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The following article is a book review of Den ideologiske funktionalisme. by Birgit Kaiser (København: Gad, 1992).
It was published in Scandinavian Journal of Design History 4, 1994: 114-118.

A review of

Den ideologiske funktionalisme
av Birgit KAISER
G. E. C. Gad, København, 1992.

Reviewed by
Jan Michl

As far as the title goes, Birgit Kaiser’s book Den ideologiske funktionalisme (The Ideological Functionalism) belongs to the category of misnomer-titles. She is in a good company though. One of the classics in this category, and in this subject, Edward De Zurko’s apologetic historical study Origins of Functionalist Theory (no subtitle, of course) from 1957, in fact deals with the history of functional (or rather function-related) theories of beauty, that appeared in the past two thousands and five hundred odd years between Socrates and Greenough. There is also Donald Norman’s brilliant book of 1988, in its first edition called Psychology of Everyday Things (no subtitle, of course). The title made people think of all kind of things, so in the second edition the author made the title disclose what the book was really about: it was about Design of Everyday Things - and the role psychology can play in making products more workable.

Kaiser’s misnomer book is very stimulating in one sense - and rather disappointing in another. Let me begin with the disappointments.

As suggested, the book’s title (no subtitle) is misleading. Its subject, it turns out, is neither the functionalist ideology or the ideological functionalism (whatever that may be). The brief preface does not make the book’s intent very clear either. The author does mention, though rather timidly, that the book’s subject is in fact the story of the Danish furniture on its journey “from political idea, through Danish Design, to the furniture style of today”, adding that the journey will be presented as a piece of cultural history. The problem here is that the author never comes back to clarify what she means by notions such as “political idea” or Danish Design or “cultural history” - not to speak about the title itself. In the preface she mentions further that she interviewed some architects, craftsmen, furniture producers, furniture dealer and users still alive, in order to find out “what was their point with functionalism” [“hva de ville med funktionalismen.”]. The reader will find out that the content of the book is succinctly revealed on the back cover (of all places) where it says in capital letters: “THE STORY OF A FURNITURE STYLE”. Why the rubric was put on the back cover rather than on the front one, as a subtitle to the main title, remains a mystery. A combination of two headings in the title The ideological functionalism: the story of a furniture style would certainly say more about the book’s bearing, that each of them standing alone. Was it because the author did not want to “provoke”, as she expressly put it in the the preface, that she refrained from openly suggesting the direction of the book in the very title? Of course, in putting it in such plain manner, it would have become even more clear than it is now that the two opening chapters on functionalism are all too sketchy, not to say flawed, to support the announced story of evolution from a political vision to a furniture style of today.

Since these chapters are a key to the bulk of the book, I want for a while to dwell critically on the author’s understanding of functionalism. I am afraid that the inadequate introductory exposition of the nature of functionalism makes the reader rather at a loss as to what the story she wants to tell is really about. As a consequence it is not always clear, what the interview-based quotations, which now and then appear in the text (especially those with architects and craftsmen) are really meant to elucidate.

Kaiser gives simply too many too fleeting characteristics of functionalism; she speaks of it as a style, as a social program, social-architectonic [sosial-arkitektonisk] movement, as an ideology and, also as a political idea - without making clear what the relation between these notions is, and what she herself sees as the essence of functionalism. Was functionalism in her view a style from the very first, an aesthetics which functionalists wrongly believed to be a design method? Or does she understand functionalism as an in principle feasible design method which only “deteriorated” into a style, as some would still maintain? This is impossible to tell, because, strange as it is, Kaiser does not even mention among her introductory characteristics that to the functionalist eyes functionalism was a design method pure and simple. This omission is even stranger in view of the fact that the (only) book she recommends for further reading on functionalism is Johan Fjord Jensen’s still incisive critique of functionalism published back in 1965, where Jensen in fact discusses functionalism as method. Not surprisingly, such “oversights” slant Kaiser’s subsequent comments on the outcome of functionalism. She points out in the concluding chapter for example that functionalists, in their effort to make everything work as good as possible [i iveren efter at gøre alting så godt], “forgot” that new stylistic departures must be first accepted by a little trend-setting group, then taken over by the upper classes, and that they only subsequently trickle down to the rest of the social classes. What she says about the departures is of course true. But in claiming that functionalists forgot that social emulation was the engine behind spreading of a style, Kaiser seems to suggest, by implication, that functionalist themselves considered their new forms to be a style, that it was a part of the functionalist intention to introduce a new design style. If that is the suggestion it is far of the mark. Functionalists and their adherents always categorically denied that they worked in a definite style or that they were bound by a definite aesthetic norms - even if to everybody else it was all along entirely obvious that that was exactly the case.

Functionalists were in fact well aware of the mechanism behind proliferation of new styles. In terms of their design theory this knowledge was of no consequence to them, however. They were convinced that their new forms were unique since they did not follow any apriori aesthetic norms: they were deemed to be direct results of functional solutions. Such conviction was only logical: the crux of the functionalist philosophy of design was the belief that every functional problem had a single intrinsic solution, and that the functional solution was consequently identical with the formal solution: according to functionalists form and function were one. Such true-because-the-only-possible forms could not be said to follow any stylistic norms, and were considered, logically again, as stylistically neutral, or styleless. As such they were supposed to be equally accessible and understandable to everybody, no matter whether one came from upper or lower classes. The world of such “functional forms” and of such “functional aesthetics” was assumed to promote social equality, though it at the same time also presupposed it. What made the egalitarian implications of the “functional aesthetics” all the more enthralling to designers was that they themselves hoped to play a part in the administration of social equality, something which would make them proverbially more equal than the others. It is on this account, i.e. on the basis of the functionalist theory of design that the connection with the egalitarian philosophies, and politics, had emerged, and should be also understood.

Misunderstanding about the functionalist view of style has a consequence for Kaiser’s attempt to tell her story of furniture. The problem is that such a story can be successfully told only from either a functionalist, or a non-functionalist perspective - but not from an unclear point of view. True, Kaiser does perceive the functionalist furniture as a matter of a new style rather than as a result of a new method, but, as already suggested, one is still not sure whether she regards the method in principle feasible or not. When describing the pre-functionalist design scene she for example several times employs some disparaging terms, such as “style-confusion” or “style imitations” that make sense only in terms of the functionalist belief in the new design method and the issuing “functional aesthetics”. Are we to take this as an indication of her position - or rather as an oversight? In other words, Kaiser’s book is lacking a definite working hypothesis about whether the functionalist vision of objective, true forms was feasible - or whether it was rather a piece of wishful thinking. Her position on these questions is simply not explicit enough to give the valuable material she has collected a clear bearing.

Still, having said all this, it is to a great extent possible to appreciate the bulk of the book on its own terms. What this bulk is about is not so much a furniture style as such, as the background of that style, and especially one dimension of that background. During the course of the book the author comes to discuss various interesting aspects of the Danish functionalist style in furniture both general and particular, e.g. background of the novel use of teak wood, the notion of cabinetmaker-furniture, background to the cooperation between cabinetmakers and architects which started in the 1920s or the question of why we choose furniture as we do. But the main thrust of the book, and its most interesting contribution, is, as I see it, the picture Kaiser conjures up, of the extensive, often concerted effort at various institutional levels and by various kinds of means, aimed at popularizing this new furniture style as the historically necessary formal language fit for the modern age. She chronicles these Danish measures over the period of four decades, until 1970s when the functionalist style is said to have finally trickled down and found general acceptance. While functionalists would have probably seen this final acceptance a result of working of the Zeitgeist, Kaiser’s picture of the massive promotional apparatus can as well be construed as an evidence that the final acceptance of functionalism was brought about by a strenuous, work against the Zeitgeist (if we are to keep to that term): as the author made repeatedly clear, the promotional effort was considered indispensable exactly because the functionalist style in furniture remained for a very long time unpopular, even in its mild, undogmatic versions.

Let me now proceed to the stimulating body of the book, and give a summary of the principal promotional measures which Kaiser presents. After commenting on the cool reaction to the cold steel of tubular chairs and other furniture shown at the Stuttgart exhibition of 1927 and Stockholm exhibition of 1930, and the unsuccessful attempts to plant the new style in Denmark, Kaiser draws attention to the tempering influence of the non-formalist kind of functionalism which Kaare Klint introduced as the head of the newly established Furniture School at the Art Academy in Copenhagen between the years 1924 and 1954.

In several chapters beginning with one called “How to draw attention to a style” Kaiser then presents a long inventory of measures aimed at advertising the taste for the simple aesthetics, and addressed to the prospective buyers of functionalist furniture. This inventory gives a striking picture of diversity, prominence and intensity of the advertisement and propaganda to which Danish consumers were exposed since the 1930 in order to imprint on them the moral and utilitarian superiority of the functionalist furniture. The man in the street would learned about the new style above all in the daily newspapers, while the architects’ magazine and cabinetmakers’ trade journal, and in the second part of the 1920s Poul Henningsen’s avantgarde journal Kritisk Revy, catered to the specialist community. Others were introduced to functionalism through the rich activities of the National Federation of Crafts and Applied Arts [Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthåndværk og Kunstindustri], such as yearly expositions, travelling exhibitions, furniture competitions, as well as through lecture series, all aimed at spreading knowledge about functionalist furniture and the new ways to furnish one’s home. Also furniture-manufacturers organized exhibitions presenting the new style, and the leading department stores in Copenhagen included the new tendencies into their choice. Interior store [boligmagasin] BO situated in the middle of Copenhagen showed the new trends in design already since the mid-1920s. In 1931 was Den Permanente-store opened as a permanent exhibition promoting sales of Danish crafts and applied arts [Kunsthåndverk og Kunstindustri]

In addition to this, the United Danish Coop Societies (FDB), inspired by challenge from Danish adherents of functionalism, begun in the mid-1930s to promote in various ways the sale of functionalist furniture. FDB was obviously a powerful institution having in 1942, according to Kaiser, almost 400 000 members (that was, I figured out, some 10% of the Danish population at the time) with almost 2000 local cooperatives, and a growing membership among the wide specter of inhabitants. FDB established its own furniture shops with interior design consultants [boligkonsulenter], and introduced illustrated furniture catalogues for its members, while its Information service organized lecture tours over the whole country, courses in interior design [boliglære], produced films promoting functional organization and furnishing of homes, and published several instruction books. At the end of the 1930s FDB inaugurated a permanent furniture exhibition in the capital. In the early 1940s it established the Furniture design office [Møbelarkitekturkontor] with Klint’s pupil Børge Mogenes at its head. Its most important mean of advertising for the new type of furniture was its illustrated Coop Newsletter [Brugsforenings-Bladet], in one period brought out as often as twice a month, which featured in its issues the FDB functionalist furniture and furnishings (since 1947 produced in FDBs own factory), and published reviews of interior exhibitions [boligudstillinger] illustrated with drawings and photographs. Another important promotion measures were the show-furnishings [prøvemøblering] of new houses and apartements, and participation at both small and large exhibitions both at home and abroad.

Efforts to promote the new style was made also at the government level. A bill securing that [statskassen skulle yde garanti for tilbagebetaling af lån til køb af indbo] was discussed for almost 15 years, since the early 1940, but was not passed in the end. According to Kaiser the bill proposed among other things a mandatory guidance to the borrowers in the matters of furniture choice, an aspect which was opposed partly as a form of patronizing, partly as a form of favorization of some furniture companies. Various courses in the matters of home furnishing [boligindretning] were in the 1940s all the same established at different pedagogical institutions, such as Folkeuniversitet, technological Institute and the Denmark’s Teacher Highschool [Danmarks Lærerhøjskole]. In the 1950s a special subject [linje] called [Hjemkundskab] was introduced in [folkeskolen] where the pupils were supposed to learn the art of dwelling [lære at bo]. Here the matters of rational organization of home seemed to go hand in hand with taste education.

Kaiser holds that in the 1940s, in spite of intense promotional efforts the principal users of the functionalist kind of furniture were still not private homes but rather “public offices, institutions for children, young and old people, schools, churches, executive rooms [direksjonskontorene] of banks and larger enterprises, canteens, hotels, restaurants etc.” According to the author, only very few highly educated people lived at this time in rooms furnished with FDB’s or others’ functionalist furniture.

The situation changed in the 1950s, to a great extent as a consequence of the unexpected discovery by American sophisticated taste of the Danish furniture, a phenomenon that led to fast growing exports, and increasing prestige of functionalist furniture style. This was the decade when a growing number of people who were furnishing their homes for the first time [som satte bo] bought functionalist kind of furniture. This was still far from a majority. The campaign to win more people for the functionalist style continued unabated. FDB further expanded their campaigning for the furniture in the new style. The FDB members were now, together with their Newsletters, receiving FDB furniture catalogues. FDB was able to deliver the cheapest school equipment in Denmark, which soon led to total furnishings [totalindretninger] of many communal schools [kommune-skoler] and other public and semi-public institutions with FDB furniture equipment. The FDB Information service produced in the 1950s another promotion film for the young about home furnishing, this time in connection with living in the country, and prepared also pedagogical materials for the subject of [boliglære] which was now a part of the [folkeskolens] curriculum. Association of furniture-producers [Møbelfabrikantforeningen] published since 1955 the promotional magazine Mobilia which was a multi-lingual continuation of an earlier journal of the association.

Faced with the evidence of such extensive promotional activity over such a period of time the reader will probably wonder about the source and motivation of this effort to “sell” a style that almost nobody but the sellers themselves wanted, a phenomenon probably unseen in the previous history of taste. Promotion is of course a usual phenomenon where the commercial interests operate, and as such it is not difficult to understand. But such commercial interests were behind only a part of the promotional framework Kaiser presents; most of the institutions and individuals active here seemed to have been driven by a non-commercial motivation. Kaiser hinted (rather than argued) that this motivation was of political nature, driven by visions of an authentic working class culture and of improved housing conditions for all. Although it in one sense can be put that way, it is definitely not true in the sense that Kaiser seems to espouse, namely that there was a political, or “ideological” functionalism that existed somehow independently, in addition to, functionalism as a design philosophy. On the contrary, as I attempted to argue above, the engagement of designers in both politics of equality and in promotion of functionalist architecture and design in general (and of functionalist furniture in particular) is probably best understood as an outgrowth of their theory of design with its vision of “functional”, objective, styleless and taste-free aesthetics. In other words, it is in the movement’s design philosophy proper, rather than in its political dimension alone that one should search for the ultimate source of the huge energy and motivation behind the promotion drive that Kaiser so graphically describes. On the other hand, this non-political root of functionalism may perhaps, for historical reasons, be less evident in Scandinavia. Here the political dimension of functionalism loomed large from the very beginning, since Scandinavia experienced its true functionalist break-through only in the 1930s, when functionalism, just as also other societal creeds of that decade, had become radically politicized.

Kaiser comments in the concluding chapter on a paradoxical results of functionalism: although worker homes were, especially since the 1930s, at the center of the functionalist attention “neither the worker of the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s lived in the architect-designed quality furniture. He was neither interested in it, nor able to pay for it.” The kind of furniture which was launched by functionalists and their adherents as the true expression of the worker culture, was, to begin with, rejected by the working class and, instead, taken over by trend-setters, adopted by higher classes, and later imitated by the bourgeois. In the 1970s when the Danish worker could finally be said to have embraced the functionalist furniture, is was, as Kaiser crisply puts it, “an expression of his wish to imitate the bourgeoisie.” What is more, she adds, his functionalist furniture was cheap imitations of architect-designed pieces, since such pieces remained expensive both in cabinetmaker or mass-produced versions.

The well-chosen cartoon embellishing the book’s cover summarizes some unanswered questions that pop up in one’s mind, after one has read this book. The cartoon, by Carl Jensen, published originally in 1943, shows a living-room before and after it was redesigned by a functionalist architect. The before-picture shows an older couple in a cosy old-fashioned living-room enjoying themselves in their comfortable chairs, at the moment the Architects marches in. The after-picture with the Architect departing, shows the same room, this time fully re-furnished in the functionalist fashion, with the same couple, now rather abandoned and confounded in the new surroundings. Obviously the couple does not enjoy the change. But then perhaps their children, or their grand-children, would enjoy the new functionalist environment in the same way as their grandparents did their old one. Still, the cartoon’s point seems to be that the Architect’s intervention was not invited. Was this the gist of how the functionalist initiative was generally perceived at the time? Other questions come to mind. Did the fact that Denmark, in the period discussed, had a population of between 3,5 and 5 millions made the promotion of the functionalist aesthetic easier and its final victory more enduring than the case would be in a population of 35 or 50 millions? Is the persistence of the functionalist aesthetic in Danish design perhaps after all a sign that this aesthetic struck an inner chord in Danish soul? Or is this style simply a taste among tastes, in principle as volatile as any other previous style? Does the past reputation and the past commercial success of Danish design style abroad act as a conserving factor counteracting tendencies to stylistic changes? It is certainly to wish too much to have questions like this answered in the concluding chapter: for once, they might indeed be provocative. But what is so wrong with that: Is not every clear answer we manage to come with a provocation of sorts?

Online since February 1, 2014
The author's workplace 2017: NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjøvik, Norway