Connecting/Reconnecting: Cultural Dialogues in Finnish and US Design

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On October 31, 1953, the Taidehalli Museum in Helsinki hosted the opening of “American Design for Home and Decorative Use”. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York selected this survey of American 20th century design on behalf of the United States Information Agency (USIA) to coincide with the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Finnish-American Society. According to official reports the purpose of the exhibition was to present quality American design for the home and to emphasize ‘creative expression’ through machine-made and hand-made American design wares as well as innovative hybrid forms combing these methods. In bringing together the work of over 150 American designers, artists and manufacturers among them Charles Eames, Russell Wright, Florence Knoll, and James Prestini “American Design for Home and Decorative Use” did indeed profile the work of many acclaimed producers of design in the US. Moreover, in the opinion of the USIA the exhibition was a ‘diplomatic success’ and one that drew record attendances. This paper argues that MoMA and the USIA organized this exhibition of quality US design in the hope that it would further cultural connections and trade ties with Finland. The paper speculates that the recognition by US artworld elites of Finland as a key centre of design practice influenced how MoMA orchestrated this cultural dialogue. At one level paying homage to Scandinavian (Finnish) design, this diversity machine made, hand made and hybrid design wares presented a multifaceted message about the US: about what the US shared in common with the region via its respect for handcrafted traditions, and how it differed through the impact of technological developments on US design practice. Through “American Design for Home and Decorative Use” the exhibition organizers tentatively but determinedly strove to connect with new audiences from abroad including members of the public, the government and other cultural institutions, to persuade them that the US, now capable of mass-producing quality design wares imbued with creative expression, was a nation worth engaging with. After its launch in Helsinki in 1953 “American Design for Home and Decorative Use” completed a two-year grand tour of sixteen cities within Scandinavia and Europe. Given the sizeable scope of the exhibition’s tour, and that the idea for the show emerged as a result of the activities of the Helsinki-based Finnish-American Society this paper uses Finland as an exemplary case study to investigate the first phase of the tour.
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McDonald, Gay
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