by the duo Børge Mogensen and Grethe Meyer are living inspirations plucked from Japan. The brass handles and sliding doors are basically no different from traditional Japanese hikite and fusuma, except perhaps for the material used in the case of the latter. The 'Boligens Byggeskabe' system was to be as roomy as possible - to hide not only clothes and bedding, but also books and records. In addition, it had to be flexible enough to adapt to any interior. Associations with contemporary IKEA systems such as Pax or Bestå, which draw more or less directly from the work of Scandinavian designers, are most evident here.

New shape

Details such as handles or even sliding doors are just the tip of the iceberg. Under the influence of Japanese inspiration the shape of Danish houses has changed completely. The entrance to the house became very modest, almost invisible. The house was closed off from the street, and the garden - now an integral part of the building - was moved to the back of the house. The building itself, in turn, took on an L-shape. Thanks to this solution and the large glass windows, the greenery could be admired from more rooms. In addition, this shape of the house protected both the garden and the residents from the wind. Danish architects such as Halldor Gunnlögs and Erik Christian Sørensens tested these solutions on their own houses. Another element of the house construction which was a direct reference to the Japanese tradition were wooden verandas (engawa) stretching along the length of the buildings.

Open space

As a result of Japanese influences, the character of rooms also changed, as they have become more open. Just like in traditional Japanese houses, the space could be freely shaped by means of partitions, sliding doors or screens. One of the most famous (and still available for purchase!) is the screen designed in 1956 by Poul Kjærholm. The interiors also saw the first use of exposed structural timber and typically Japanese materials: bamboo and paper (e.g. in the form of lamps - I wrote more about them here).

Interior design

Under the influence of the same wave of Japonism, multi-module sofas were replaced with chairs. Many of them, such as cult models by Fritz Hansen, are still popular. The legs of coffee tables have also been shortened considerably, although no one in Europe has finally decided to sit on the floor (I do!). However, we ourselves know very well how much they have grown into our culture. Simple benches appeared under the walls, and asymmetry, which was loved in Zen Buddhism and symbolised "infinite incompleteness", entered the interiors. All these elements were followed by Japanese-inspired accessories such as ceramics, kitchen accessories and fabrics. But it's a story so rich (and still so relevant!) that more than one article will have to be devoted to it.

Kitchen fronts by Reform.