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What JFK, an IKEA Chair, and Minecraft All Have in Common

It takes effort not to clamber up on to the display platform and settle into Hans Wegner's "Round Chair" (above, left) with a martini and a Lucky Strike (just for show, of course). A part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's permanent collection of midcentury modern design, the Wegner is currently on display in the Perelman Building as part of the Museum's "Northern Lights exhibition."

The exhibit, which runs through October 4th, is dedicated to modern and contemporary design from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and spans the period from 1900 to the present with an emphasis on the mid twentieth century, when Americans enthusiastically embraced the concept of "Scandinavian modern." And that Wegner chair? You'd be in good company. Nixon and Kennedy both sat in it during the presidential candidates' televised debate in 1960.

Donna Corbin, The Louis C. Madeira IV Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts, curated Northern Lights. "Our American fascination with Scandinavian design owes to its simple, but elegant forms, its centuries-long tradition of handcraftsmanship and appreciation for the natural world," she says, "as well as its abiding human spirit that speaks to importance of the home as a source of comfort and community. Based on a belief in the positive social impact of beautiful well-designed objects, Scandinavian design in the last century has come to epitomize 'good design.'"

Northern Lights surveys Scandinavian design from its showing at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris to the present day, placing a special emphasis on objects made in the mid-twentieth century, when an interest and appreciation for Scandinavian design reached new heights both in the United States and internationally.

"The last time the PMA mounted an exhibition focused on design in the Nordic countries was in 1997," says Colin Fanning, Curatorial Fellow, European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, who assisted Corbin in curating the exhibit. "It's been nearly twenty years since some of these great objects have been on view to the public. We also tried to use the exhibit as an opportunity to see what's been happening in the region's contemporary design scene more recently."

The resulting collection is a journey through time and an exploration of themes that has remained consistent in the Scandinavian making tradition: from Viking "Revival" furniture, to boldly printed fabrics of Marimekko made famous by Jacqueline Kennedy who wore its dresses during her husband's presidential campaign, to children's furniture made for Ikea, and finally to Minecraft, the building game that took the gamer world by storm (total sales of the game now top 70 million).

Fanning elaborates on the placement of the digital game in the exhibit. "It changed how game studios work and what is considered a successful game." he begins. "Open-ended creativity and especially the act of building are really important in the history of Scandinavian design." What's more, it's opportunity to ask our visitors to think about digital design in a more expansive sense."

Attention gamers: head over to the museum on August 30, when the game will be the focus of a program of open-ended Minecraft play and digital creativity inspired by the exhibition.

In addition to several Wegner designs, the exhibit's highlights include works by two of Scandinavia's most important architect-designers, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen: the stacking stool that features the L-shaped Aalto leg, considered his most important contribution to furniture design; and two chairs Jacobsen designed for his most famous project, the S.A.S. Air Terminal and the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen.

Featured also is Verner Panton, who rejected the traditional materials and methods of his native Demark, and introduced new materials in pursuit of bold and original style. His plastic stacking chair (below), an icon of 1960s design, is the first mass-produced chair made from a single piece of any material.

The resulting exhibit is a sweeping survey of modern design that, if anything, may just make you appreciate those umlauted IKEA furniture sets for more than just their slim price tags.

For more information on the exhibition, visit the museum's website.


· Curbed Philly Midcentury Modern coverage
· Why The World Is Obsessed With Midcentury Modern Design [Curbed]
· Philadelphia Museum of Art: Northern Lights
· Minecraft sales on PC top 20M copies, more than 70M total [Polygon]