August Journal Excerpts
AUGUST Journal explores the whimsical world of Bjørn Wiinblad
Dung Ngo shares an excerpt from his AUGUST Journal, a biannual print magazine dedicated to the culture of a place. This story was written by Darrin Alfred, with photos by Thomas Loof.
To step inside the Blue House in Kongens Lyngby, just north of Copenhagen, is to be welcomed into the whimsical world of Bjørn Wiinblad. The bright blue wooden house with white-painted windows and grassy garden served as a home, entertainment venue, workshop, and studio to the Danish artist and his trusted staff. Wiinblad had acquired the charming structure from the Swedish artist Brita Drewsen in 1966, and it stands today almost as it did at the time of his death in 2006.
A personal showcase and sojourn, its color-saturated rooms are filled with the curious and charming things that Wiinblad collected from all over the world and across time periods, from Chinese export porcelain and lacquer cabinets, to functional and decorative ceramics produced in Delft from the 17th century, as well as his own designs and blue-and-white ceramics. Copious amounts of books, extensive records, and his art collection occupy walls, casework, and floors, nearly hiding the furniture and carpets lying beneath. Some may consider it a busy sight, yet these rooms embody Wiinblad’s aesthetics, comfort, and wanderlust—a riot of sensory impressions that stand in striking contrast to the typical, cool minimalism of Danish design and exemplify his imaginative and luxurious approach to life and art.
A ceramist, illustrator, painter, designer, and entertainer, Wiinblad unfurled his flamboyant point of view enthusiastically, without prejudice, across multiple media throughout his life, from ceramics and children’s books, to tapestries and textiles. Playful posters illustrating the Danish Spil Selv Music Festival and other cultural events underscore Wiinblad’s talent as a communicator; while his set designs, props, and costumes reveal a fascination and joy in crafting entire environments. He even designed a fountain for Copenhagen’s famed Tivoli Gardens.
It was this versatility, from the handmade to the mass-produced, that earned Wiinblad an undeniable respect in the artistic community as well as enormous public popularity. But more importantly, it was Wiinblad’s distinctive, recognizable, and consistent use of line that tied all these modes of expression together. By his hand, all assignments, large or small, were treated with equal importance; Wiinblad remained dedicated to the joy of decorating and mastery of color with an almost baroque flair, despite contemporary trends toward simplicity and functionalism.
A Copenhagen native, Wiinblad apprenticed as a typographer at a technical school in Frederiksberg in the late 1930s before studying illustration at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts under the Danish painter and illustrator Aksel Jørgensen. Wiinblad’s work with ceramics came about by chance, after a friend at the academy introduced him to a ceramics workshop. Wiinblad worked intensely with his new material. Two years after graduating in 1943, he held his first public exhibition, Drawings and Pottery, in a small rented space in Copenhagen.
As a young artist, Wiinblad’s leaning towards ornamentation, sinuous lines, vivid colors, and cheerful subject matter, for which he would come to be so celebrated, could be seen in many of the early ceramics, drawings, and children’s books he generated for the exhibition, including a lavishly illustrated edition of the fairytale Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. The show was received with great enthusiasm, both publicly and critically, and paved the way for many of Wiinblad’s early commissions and connections to collaborators such as Jacob E. Bang, an industrial designer that had recently been promoted to the position of art director at the Danish ceramics factory Nymølle.
Established in the 1930s, Nymølle began creating more artistic wares after the end of World War II. Nearly all of the factory’s output for the first decade after the war was designed by Wiinblad. During this time, he created the highly detailed and primarily black, red, or blue ink drawings that have since become his trademark: whimsical portraits of round-faced men and women with curly hair, triangular noses, and almond-shaped eyes. One of the more playful collaborations between Wiinblad and Nymølle was a series of monthly plaques from 1965. The set of twelve decorative plates narrate the story of a growing romance between a man and a woman, beginning with the couple’s initial flirtation in January, up to the birth of their child in December.
Popular images like these were printed onto a wide range of wares, from candle holders and butter boards to platters and vases, in varying scales and in large numbers by employing the copperplate printing process. Nymølle sustained Wiinblad’s deep interest in creating products that could be affordably mass-produced so that more people could enjoy them. Indeed, they brought a smile to many a soul, even as it drew some criticism. “It can never be the quantity of a thing that is wrong—it can only be the quality,” he stated, in response. “I put just as much thought, just as many deliberations, and just as great zeal into doing the right thing in my work when I make wrapping paper as I do when I create a decoration for the Royal Ballet.”
Through his work at Nymølle, Wiinblad was introduced to Philip Rosenthal, director of the German porcelain and glass manufacturer Rosenthal. The two met in 1957, and Wiinblad’s collaboration with the company became one of his most important and lucrative, lasting the rest of his life. Wiinblad created a large number of Rosenthal designs that had an international impact. Magic Flute, Romance, and Lotus are just some of the classic dinner services that Wiinblad created for the company.
Magic Flute, influenced by Wiinblad’s favorite opera, remains in production today. While the appearance of these services seems more modest and rigorous, Wiinblad’s other creations for Rosenthal can be characterized by their color-saturated surfaces and almost psychedelic use of pattern and color with highlights of gold and silver. These designs include a spectacular series of Christmas plates from the 1970s that feature scenes taken from the Gospels. These creations served as vehicles for line, as well as color, which was largely absent from Danish design.
Wiinblad would come to represent a new kind of modernism that emerged during the mid-20th century, one that embraced the handcrafted, the decorative, the colorful—the flourishes that an earlier European modernism attempted to reject. He told quite a different story, turning everyday humdrum into a visual feast, especially with regard to Scandinavian design, which was hailed as the perfect example of simplicity. Like the American architect, interior designer, and authority on folk art, Alexander Girard; or the Czech-born, British textile and pattern designer Jacqueline Groag, among so many others, Wiinblad tapped into the optimism of the postwar era.
This early career success provided Wiinblad the means to establish his own workshop in Kongens Lyngby in 1952. The imaginative works made here were more sculptural and artistic than the factory-produced objects for Nymølle and Rosenthal, and were also typically faience—an earthenware body covered with a white glaze, upon which hand-painted decoration was applied. Wiinblad designed all of the pieces and painted them himself, or with the help of his skilled staff of “painter-girls.”
The workshop produced hand-decorated platters, tiles, and incredibly extravagant water fountains. Additionally, a vast collection of whimsical characters, such as birds, centaurs, and most often women, took the form of vases, centerpieces, pitchers, planters, candle holders, and figurines. They frequently featured bizarre costumes and elaborate headdresses, with exquisite detailing such as flowers, garlands, vines, or small birds. The items were created and sold in much smaller numbers and were typically much more expensive than the mass-produced ceramics.
Wiinblad’s studio output demonstrates his graphic skills at their best, conveying an emotion with just a few brushstrokes. Like the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, these works are warm, lively, colorful, and imaginative. Wiinblad embraced it all—both the handmade and the mass-produced— and was not afraid to break down boundaries between art and design. His is an approach that is more relevant today than ever, where the commercial is no longer taboo, and artists and designers, to a great extent, now share a common palette. ◆
Darrin Alfred is Curator of Architecture & Design at the Denver Art Museum. His curatorial projects at DAM include Pattern Play: The Contemporary Designs of Jacqueline Groag; Potters of Precision: The Coors Porcelain Company; and The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965-71.
Thomas Loof is a Danish-born photographer based in New York since 1997. He brings his classically trained eye to each project and inserts a deep passion for light and texture into all of his images. His clients include Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, World of Interiors, Coca Cola, Georg Jensen, Tiffany, Lexus, Wedgwood, and Exquisite Surfaces.