ELK HORN, Iowa — John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon are part of the legacy.
So are James Bond, the ad agency offices on television's “Mad Men'' and astronauts dining in a cafeteria in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Not to mention countless homes, hotels and corporate offices around the world.
They all are shavings in the history of Danish Modern, an iconic style of minimalist wood furniture and other objects from Denmark popularized in America during the 1950s and 1960s that endures today.
Now a new traveling exhibition highlighting unique furnishings designed and made in Denmark during the mid-20th century is taking the Danish Immigrant Museum back to its future. The Elk Horn museum produced its “Danish Modern: Design for Living'' show as part of a new strategy to better celebrate Danish roots and American dreams.
“With Danish Modern, we're looking at a design that is iconic and stands the test of time. It's recognized as a simple, beautiful form,'' said John Mark Nielsen, the museum's executive director.
Danish Modern evokes images of everything from sleek teak wood living room tables and chairs to futuristic furniture in the animated 1960s sitcom “The Jetsons,'' said Mark Mussari of Tucson, Ariz., a consulting scholar for the exhibition. He has translated a book on the history of Danish design.
Furniture and housewares designed with clean, pure lines and produced with high-quality craftsmanship and materials appealed to Americans who were poised on the launching pad of the Space Age a half-century ago.
Streamlined furniture not only emphasized ergonomics and comfort but fit the era, including the open floor plans of single-story, ranch-style houses that didn't necessarily have a formal dining room, said Tova Brandt, the museum's Albert Ravenholt Curator of Danish-American Culture.
“Consumers in the '50s and '60s were open to new ways of arranging a home and what a living room chair should look like,'' she said. “It could look like an egg.''
America in the 1950s offered a fertile commercial and aesthetic environment for Danish Modern.
Television brought the nation's space program into homes. New houses with modern appliances called for new furniture and accessories. Curves softened industrial design. Coffee tables were boomerang-shaped. Linoleum counter tops were kidney-shaped. The sense of good taste that accompanied the marketing of Danish Modern served growing consumer sophistication, said consultant Mussari.
“How else could the home of Rob and Laura Petrie on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' possibly be decorated?” he said.
Vintage furniture, light fixtures, tableware, kitchen accessories, decorations and toys are among 50 items filling two temporary museum galleries. All pieces are original and come from other museums, individuals and businesses. Owners of most chairs and other items have used them for about 50 years. All upholstery is believed to be original.
Brandt said Danish Modern is not an exercise in nostalgia or history. It is a design movement that's not locked in time, although the exhibition focuses on the period from the end of World War II through the 1960s.
Danish Modern's roots go back to the early 1900s, when the Cubism and Expressionism art movements inspired artists and architects to step back from the historic ornamentation popular through the 1800s, Brandt said.
“It was a blending of a long tradition of craftsmanship and cabinetry coming out of reactions against Victorian-style ornamentation,'' she said.
Designers took their appreciation for nature and new production capabilities in the 20th century — such as bending plywood — and produced softer, rounder designs to create the early phases of Danish Modern, she said.
Mussari said the visual aesthetic of smaller furniture in efficient designs that fit well into modern apartments and suburban homes attracted Americans to Danish Modern.
Many Americans at military bases in post-World War II Europe visited Copenhagen, the Danish capital, and bought Danish Modern pieces to ship home. Danes who immigrated to American after the war brought their furniture and housewares along.
American furniture companies imported Danish Modern furniture or hired Danes to design contemporary pieces. Sales in the United States grew steadily into the 1960s.
“American manufacturers and retailers were very conscious that Danish Modern had a certain appeal to American consumers,'' Brandt said.
Plastics and pop-art colors oozed into Danish Modern furniture and housewares during the 1960s as designers experimented.
By the 1970s, however, rapidly changing American tastes diminished the importance of Danish Modern and sales declined. By the 1990s, though, a revival occurred. Today, Danish Modern furniture is back in vogue and commanding astronomical prices, Mussari said.
The towering reputations of the mid-century Danish Modern designers continue to define the qualities of the furniture and wares that appealed to American tastes in the last century, he said. Some of Arne Jacobsen's chair designs, for instance, have become so iconic that they are collectible as show pieces, not necessarily as functional chairs.
Hans Wegner's 1949-designed Round Chair was a sensation in America. It became known simply as “The Chair.'' Two of them shared the stage with Kennedy and Nixon during a televised presidential debate in 1960.
Jacobsen's cutlery design for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen — which he also designed — appeared futuristic enough in 1968 to be used in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.''
The first James Bond film, “Dr. No,'' included a scene in which Bond walked into a room of people seated in chairs designed by Finn Jule, whose many playful chair designs have contemporary appeal.
Early episodes of “Mad Men,'' set in 1959, also featured Jule-inspired furniture.
A lobby at Valmont Industries west of Omaha includes four Jacobsen-designed Egg Chairs.
Danish design classics continue to be produced and seen in upscale stores and home magazines. Auction houses offer vintage collector's items.
“And a lot of these designs are continuing to inspire 21st-century designers,'' Brandt said.
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