Danes Go to Heaven



Danes go to heaven Object (1/98) 28-33

copenhag.jpg (16117 bytes)An antipodean perspective on Danish craft

An anxious queue leads up to the Pearly Gates. St Peter stands at the end, interviewing candidates about their deeds and misdeeds. Desperate excuses are offered to help gain entry to eternal bliss, and avoid the fires of hell.

When the time comes for a Dane to be processed, he takes a novel tack.

A harried St Peter looks at the Dane suspiciously. ‘Well, what do we have here? Stealing, adultery, lying—that’s quite a long list. Why should we let you into heaven?’

The Dane responds confidently. ‘It’s not the past you should be worried about. Consider the future. You see this queue stretching way back to the Milky Way, how are you going to accommodate all these new souls? Where is all the extra nectar, harps and cloud space going to come from? Certainly it looks good to have souls flooding into heaven, but you have to consider the practicalities too.’

‘We’re quite aware of this problem. That’s exactly why we’ve decided to be stricter on types like you. Now, do you have any excuses for your sins before I consign you to oblivion.’

‘Look, you really can’t afford to be so high-minded. Someone like me has the skills you desperately need. I have a lifetime’s experience in environmental management. See, here’s a twelve-step program for celestial sustainability that I prepared while I was waiting.’

‘Hmm. I hate to admit it, but this makes quite a lot of sense. There’s a free cumulus next to mine—why don’t you take it. I can even lend you a few archangels to help put this into action. Come on in.’

Philosopher Alistair McIntyre argued that different cultures could be distinguished by different embodiments of their moral philosophies. In less secular times, the scale of virtues (and vices) was represented by gods or saints, and regulated by the church. Today, this moral stage is filled by the star system, and regulated by Hollywood. Actors like Jack Nicholson and Vanessa Redgrave take over from figures such as St Francis of Assisi in setting moral coordinates.

A less popular but, I would argue, more potent stage can be found in way the world is represented geographically. What the philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘moral topography’ is evidenced most systematically in the place values that are connected with travel—the aestheticism of Paris against the ambition of New York, for example. It is in the context of this global pantheon that the dialogues here take place.

This is the first of four dialogues between local and overseas craft scenes. These articles attempt to capitalise on opportunities for enlarging the discussion about craft provided by an expanding global computer network. Each will attempt a picture of how Australia fits into the global craft scene.

No doubt, there are many readers already crying foul at the crude stereotyping employed to introduce the inaugural dialogue between Australian and Danish craft. No doubt there are Danes—perhaps even the majority—who are not so straight talking. Such stereotyping thus requires serious justification.

Round Church in CopenhagenIn the global pantheon, Denmark is close to heaven. Despite a small population, it has produced a great lineage of modern design. Figures such as Arne Jacobson, Georg Jensen, Erik Magnussen and Gertrude Vasegaard indulge a love of clean lines and functional elegance. It is this combination of pleasure and rationality that I’ve tried to package into the Dane of the comic scenario. How does this tradition of Danish design extend to the late 20th century? What impresses about the Danish craft scene are the strategies it has created for the placement of objects for public use.


Lark ServiceThe Lark Service is a setting for one hundred persons that tours the country as a ‘living’ example of Danish ceramic craft. In 1994, seven ceramists created this setting ‘to inspire, strengthen, and develop Danish utilitarian ceramics’. The group is not fixed and can be revised as new needs arise.

Owned by the Ceramic Bank, the service was transferred last year to Copenhagen’s Kunstindustrimuseet (Museum of Decorative Arts) for use in their café. Its place there is central, not only as an inspiration for the café menu, but as an important museum experience for visitors.

To the eye, these vessels appear ungainly, with exaggerated spouts and irregular shapes. To the hand, however, they make practical sense as objects for pouring and holding. These works are revealed in their use rather than their display. According to the museum’s director, Bodil Busk Laursen, drinking and eating from these objects ‘fulfilled a need for handling objects’ otherwise frustrated by museum regulations.

Cut Elm

Green Furniture Display

Green Furniture

At the end of 1997, the Kunstindustrimuseet exhibited a project by the Green Furniture Association. The Dutch elm disease had recently devastated Copenhagen’s parks. Avenues displayed gruesome evidence of attempts to prevent its spread: decapitated stumps lay bleeding by the side of roads. For a country that takes such pride on its alliance with nature, this carnage rested uneasily.

The GFA had addressed this wastage with a system of patronage that operated as both a clearinghouse for timber and a memorial for dead trees. A person could buy a plank of wood from a deceased elm through a certified distributor. With the plank would come a certificate of ownership, including details of the original tree. This plank could then be taken to a cabinet-maker who would fashion it into the required form, such as a table. A brass tag displays the wood’s provenance and the cost of timber is deducted from the final price.

This marriage of ecological and economic concerns is a comic solution to an otherwise disturbing blight on Denmark’s environment. Together with the Lærkestellet, its rationality demonstrates a respect for the crafted object as a positive link between people and their natural world.


The other side of efficiency is a rarity of individual expression. In Danish craft it is hard to find intimations of nostalgia, guilt or apprehensions of the sublime often associated with nature.

For these, we need to go across the Baltic Sea. Finnish jeweller Janna Syvänoja has produced a line of earrings and brooches using carved telephone book. This scandal of wood consumption is treated like timber itself, to be carved into shaped before being glued and sewn to work as jewellery. Though technically an act of recycling, the purpose is expressive rather than practical. The ornament retains the texture of the Yellow Pages—it doesn’t hide its origin through pulping. The quirky humour of this work fits with the Finnish own position on this stage, as the untamed people of the north.

The closest Danish design comes to this is a work titled Stackchair, designed by Niels Hvass, of the Octo design group. Octo’s aim to create a ‘slice of time’ is economically realised by making three cuts into a stack of daily newspapers to carve a seat—what is subtracted becomes a footstool. Despite the elegance of their idea, the design has yet to spread widely.

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Niels Hvass Stackchair



The Danes have a proud record of environmental initiatives, such as their successful program of wind-driven electricity. Designer Niels Peter Flint describes Denmark as a ‘laboratory’ for the world to research environmental solutions. Flint himself is developing a utopian vision of a future world based on sustainable practices. Odinpolis (‘Odin’ + ‘ecopolis’) marries Platonic rationality with Viking passions. By 2040, various systems such as the Eco-Card and a resource tax steer economies towards green goals. Mirroring the architecture of Copenhagen, residents live in baroque towers that suffuse their day with air and light.

Niels Peter Flint Sketches of OdinpolisAt this point, some readers might be questioning the legitimacy of another sterile le Corbusier-style utopia. Flint offers some saving graces. Unlike modernist planning, Flint allows space for irrationalities, such as rites of passage events that are traditionally managed by the church. He argues that touristic travel is one of the main sources of resource wastage, and the best way of reducing gratuitous journeys is to remove the motivation. Most travel is a search for the mysterious that does not fit into the tight routines of daily life. Flint’s solution is to make life interesting enough at home to remove the desire to escape from the daily grind. This involves incorporation of space for older religious with uplifting ritual.

Flint describes Odin as ‘The "dream-society"—in balance—in all ways—includes being out of balance too.’ In Denmark, such vision is not unique to recent environmental thinking. This 1990s ‘paradise culture’ has its antecedents in the previous century.

‘humorously edifying warmth’

Before researching this article, the only Dane I knew much about was the nineteenth-century philosopher, SØren Kierkegaard. While environmental issues were hardly important to thinkers of that time, it is surprising to note a parallel in their sense of national identity.

I was familiar with Kierkegaard’s philosophy as a critique of the great German systematist, G.W.F. Hegel. Kierkegaard queried the absence of personal commitment in his scheme: what is philosophy without someone who bothers to think it?

I knew that Kierkegaard identified his position as a Danish stand again German absolutism—as a style of thinking that could hold ‘there are many things between heaven and hell which no philosophy has explained.’ In contrast to the cold monolith the Hegelian system, Kierkegaard offered a particularly Danish ‘humorously edifying warmth’, which is evident in the playful use of pseudonyms for his most serious works.

Until recently, I’d seen Kierkegaard as an exception to his time. Research revealed that other, more respectable, figures of the Golden Age made similar claims. N.F.S. Grundtvig, the great patriarch of the reformed Lutheran church, praised Danish point of honour in one of his poems: ‘we believe what everyone knows’.

Though in many ways he was Kierkegaard’s ideological opponent, Grundtvig, shared this commitment to intimacy. His catch cry was ‘Menneske FØrst’ (‘Person first and then Christian’). It seems a short step from this benevolent evangelicalism to the welfare state on which Denmark takes such great pride.

Reading recent issues of the official Danish craft publications, there is much discussion of a new ‘type’ that seems a direct product of this pietist heritage. Known by the title ‘political consumer’, this new customer for craft looks to the broader context in which the work is produced. Is it wasteful of resources? Does it exploit third-world artisans?

The recent craft biennial catalogue features a quote from the respected journal Politiken, which compares the history of scarcity experienced during WW2 with the current abundance: ‘today’s scarcities and wishes are turned towards immaterial post-material needs’. Mirroring Schama’s thesis in Embarrassment of Riches, this line assumes unease in the Protestant soul. While not as strict as Dutch Calvinism, Danish Lutheranism certainly discourages individual display of wealth. Self-denial is easy when there is little to indulge the appetites. It becomes more difficult in times of prosperity. While not as strict as Dutch Calvinism, Danish Lutheranism certainly discourages individual display of wealth. The ‘political consumer’ may well be seeking some craft discipline to help ease overindulged material desires.

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The Danish seem to have an easeful relationship with new technology. In English-speaking countries, digital technologies often present a break with the past, as either transcendence from traditional materials or betrayal of craft ideals. Thus a craft spirit is often concerned with recovering a world before machines took over. The Danes, however, seem more interested in its usefulness than moral basis.

One of the principle sources of funding for the crafts is the Design Foundation, set up to spend $22m (Australian) over three years. Some of this money has gone to an organisation crafts.dk, which provides a shop craftsdk.jpg (13651 bytes)front for craftspersons on the Internet. It annexes and expands the role of the craft council (Danske Kunsthåndværkeres Landssammenslutning) in brokering relationships between makers and audience.

Individual artists are encouraged to submit images and text about their work to this central registry. It operates also as a point of reference for those wanting to purchase craft.

Anne VilsbØll

Anne VilsbØll Alive with Pleasure (200 x 100cm, handmade paper)Anne VilsbØll lives on one of Denmark’s 400 islands, nestled between the larger islands of Aero, Funen and Langeland. It takes three and a half-hours by train, bus and ferry from Copenhagen to reach StrynØ. With a population less than three hundred, the island is blessed with a fairy tale atmosphere. A cosy collection of shops and farmhouses huddle together, surrounded by the dank grey seas. There’s even a book published by the Danish Museum about StrynØ as an archetype of traditional folk settlement.

You might expect a papermaker on StrynØ to be locked into artisanal production using traditional craft methods. VilsbØll’s modernity defies the landscape, for many reasons. Before she learnt the craft at Haystack, there were no exponents of hand-papermaking in Scandinavia. Today, VilsbØll takes a leading role in the paper world. In 1996, she organised Paper Road, a series of avant-garde paper events in Copenhagen, including a Cage inspired performance of ‘paper music’. During this year’s Adelaide Festival she is convening the international papermaker’s conference.

Within her own work, she is currently researching the use of new fibres, such as the high-performance polyester fibre known by its Japanese name of kino. In contrast to the porous quality of cellulose fibre, kino has a shiny smooth surface like fish scale. VilsbØll has no qualms about using an artificial substance, despite the manual basis of her work.

VilsbØll paints colourful designs on the paper that she makes. You could be forgiven for asking her why she doesn’t simply paint onto readymade canvas stretches, rather than laboriously made paper. Her logic is to be responsible for both the work and its support: ‘I always wanted to put my images on something that was not existing… do everything myself.’ These works sell in galleries around the world and she is kept busy with architectural commissions. Recently she adorned a church in Århus with walls of bast fibre that add warmth to the thin light.

While much of her practice is focused on technical research, there is still room for whimsy. A work featuring Bambi is made from desiccated magazines and attached to a narrative about a narrow escape when driving through the woods. According to the Danish stereotype, you might describe Ann VilsbØll as ‘warmly modern’.


Englishman at heaven

Next in the queue is an Englishman. ‘And what do you have to recommend yourself?’

Noting the success of his predecessor, the Englishman argues his case. ‘You know, the English and the Danes are very close. We were under Danish rule—under Canute—for a long time, before the Normans took over. Basically, we’re like the Danes and want to get things working. All those Normans would care about is how big their wings are.’

‘The Dane could probably do with a little English nous. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you jumped onto his cloud. You better get cracking. Next!’

Anglo romance

The Blue Train is one of the most famous English escapes. Between the wars, the bourgeoisie favoured catching this train at dingy Victoria Station to ‘Sleep your way from the City's fogs to the Riviera sunshine.’ There were some, however, who swam against the current and set out on pilgrimages to the north. Williams Morris called Iceland his ‘Holy Land’ and endured severe hardships to make contact with the world of ancient traditions. Most English-speaking children grow up with J. R. R. Tolkein’s own particular romantic version of Norse mythology. Within the Arts & Craft movement, Nordic culture represented the Gothic virtues of vigour, enthusiasm and love of ornament.

Australian at heaven

St Peter’s attention now focuses on the Australian. Noting the Englishman’s success, the antipodean argues a similar case, ‘Well, we were once an English colony, and today we still follow English laws and language. We can work well together with other Anglo types. Why don’t you let me join him.’

‘I’m afraid that’s too long a bow. You’ve never had direct contact with the Danish, and besides you’re determined to break with England soon, anyway. Sorry, you’re just not well enough connected to get into heaven. Next!’

Denmark in Australia

Utzon's Sydney Opera HouseDoes Australian culture have its own Nordic romance? The two strong candidates belong to the second half of this century. The first is the Sydney Opera House, which even today it is widely considered Australia’s proudest monument. The Danish freedom of vision and reference to organic form has stamped the main entrance to Australia with a particularly Scandinavian aesthetic. We might wonder what the rest of Australia would be like if it were modelled on Urtzon’s vision.

The second occurred during the first years of the Hawke Labor government. In the early eighties, the management of the Swedish Volvo factory was upheld as an ideal of industrial relations. The Scandinavian model of the welfare state provided an important reference for the agenda of the socialist government.

To go too far down this path, though, is to fantasise about another colonisation of Australia. While there will be an opportunity to explore this when the Turn the Soil exhibition comes to Sydney in June this year, a mature relationship between cultures entails dialogue.

How does Australia look through Danish eyes? In Copenhagen two Australianised venues have recently opened. As well as a Mambo-style Australian Bar, Copenhagen has a classy Reef ‘n Beef restaurant in the heart of its art district. A curious negative testimony to the interest in this distant land occurred during recent exhibition of ceramics by Australian ceramist Anders Ousback at Gallery Norby. He was told that the work was ‘too Danish’—strange to think that Australia might be seen as exotic in another country’s eyes.

Indeed, in a dialogue the differences are just as important as the similarities. The Danish obsession with waste shows up Australian craft as sentimental. That’s a virtue. It helps highlight the nostalgia-makers currently producing works of great wit and subtlety. Roseanne Bartley’s jewellery with typewriter keys evinces nostalgia for the anachronistic writing machine. Martin Corbin’s surgically adjusted kitchen chairs make a spectacle out of recycling. And Catherine K’s newspaper weavings have a resolutely aesthetic intention.

Melbourne designer Humphrey Poland makes a specialty of collecting pieces of character-formed wood from building sites, such as the paint-spattered floorboards of a primary school art room. Fragments of these boards are then used to feature new furniture, providing both a narrative and also a contemporary reliquary. Through Danish eyes, this kind of work verges on the fetishistic.

Australian back at heaven

‘But you can’t send me to hell. I haven’t done anything wrong. Isn’t there an alternative?’

‘I suppose you’ve been a decent sort, but there’s just not room for you in heaven. Maybe, instead of going to the other place, you might think of a way that you can be useful around here?’

‘Funny you should say that. I was just thinking what a great place this would be to sell a few souvenirs. Souls get pretty teary around here. They’re leaving the world behind, forever. They could probably do with a little token of terrestrial life to cheer them up. A spoon or key ring—that sort of thing.’

‘Excellent idea—just so long as we don’t fill heaven with too much earthly clutter. We’re trying to go virtual, you now.’

Mette Saabye Drops of Dew (mother of pearl)Mette Saabye

The week before Christmas, Copenhagen is glittering with jewellers. There are stretches of the old city where rows of windows display jewellers at their benches, candles providing a warm and inviting atmosphere for potential customers.

One of these jewellers, Mette Saabye, makes rings and necklaces with mother of pearl disks that swivel on their stem. An extravagant piece, Dråber af dug (‘drops of dew’) imitates a shower of water. Designed to ‘shield and reveal’ the body behind the bracelet, the work attempts to merge jewellery with the body on a visual plane.

Danes can’t wait for heaven.


Paul Fussell Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980

Søren Kierkegaard Papers and Journals: A Selection Harmondsworth: Penguin (trans. Alastair Hannay), 1996

Bruce Kirmmse Kierkegaard in the Golden Age of Denmark Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990

Alistair McIntyre After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1984

Simon Schama The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age London: Fontana, 1991 (orig. 1987)

Charles Taylor `The moral topography of the self’ Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory S.B. Messer, L.A. Sass & R.L. Woolfolk (ed.) New Jersey: Rutgers, 1988

Also see Asbjorn Lonvig at www.lonvig.dk.

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