20th and 21st Century Design Exhibitions Library/Archives

Paging Through the Publications on View in “Scandinavian Design and the United States”

Colorful manuals about people
Colorful manuals about people

Alongside the brightly colored Dala horses, large-scale woven artworks, and fabulous furniture featured in the Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980 exhibition are eight publications from the Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center—two magazines, an exhibition catalogue, three books, a beautiful serigraph, and an interactive ergonomics manual.

Why, you may be asking, are these publications on display in an exhibition with works of art and design?

The Research Center works closely with the Museum’s curatorial team to build a collection of rare books, academic texts, exhibition catalogues, and other materials that support the study of the art in the collection and exhibitions. Items from the library and archives are often included alongside art in exhibitions, where they can help emphasize themes and connect the dots in the stories being told.

In fact, items from the library and archives rotate in and out of the Museum’s design gallery regularly!

In the case of Scandinavian Design and the United States, seven of the eight publications on view were tracked down and purchased by the Research Center specifically at the request of Monica Obniski, co-curator of the exhibition and former Demmer Curator of 20th- and 21st-Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The items all support the story told in the exhibition, one of a decades-long conversation between Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland and the United States.

The oldest publication on view is the only one pulled from the Research Center’s existing collection. Norwegian Design in Wisconsin showcases how Scandinavian immigrant craftspeople and artists maintained connections to their homelands and traditions through their designs. In the mid-1940s, cousins Elaine Smedal and Anne Tressler traveled (sometimes by bike!) to Norwegian immigrant communities across Wisconsin, sketching traditional Scandinavian patterns found on individual craft objects ranging from furniture to dishware. The cousins recreated those patterns and designs in beautiful color sketches produced by serigraph—also known as silkscreen—printing, the method Andy Warhol later made popular.

Colorful Norwegian design

The publication’s introduction specifically states a desire not only to share this cultural heritage with readers, but “to suggest that the same forms adapted by designers of insight have potentialities in contemporary American design.” Multiple vividly colored plates on view in the exhibition serve as examples of how Scandinavian immigrants’ craft and design traditions inspired the Scandinavian design movement in the U.S.

Catalog cover of House Beautiful with a small baby in blue overalls in a red chair

Also on view is a copy of the catalogue that accompanied Design in Scandinavia, an early traveling exhibition of Scandinavian design that a team of designers and promoters from both sides of the Atlantic organized. Often credited with cementing the appeal of Scandinavian design in the U.S., the exhibition traveled to 24 venues in North America between 1954 and 1957 and was visited by more than a million people. The object depicted on the catalogue’s cover is also featured in the exhibition: Tapio Wirkkala’s Leaf Tray. This is also the case for the July 1959 issue of House Beautiful magazine dedicated to Scandinavian design from the Research Center as well: visitors to Scandinavian Design and the United States can see Kristian Vedel’s Child’s chair, featured on its cover, in person nearby.

Perhaps the most visually impressive publication on view is Humanscale, an interactive ergonomics manual that exemplifies how the conversation between the U.S. and Scandinavian countries evolved. In the wake of the revolutionary 1960s, Scandinavian design became less about appealing to taste and much more about how design can address issues, such as sustainability and accessibility. Early ergonomics manuals were based on the able bodies of the mostly white men in the armed forces and lacked information about more diverse bodies and body types. In the 1970s, Henry Dreyfuss’s design firm collaborated with a team of designers to change the game by releasing Humanscale.

The publication consists of multiple parts. Cards with rotating selectors change measurements and dimensions based on data gathered about a diverse range of bodies—taking into consideration age, gender, ability, origin, and more. These are paired with a series of guidebooks to help designers create products that increase benefits for a range of people, including (perhaps for the first time) people who use wheelchairs. A selection of the colorful changeable cards is laid out in the gallery.

Demonstrating the influence of Nordic immigrants preserving their craft traditions and revealing the design collaborations that formed in pursuit of a better world, the eight publications in this exhibition truly exemplify the conversations that accompanied the spread of Scandinavian Design in the United States.

Colorful manuals about people

I hope you’ll take the time to seek them out when you visit the exhibition, and that the context and examples they provide help deepen your experience and understanding of this fascinating piece of design history.


  1. Niels Diffrient (American, 1928–2013), Alvin R. Tilley (American, 1914–1993), Joan C. Bardagly, (American, b. 1947), David Harman, (American, b. 1952), Valerie Pettis, (American, b. 1946), Henry Dreyfuss Associates (United States, established 1929), published by The MIT Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established 1932), Humanscale 1/2/3, published 1974; 4/5/6 and 7/8/9, published 1981; 1/2/3 set: 11 7/8 × 9 × 3/8 in. (30.16 × 22.86 × 0.95 cm), 4/5/6 set: 11 3/8 × 8 11/16 × 3/8 in. (28.89 × 22.07 × 0.95 cm), 7/8/9 set: 11 1/2 × 8 7/8 × 3/8 in. (29.21 × 22.54 × 0.95 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center, Purchased with funds from the Alice and Lucia Stern Library Fund. © 2017 IA Collaborative Ventures, LLC -Series Humanscale, reprinted with permission, for more information:, photo © Milwaukee Art Museum, by John R. Glembin
  2. Written and illustrated by Elaine Smedal (United States, 1922–2014) and Anne Tressler (later Foote)(United States, 1910–1986), printed by Memorial Union Workshop, University of Wisconsin–Madison (Madison, Wisconsin, founded 1928), published by Campus Publishing Company (Madison, Wisconsin, founded 1936), Norwegian Design in Wisconsin, 1946. Serigraphy. Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center. © 2023 Elaine Smedal and Anne Tressler, photo © 2023 Milwaukee Art Museum, by John R. Glembin
  3. Tapio Wirkkala (Finnish, 1915–1985), edited by Arne Remlov (Norwegian, 1914–1988), Design in Scandinavia exhibition catalogue, 1954; 9 × 7½ in. (22.86 × 19.05 × 1.59 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center, Gift of the Mae E. Demmer Charitable Trust. © 2019 Tapio Wirkkala / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/KUVASTO, Helsink. Photo © Milwaukee Art Museum, by John R. Glembin
  4. Elizabeth Gordon (United States, 1906–2000), House Beautiful (“The Scandinavian Look in U.S. Homes”), July 1959. Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center. © 2023 Milwaukee Art Museum Research Center

Anthony Morgano is the Librarian/Archivist, overseeing the Museum’s Research Center, which includes the George Peckham Miller Art Research Library as well as the Museum’s collection of archival holdings and rare books.

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