Sweden and modernism in New Zealand: identifying connections

Easy Chair, 1951-1952, Sweden. Made by Ostrom, inspired by Gustaf Berg. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

Easy Chair, 1951-1952, Sweden. Made by Ostrom, inspired by Gustaf Berg. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

When Te Papa purchased Easy Chair two years ago, we acquired it for its associations with modernism and with the Auckland store jon jansen. But we wanted to verify the designer. Detailed research – surveying design publications, comparing similar chairs, identifying woods – finally led me to the original Swedish designer.

Jon jansen made and imported designs between the 1950s and early 60s:  the retailer’s stamp on the rail of Easy Chair verified this connection. This was one of several contemporary stores that sought to reflect modern design through sleek designs – like this chair – and advanced use of materials. Modernism had quite a presence in New Zealand at the time, fuelled by the arrival of European émigrés and a desire for cultural change.

The ‘jon jansen’ stamp appears on the inside of the back rail. Te Papa

The ‘jon jansen’ stamp appears on the inside of the back rail. Te Papa

Before we acquired the chair, we were informed that the designer was Bob Roukema, designer with jon jansen. In considering this aspect I checked through the local publication Home & Building which carried jon jansen advertisements crediting Bob Roukema. However there were no images that suggested any similarity to this specific chair design with its laminated bentwood frame and use of webbing.   But a check through modernist publications suggested that the chair may have had some association with Swedish design: the moulded wood and webbing indicated this connection.   I then wondered if the chair may have been designed by the great Swedish modernist designer Bruno Mathsson, as he introduced webbing with laminated bentwood in the mid 1930s. Mathsson’s   Pernilla 1 Easy Chair has some resemblance to this chair.

Webbing provided comfort for the sitter within the bentwood laminated structure. Te Papa

Webbing provided comfort for the sitter within the bentwood laminated structure. Te Papa

Bruno Mathsson’s designs

Then a friend mentioned that she owned a Mathsson chair, and this gave me the opportunity to compare designs. Webbing and bent laminated wood construction were common features. But in Mathsson’s designs, the arms always came as separate components rather than being integrated into the legs, as was the case with our example.

Here is Vicki’s chair with the back stamp behind the top rail: signature of Bruno Mathsson and DUX, one of the manufacturers of Mathsson’s designs from the 1960s.

Work Chair by Bruno Mathsson. Photograph by Justine Olsen. Te Papa

Work Chair by Bruno Mathsson. Photograph by Justine Olsen. Te Papa

Impressed marks show the signature of Mathsson and the manufacturer DUX. Photograph by Justine Olsen. Te Papa

Impressed marks show the signature of Mathsson and the manufacturer DUX. Photograph by Justine Olsen. Te Papa

Woods – identifying materials

Identifying the wood was another consideration. With the help of conservator Robert Clendon and museum preparator Penny Angrick, (a former cabinetmaker) we identified the wood as birch with other European hardwoods. This eliminated the possibility that the chair had been manufactured in New Zealand.

Publications and finally some further clues …

A search through the New Zealand magazine Home & Building, the 1952-53 editions, offered several important clues. It seemed that a New Zealand company (probably jon jansen) was importing Swedish-designed furniture, including examples like our Easy Chair, under the name of Ostrom.  These chairs were described as economical to export from the other side of the world on account of their flat packing. This idea sounds strangely familiar, as contemporary furniture designer David Trubridge exports from New Zealand in a similar manner.

Another publication, this time a recent title, Bruno Mathsson: architect and designer (2007)  illustrated furniture by another Swedish designer working  at the same time as Mathsson: Gustaf Berg. The shape of Torparen chair is so similar to our Easy Chair in the way the legs and arms are made from one continuous piece of moulded wood that finally we have a clearer design source.  Our Easy Chair is not an exact replica but I would suggest that a designer was inspired by the shape.  And at this stage we have yet to know a great deal about the manufacturer Ostrom but research continues.

Easy Chair will be part of the new exhibition Being Modern, Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa, Level 5. It opens on 29 March.

By Justine Olsen, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design (contemporary)

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