The New York Times

June 17, 2004, The New York Times

The Danes Rule at the Modern Museum

PR coup for one nation's design

The Swedish home furnishings giant Ikea had an advertisement that declared of America: “It’s a big country. Someone’s got to furnish it.” Now that the big, newly refurbished Museum of Modern Art is nearing completion, the Danes are furnishing it. The Danish government has persuaded the museum to use Danish furnishings for almost all the public areas of its expanded quarters — a triumph of trade policy and product placement.

When last seen, the museum had custom-made wooden benches and a mix of other furnishings, only one of of which will make a return engagement: the Bertoia wire chairs in the sculpture garden designed for Knoll in the 1950’s.

“There was no attempt at a kind of uniform all-over effort,” said Terence Riley, chief architecture and design curator at the museum.

When the museum reopens, on Nov. 20, the pieces will be unified by source: Denmark. Works by 33 Danish designers, including Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner, will be used in the lobby, the cafe and the cafeteria, among other places. The furnishings have a retail value of several million dollars.

The benches by Poul Kjaerholm upholstered in black leather in the galleries and foyers will be Danish, and so will the Georg Jensen coffeepots, the Erik Bagger wine goblets, the Rosendahl candleholders, the Jensen flatware and the Royal Copenhagen china in the restaurant. Some 150 articles are being supplied at a discount by 13 Danish manufacturers and paid for by the Danish government and Danish foundations.

“In some ways I think it’s completely excellent, and in some ways I’m just shocked that it’s completely Danish,” said Zesty Meyers, an owner of R 20th Century, a New York gallery that specializes in vintage design. “That just makes no sense to me, because good design is from all over the world.”

The only non-Danish items in the public areas, aside from the Bertoia chairs, will be narrow Knoll benches in some galleries. Four of the Danish objects are already in the permanent collection, including Jacobsen’s popular Series 7 chair from 1955, and half of the designers are otherwise represented in the permanent collection.

The agreement with the Danish government was announced last week at a preview of the museum’s vastly expanded premises. “The Italians are going to go nuts, and so will the Swedes,” said Irene Krarup, the Danish cultural attaché who helped arrange the deal.

“I am somewhat envious,” Olle Wastberg, the Swedish consul general in New York, said mildly. “We wish we could have done it. The Danes are to be congratulated.”

Gianmarco Pugliese, an Italian Trade Commission marketing official, termed the Danish move “a pretty smart play.”

Officials at the museum stress that all the objects underwent curatorial vetting. Although the museum also considered using furnishings by American and Italian makers, the Danes succeeded with their package deal. “It would have been rather churlish to go around the Danes and shop for a better deal,” Mr. Riley said, “when the fact is that they had the initiative, and they had the goods.”

The Danes also had an advantage in that the approach to the museum was made by their government, not by individuals. “We could have filled the whole museum with American design, but there’s no one person you could talk to,” Mr. Riley said.

Negotiations got under way in September 2002, when the Danes offered to sponsor furniture and accessories in the public areas. Once the museum decided that 95 percent of the furnishings would be Danish, the Danish government made its offer of a gift. “The curators went on a shopping spree,” said Michael Metz Morch, the Danish consul general in New York.

Paola Antonelli, a design curator at the museum, went to Denmark this year to look over more than 300 products, including prototypes. The furnishings she selected were shipped to New York, where other curators tried them out, along with trustees; Ronald S. Lauder, the chairman of the museum; and Glenn D. Lowry, the director. The new furnishings will complement the clean-lined architecture and restrained color palette of Yoshio Taniguchi’s new building, Mr. Riley said.

New tableware selected for the museum will go on sale at its design store in August, along with a few furniture pieces. The Danes will be acknowledged on a plaque in the museum.