text by Esbjorn Hoirt, managing director of Den Permanente
English translation by Fredrik Fogh
published in 1965
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a great interest in the quality and high design of craftsman made household goods and jewelry, much of which was due to a reaction against the modernization of the manufacturing industry. In the beginning, factory produced goods were of inferior quality to the work of highly skilled workers, whom did much to hone their craft, as well as having the limitations of the machines, only able to handle a limited number of simplistic designs. So, across Europe, movements like Art Nouveau in France, and Arts and Crafts in England, Werkbund in Germany, as well as Skonvirke in Denmark started to take hold. William Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement, probably summed these thoughts up best when he criticized manufacturing as the death of art, and thusly of civilization. Though his sentiments may or may not be unfounded, the desire to preserve ones national traditions and handicrafts and develop from them was born.
From this came a number of societies and guilds around such purposes, and in Denmark, of note were the Cabinetmakers' Guild, the Danish Handicraft Guild, and the Society for Home Industries. These organizations however were not just interested in the preservation of their crafts, but also sought to develop them further and and along different methods of modernization. The difficulty, however was in these paradoxical ideals, as modernization looks towards the future, tradition to the past. As time would progress further on though, the 1920's would bring public sentiment back to modernization and new designs for this modern lifestyle would develop, often breaking with long held traditions, and around this period of development, Denmark also started to change from a predominantly agrarian economy to one more industrialized, and Danish design itself started to gain attention worldwide. Unfortunately, Denmark's newfound wealth also meant that other countries were seeking to sell their goods to the Danish people, and soon the market was flooded with cheaper and lesser quality products. The majority of people, however, had little way of differentiating quality goods from the cheap imports, especially with the breadth and width offered.
It was in this situation that designer and silversmith Kaj Bojesen had the idea for a permanent exhibition of the finest quality Danish products, where the promotion of the best in modern design could be available for all to witness. This display would do more than simply highlight the best of the best to fellow Danes, but also could be used to promote Danish design to buyers overseas that might have interest. His idea however was not aimed towards an exhibition centered on sales, like Den Permanente would be based on, however but a collection similar to that in the Museum of Applied Art, and when proposed in January 1929 to the Danish Handicrafts Society, they were doubtful.
Instead it would be Christian Grauballe, a businessman and the director of Holmegaard Glassworks who was looking to bring the line up to date. On June 26th he sent out a memo to various people interested in various crafts to arrange a meeting on Wednesday, July 8th 1931 which would decide the board for his newly formed "Permanent Exhibition of Danish Arts". Grauballe was elected chairman, and with Kaj Bojesen as a board member and in charge of publicity, as well as Jacob E. Bang, the artistic leader at Holmegaard, as architect and censor, Den Permanente was formed. Their purpose, "to provide and maintain exhibition premises in Copenhagen for the propaganda and sale at home and abroad of the products of Danish handicrafts and industrial design".
Originally they had leased space in the Versterport office building with exhibitions on the second floor and occupying only about 7800 square feet, and a very limited budget for equipment and furnishing, most of which was supplied by the board of directors. Despite this, there was much interest in the project, and gained the patronage of the Crown Prince Frederik, whom had much interest in the fields they represented.
Only 126 exhibitors were originally shown in the space, with rent fixed on a per square meter basis, and sales were originally to be handled by the workshops and retail spaces of the artists and companies in surrounding area, and the space in Den Permanente being purely for showroom purposes. It quickly changed to a commission basis once it was realized that visitors wished to make their purchases immediately on the premises rather than traveling to the various vendors.
Attendance waxed and waned throughout the time that Den Permanente was on the second floor, it's first year generating around 100,000 visits, steadily rising, and then dropping down till its final year to about 45,000 before moving to the ground floor in 1937, where attendance once again exploded to about 195,000. Three years later, the lease expired, and would then move to its location facing Vesterbrogade. Part of the reason for its move over renewing the lease was due in part to its prior low rent due to the previous economic depression and the fact that a new tenant had offered more for the space. The new space was located at a busier intersection, and had better show windows, despite having less floor space.
By September of 1940, the Germans had occupied Denmark, and WWII was underway and Den Permanente and due to the political climate at the time, the question came about as to whether or not to continue to operate. Remarkably however, sales were still good, and interest continued to grow amongst their countrymen in Denmark for Danish wares. Problems instead arose from shortages in supplies, which affected primarily the silversmiths which were soon forced to trade and barter in old silver and use different materials to go on. Weavers too faced shortages of yarn, and had to often unravel old textiles to continue their craft. Perhaps the best prepared were the cabinetmakers and woodworkers whom due to the long curing process had great stores of wood in the process of seasoning. Potters also survived, often living near deposits of clay, however creating the heat necessary for firing was difficult. The worst would come in 1944 when the German army would occupy the building, forcing the exhibition to vacate. Temporary accommodations were made, showing in a shop in Ostergrade with offices elsewhere in town and stockrooms in a third location, courtesy of Holmegaard Glassworks. All of this, however, did little to help, and by May of 1945, funds had run out.
Rather than fold, Den Permanente underwent massive reconstruction, including the resignation of the entire board and the election of a new chairman. Aage E. Jensen was the best candidate for the new chairman, and one of his first acts was to get back its former location and increase its space so that it now encompassed half of the first floor of the Vesterport building. Next he worked to seek compensation from the government for the losses incurred during its forced removal and with the support he gained from the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design, he raised enough capitol to support the exhibition until sales could resume. By December 11th 1945, Den Permanente was reopened.
Although Den Permanente had a new chairman with Aage Jensen, a new director was also needed, and Asger Fischer was chosen to fill the position. Being aware of the publicity abroad for the exhibition, Fischer saw great potential in the field of exports for Danish goods, and a year after being appointed, he set out on a trip to the United States to establish contacts and raise interest. At first difficulties were still had regarding supplies for the craftsman in a post war Denmark, however more and more tourists flocked to see the exhibition as it became more and more of a tourist attraction, and sales steadily increased. From 1950-59 sales increased five times over, and plans for more space were adopted under the new direction of chairman Soren Hansen.
The process of which Den Permanente was run was quite revolutionary in its own right. The greatest interest is perhaps in the censorship process. Every producer of either handicrafts or industrial design is allowed to first submit their wares to the censorship board where decision on whether or not the designs are acceptable to the exhibition. From there the products are submitted to the board where the board members vote for or against the designs. The board has always accepted the decisions of the censorship committee in practice. If accepted, membership is granted, and in some cases status as an "aspirant" has been granted to those who might not have enough of a production to show, in which case, they are granted a year to show improvement. Membership fees have been typically small and tend to be mostly symbolic. Members, regardless of size, ranging from large factories to individual producers, are given the right to vote at the annual meetings and in the election of the board. Each member is given a single vote, and in this everyone has equal say in association. A term on the board is three years, and are staggered as such that four positions are up for vote each year.
The censorship committee does not say directly which wares will be displayed or not however. The members themselves choose amongst the accepted designs which to display, and a concerted effort is made with the management to make the exhibition beautiful and attractive without overcrowding, and yet at the same time, giving fair representation to all members. Also, Den Permanente never owned any of the actual merchandise. Instead, all sales are done on a commission basis, with members dictating price, and commissions used primarily as the method of gaining funds for both the leasing and management of the exhibition itself, as well as special events. Den Permanente is primarily self censoring in this way. Though the typical arguments against the censorship committee are made, often of them being to harsh towards one's own designs, the committee itself is appointed via election at the annual meetings, and with candidates primarily selected by the board with the approval of the Society of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design. Altogether there are seven members on the censorship committee with two specifically for furniture censorship which judge furniture separately, with three of the five other members joining. All other designs are brought before the primary five committee members. Items submitted to the censors are judged biweekly, primarily on the quality of the work and its originality. Artists seeking new membership are judged similarly twice a year. In order to keep with the changes in the field of design, at certain times, the censors also review designs approved prior to remove obsolete items and designs that might no longer reflect the standards of the exhibition. This final charge of the censorship committee is primarily to keep the exhibition current, and in no way reflects the age of certain designs, which in and of themselves may be timeless and classic.
As mentioned previously, financing is primarily done through the commissions collected on sales. The funds generated would pay for the space leased to the exhibition, as well as the salaries of the sales staff, events, and other expenses that related to running operations. Originally, space itself was leased within the exhibition, however this limited the number of members that could display, as well as lending a very segmented and artist specific feel to each space. Commissions however, tended to generate more revenue, and as time went on, leasing space became less prominent until disappearing altogether and being replaced with a 2% rate on gross sales to cover rental of space in addition to the commissions on sales. As costs have risen, so had the percentages on sales commissions have also risen. In 1931, the rates were approximately 3% on furniture and 10% on all other goods. By 1962, rates were 19% on all furniture, and 1/3 rd on all other goods. Despite these high rates, Den Permanente has had a policy of aiming to not rely on outside funds for its continuation, nor to generate a profit for itself. In times where additional capital has been needed, it has sought to finance itself through credit loaned by members rather than turn to outside sources.
Sales tended to be more heavily reliant on export activities rather than domestic. Since the end of WWII, and due to the efforts of Asger Fischer efforts in the United States. As trade grew, a special exhibition department was set up to show to the overseas visitors the items and artists which were available. This was of great advantage to both the companies and artists in that the exhibition would handle the business of exporting, and to the businesses in the US which could buy from a number of individual craftsmen and businesses without having to visit and arrange details with each individual business. The US was the primary nationality for Den Permanente, with France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden following. By 1963, a catalog of export goods was created.
Sales however were not the only purpose of Den Permanente, and a good deal of effort was put towards public relations and the promotion of Danish design throughout the world. Through trade journals and other means they generated interest in the field of Danish design at home, but their primary efforts were to promote abroad. The exhibition set itself up to be a display of the standard of industrial design as well as a barometer of the current status of handicrafts in the country. In doing so, not only did visitors come to Den Permanente to purchase their goods, but to learn more about the state of Danish design itself. The exhibition itself was an act of goodwill and in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Tourist Association The exhibition arranged for a number of private tours for prominent guests, including the Queen and her private company.
Public relations were also maintained through the special exhibitions. These special exhibitions had always been considered a necessary addition to the regularly housed exhibition of Den Permanente as a method to promote abroad and foster good will. One of the first exhibitions was in 1935 in Monte Carlo, a popular tourist spot of the time. Highly successful, they followed with a display at the World Exhibition in Bruxelles and a few years later at an international exhibition in Berlin. Unfortunately, due to weak finances during the thirties, these sorts of exhibitions could no longer continue as they had, and when Den Permanente sought out the assistance of the Society of Arts and Crafts (eventually replaced by the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design), the Society had assisted greatly in the continuation of these events. Den Permanente would go on to take part in the Milan Triennales of 1951-1960, as well as the 1954-57 exhibition to the United States, "Design in Scandinavia" as well as "Formes Scandinaves" in Paris in 1958, "Neue Form aus Danemark" in Germany and Austria in 195-57 and "Arts of Denmark" in the United States between 1960-61. Other exhibitions Den Permanente has arranged have been of a narrower scope, sometimes focusing on only a single department, such as the furniture and textile exhibition in 1961 at the behest of the Dutch Textile Union. Other exhibitions can sometimes be a focus on a single artist or designer, and due to the bylaws of the organization, exhibitions do not necessarily need to be of a member's work specifically, as when they often gave a younger rising designer a chance to show his or her works, nor do the special exhibitions need display only Danish works, as when a notable exhibition features the works of ten Japanese potters. Also every year they have typically held an annual Spring Exhibition as well as a Christmas Exhibition in November through December. The Spring Exhibition is of particular interest, as often it gave a chance to showcase the newest wares of its members and offer a refreshing look at what was current.
As times changed so did the exhibitions at Den Permanente, and naturally so. When the project began, the realm of furniture design was radically changing, as were the lives of the common people. As households became smaller, as did the houses and apartments they lived in, and architects designed accordingly. It was the architects whom voiced the feelings of the society towards the Cabinetmakers Guild, and charged that the highly ornate and decorative nature of certain furniture no longer fit with the modern lifestyle, and that more functional, practical furniture was demanded. The cabinetmakers took the criticism and began to host yearly competitions to propose new designs in home furnishings with these architects. As such awards were handed out to the best works, and exhibitions displaying new trends came about. The need for a permanent display made Den Permanente an excellent fit. In the beginning, Most furniture in the exhibition was hand made; only one furniture manufactury, Fritz Hansen's Furniture Factory whom worked with steel tubing and bent wood, was amongst the first to join. Despite this hold towards traditional methods however, much of the designs showcased bore the influence of Kaare Klint, an instructor at the School of Furniture Design at the Academy of Art.His research and development in dimensional standards, as well as furniture design which though not "modern" per se, were highly functional and influenced future movements. Again modernization would force change in the realm of furniture in the 40's the same criticisms arose. This time the process of making furniture itself would change to reflect not only the change in tastes, but also in demand. Factory made furniture replaced more hand crafted pieces without sacrificing quality, and Danish exports of furniture rose from 3,000,000 crowns in 1950 to 200,000,000 crowns in 1963. Despite this shift, it was still only Fritz Hansen's that still created much of the more experimental lines, including the series of Arne Jacobsen furniture using laminated wood and other man made materials.
Pottery also had its part at Den Permanente, with many pottery workshops spread throughout Denmark, as good potter's clay was to be found spread about the country. Pottery has a long and rich history in Denmark, and two of its most well know manufacturers have their origins around the 1910's experimenting with porcelain, a new form of pottery introduced by the Japanese at the Paris exhibition: Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grondahl. It wasn't until 1930 that Nathalie Krebs started Saxbo where she started her own line of stoneware, which soon raised interest in the material with its lower price over porcelain. Since then stoneware has been developed dramatically, from the simple forms and porcelain-like designs to the free form coarse glazes of the 60's.
Denmark had already made its name in the realm of silver, and especially in jewelry as well as flatware and hollowware, and instrumental to this world renown was of course Georg Jensen. Having trained as a silversmith under Georg Jensen, Kaj Bojesen was one of the designers for the silversmithy that had embraced the functionalism of the 30's and his designs reflected this modernistic highly rational designs that also made up the greater portion of Den Permanente's silver collection of the time. When silver shortages started during WWII, much production was switched to stainless steel, however, whereas when silver was once again in supply, the switch primarily in hollowware and flatware to this new material was underway by the 1950's-60's. Jewelry on the other hand still utilized the precious metals of silver and gold and also had representation in the exhibition.
Textiles, glass, and woodworking also had representation in the exhibition. Textiles have enjoyed success in the past in Denmark, and primarily with hand loomed fabrics. As mentioned previously, Den Permanente has its ties in the past also to Holmegaard Glassworks whom was one of the first members, and one finer names in glass in Denmark along with Kastrup. Wood, and especially teak has been a popular material in housewares as well.
Also represented has been the artistic works of fine art artists have been show within the walls of Den Permanente since 1945, under the guidance of Asger Fischer, managing director of that particular year, whom had conducted an art shop previously. This was a break of sorts with its tradition of promoting industrial design and mass produced goods, as art tends to be of a one of a kind nature, and not necessarily produced for commercial gain. As such, the artists represented are not members as are the designers of goods.
Throughout its run, Den Permanente had accomplished its goal of representing only the finest in Danish goods and the promotion of its constituents work worldwide. Even more so it became an institution of its own, and brought visitors worldwide to its location, become an attraction in its own right.