The Construction of a Brand: The Case of Danish Design, 1930-1970

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The Construction of a Brand:

The Case of Danish Design, 1930-1970

Per H. Hansen

Institute of European Studies, University of California at Berkeley, and

Centre for Business History, Copenhagen Business School, e-mail:

EBHA-Conference, Barcelona, September 2004.

(This is a preliminary paper. All comments are most welcome. Please do not quote without my permission)


In this paper I focus on the success of Danish modern furniture during its heydays. Danish furniture design was quite successful in international markets in the postwar period, but the foundation for this success was partly laid already in the interwar years. The success should be seen in the general context, of course, of postwar growth in incomes and changes in patterns of residence and consumption among the populations of the western world. But this does not explain why the Danish furniture industry experienced a comparatively higher growth than in most other countries, or why and how Danish Design became established as a succesful international brand.

How to account for this? There has not been much historical research into this success, but one economic historian explains the furniture industry’s success with the establishment of several new small furniture factories and an increased consumption on home and export markets.1 While this explanation of demand driven growth, does not consider design as an important parameter at all, Michael Porter does just that.

In his highly influential book on The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter finds so few competitive clusters in Denmark that one wonder how Denmark ever became among the richest nations in the world. However Porter does mention household products and furnishings as an important Danish cluster, and he attributes it to “a pool of university-trained designers” and “several professorships in furniture design”.2 If only university teaching and professors alone could perform such miracles.

However, Porter’s analysis is not far from the dominating narrative in Denmark explaining the success of Danish modern furniture. While Porter puts emphasis on design as a process in general and the training of designers in particular, most Danish writers on the subject have focussed on two connected narratives that together constitutes the main narrative.

One focusses on design and praises the functional and artistic qualities of the furniture designed by well-known architects. In this narrative emphasis is on the allegedly Danish speciality of a balance between tradition and modernity.

This first part of the main narrative has been told mainly by art historians and architects. The other part of the narrative has been advanced primarily by the master cabinetmakers and their guild. It focusses on the production side and stresses the very high quality craftsmanship with which the furniture was produced by skilled master cabinetmakers. The two “sub-narratives” are not inconsistent with each other and together they make up, what I call the main narrative.

The main narrative combines the design and the production sides and leads to a story about unsurpassed beauty, simplicity, functionality and quality in design and craftsmanship unique to Danish modern furniture. Furthermore it is understood that this was what conquered international markets.

However, even though a pool of highly qualified furniture architects – or designers as we would call them today – was, of course, indispensable it took more than the aesthetic expression and the great craftsmanship of the producers to make a success. A whole set of economic, institutional, social, cultural and ideological factors worked together to produce the success. This necessary merging of many factors has been called “latch up” by the American sociologist Harvey Molotch.3

It is this “latch up” that I am interested in. By emphasizing the many different factors that influenced the outcome, and by stressing the time perspective and, thus, the historical dynamics of the process, I want to advance a more comprehensive, multicausal and dynamic explanation for the success of Danish modern furniture.
I have several theoretical starting points. First, I consider a constructivist approach to the subject of furniture design and consumption, and interior decoration necessary in order to understand how the construction of meaning attached to furniture influenced Danish modern furniture’s postwar succes among certain comsumer groups.

Furthermore, the attachment of meaning by consumers to modern Danish furniture cannot be understood without looking at the underlying narrative or discourse explaining the beginning and further development of Danish modern furniture.4 This narrative, which I have already sketched, formed the necessary basis of the continuous marketing and branding of Danish Design by a network of designers, commentators and producers.

Taken together, I argue, it was the continued interplay between this narrative and the meanings attached to the furniture by consumers and retailers etc. that came together and resulted in the construction of Danish Design or Danish Modern as a well-known international brand. Furthermore, I consider this branding process as crucial to the international success of Danish Design.

At the same time, I consider the underlying narrative about the success of Danish modern furniture important for the construction of the brand as well as for the various historical actors’ understanding of what modern Danish furniture design was all about. This means that the main narrative and its two sub-narratives and the meanings they attached to the furniture and the various actors created path dependence and limited the choice set of the actors and thus demarcated, what actions and decisions was possible and which was less possible. In other words, I take the position that language and discourse are not neutral descriptions of the surrounding world, but takes active part in the constitution of social reality.5

Second, and at another level, I use institutional and network theory to understand and explain the dynamics of the crucial historical actors’ strategic and innovative actions and decisions. I see no contradiction between New Institutional Economics’ concepts of formal and informal institutions and constructivism. Quite the contrary, language and discourse can be implemented, I think, in institutional analysis as one among several informal institutions.6

Douglass North does not enter the postmodern arena but he does acknowledge the role of “culture” as an important informal institution and he stresses that “subjective mental constructs” and ideology are important factors concerning the preservation of institutions and organisations – whether they are efficient or not. He also claims “… the historically derived perceptions of the actors shape the choices that they make.” They do, in other words, create path dependence.7

North sees this as cognitive problems that inhibit actors’ capabilities of acknowledging the real world out there and act rationally and learn from the information feed back that they receive. But I would argue that what is important is not the real world out there, but how people make sense of it, and they do that by constructing narratives. Actors acquire the “historically derived perceptions” through discourse – through narratives.

According to the philosopher David Carr narratives create meaning and are constitutive of action and experience and of the self as well as of groups. Stories are

told in being lived and lived in being told. The actions and sufferings of life can be viewed as a process of telling ourselves stories, listening to those stories, acting them out, or living them through. … Sometimes we must change the story to accommodate the events; sometimes we change the events, by acting, to accommodate the story.8

Therefore, while North presents the problem as one of bias where actors are not capable of cognitively processing in a neutral way the information feedback they get, I would argue that the role of the narrative is more fundamental in the people understand their surroundings. I thus propose that discourse should be considered an institution, and an important one, in NIEs conceptual framework.

This means that a narrative at least partly determines the meaning people attach to their social world, and it creates path dependence because it limits the choice set available over time to the actors. On the other hand it is important to make it clear that a narrative to be of any consequence cannot contradict historical reality, as we know it from other well-established evidence.9

As for networks I try to show that the actions and decisions of the various actors – architects, cabinetmakers and others – were interrelated and not just a matter of reducing transaction costs. Their actions was “… embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations.” In short they constituted a network, but a network not only of interest but also of passion.10

What are the consequences of this approach? It means that consumers’ decision to buy certain pieces of furniture depends not only on its physical function and appearance, but also on the more psychological functions attached to distinction, lifestyle, self-fashioning, taste and fashion. These have to do with the meanings that are attached to the furniture, and the basic narrative that was supported by the marketing and branding of the furniture at least to a certain degree determine those meanings. I am going to argue that Danish modern furniture’s post-war success was tied to the branding and the narrative, which stimulated consumers’ demand by influencing their taste and thus their preferences.

It is interesting that this hypothesis of “top-down” movement from producers to consumers is in contrast with other research that has found evidence that producers paid serious attention to consumers and therefore that design were influenced by a “bottom-up” proces.11

It means that an object, say a chair, has to fulfill a range of needs other than that of being comfortable to sit in to appeal to a consumer. Ironically, functionalist chairs are not always comfortable. In spite of the claims of functionalist designers, however, comfort is not necessarily the most important basis of consumer’s choice. The chair must be aesthetically pleasing and appeal to the consumer’s taste, and it must express the lifestyle and perceived personality of the consumer who buys it as well.

There are no absolute norms or rules, however, for what fulfils these needs of the consumer, because consumers are not one homogenous group. One important function of furniture and other consumer products as well, is to create and mark distinction. In buying a certain style of furniture, the consumer hopes to express certain values about himself and thus to show which social and cultural groups he belongs to, and which he does not belong to.12

My overall framework is this. The market entry of modern furniture in Denmark was by no means easy. Most consumers did not want it and the furniture industry in general was not risk prone enough to produce modern furniture when they saw no demand for it. Thus, markets and demand had to be created, a slow process that could be seen as an Schumpeterian innovation “opening” a new market.13

The branding process that created these markets involved a complicated and elaborated network of designers and architects, schools, cabinetmakers and other producers, distributors, agents and furniture retailers, and not least organisations where all these people could meet on a regular basis. They arranged domestic and foreign exhibitions, they published magazines, books, and booklets, and they gave lectures and other presentations.

Danish modern furniture design was not just another economic and market based activity. It was also connected to a social and cultural network of people with radical new ideas about furniture design and furnishing for ordinary people. The general background was the industrialisation and the social, cultural and ideological transformation of Danish society – in short modernisation. In Denmark the modernist movement was called functionalism and it provided for a break with former patterns of design, consumption and living.

The training of designers and their actual designs influenced the narrative and the storytelling about it, of course, and the construction of the brand, and the narrative also must have inspired the designers and producers. It was, so to speak, a perpetual process until – some time around 1970 – it all stopped. Not because designers stopped designing but because the institutional and organizational basis of the network – and with that innovation – was gone.

In this paper, I analyse the construction and empirical background of the narrative on Danish modern furniture. I focus on the establishment and functions of the network of actors that created the innovations in design, production, marketing and branding. This focus has also to a certain degree been analysed convincingly by Kevin Davies.14 Davies focusses mostly on the concept of marketing and on the UK market, however, while I use a different approach and argue that Danish Design was constructed as an international brand.

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