By curator Mette Strømgaard Dalby
Ditte Hammerstrøm possesses some of those qualities that can be difficult to reconcile with many clever people’s definition of “design as competitive parameter” and “design as a strategy for creating economic surplus value”. The fact is that Ditte Hammerstrøm does not compromise as far as her ideas are concerned, and through her designs she has doggedly and persistently explored how and why we live and furnish our homes the way we do. It is not surprising, then, that Ditte Hammerstrøm once had a dream of becoming an anthropologist, as it is after all characteristic of anthropologists that they concern themselves with the cultures and social structures of people. As their method of working, the anthropologist employs field work among the tribe or group of people they wish to observe. Ditte Hammerstrøm, too, has for several periods of time worked with projects that take their point of departure in backgrounds different from her own, but without the objectiveness that characterize the anthropologists. One example might be “Grandma’s Sitting Room”, which was shown at the Cabinetmakers’ Autumn Exhibition (SE) in 2001.
Grandma’s Sitting Room
“Grandma’s Sitting Room” is a play with Danish furniture icons such as the PH lamp and the Amager shelf and is an affectionate/ironical portrait of a sitting room in which one has spent many childhood hours. Specifically, Ditte Hammerstrøm has enlarged a piece of flowered 1970’s oilcloth and has sampled it photographically with well-known objects such as the PH5 lamp and the Amager shelf, both of which are cherished and severely criticized objects of everyday life. The pivotal point of the orange installation is the printed pattern of the oilcloth mounted on a piece of expanded polystyrene, where the electric light on the great heads of the flowers on the oilcloth along with the PH5 and the Amager shelf in 3D create a distinctive effect. For the opening, Ditte Hammerstrøm supplied the installation with an authentic smell of cigar and thereby created a quirky lacuna of memory, perhaps mainly appealing to the designer’s own generation. In any case, the responses were divided, and several people expressed their resentment as to “what the big idea was behind this modern form of installation design”.
Between art and design
The critical voices, of course, came from the more traditionally minded of the designers and visitors, but they were partly right in their definition of the field of design in which Ditte Hammerstrøm practises: She is indeed trained as an industrial designer but deliberately works in the intersection between art and design, a field which, using an art and design historical term, is called “cross-over”. Falling between two stools – design and art – this particular field explores the frameworks for the definition of these two disciplines. Whether one’s core professionalism is either art or design is perhaps only important to the critics and the historians, who like defining the practitioners, but the important thing is to explore the space that come into existence when the “purposeless” art meets design, characterized by a kind of functionality. In the cross-over field objects are shaped as statements about our time, and the works relate to various parameters: They may have a social, political and functional dimension, such as the Danish artist group Superflex’ “Guaraná Power” – a soft drink based on the caffeine-filled guarana berries – which is both an activist work of art and a fair trade project. Or the cross-over genre can offer normally functional objects like a chair taking on a completely different meaning than just “to sit”, as in Marijn van der Poll’s “Do Hit” from Droog Design’s collection. “Do Hit” consists of a steel box and a hammer to match, and the idea is that the buyer will be co-creator of the work by hammering the steel box into its desired shape – and function. “Do Hit” is, of course, a humorous comment on the “do-it-yourself” wave and is a fine example of cross-over, where the statement of the work is more important than its function and design.
Ditte Hammerstrøm’s most pronounced cross-over is the monochrome “Sofa Set”, in Danish "Sofastykke", which directly translated means "Sofa Piece". She created this piece of furniture in 2004 for the exhibition Furniture Haute Couture, arranged by SE. “Sofa Set” is a multifunctional piece of furniture that incorporates various types of furniture and functions: the standard lamp, the coffee table, the sofa and the bookcase. The four meter long sofa is penetrated by the other types of furniture, which have appropriated the large sofa like parasites, or in Ditte Hammerstrøm’s own words: “Furniture tends to assemble in groups. Here, it has gone one step further.” The overall white colour visually unites the different materials and elements, and fits with the modernist movement’s preference for the pure, white colour, but the piece is not inscribed into a classic Danish narrative of light Scandinavian furniture. “Sofa Set” is on the other hand an example of conceptual design where the idea is the mainstay, and the title refers to the particular genre of pictorial art critically termed “sofa pieces”, as they are chosen on the principle that they must first and foremost match the sofa and the rest of the furnishings. In Hammerstrøm’s rendering, the “Sofa Set” is literally a sofa in pieces or parts, breaking with the traditional ways in which we furnish our homes. The piece of furniture has several functions – as a seat, as a place to put something down, and as a reading light – and is in this sense multifunctional. However, it is lacking in flexibility, and the monstrously large piece of furniture works best in a grandiose context. Hammerstrøm’s intention, though, has hardly been that we all henceforward ought to furnish our homes with “multifunctional” furniture such as “Sofa Set”, but rather that we, in facing the work, might perhaps alter our customary notions of the furnishing of our homes just a touch, as well as our conformist approach to the way in which the furniture is located in our sitting rooms, à la 3-2-1 furniture centred around the TV altar of the house.
Communication and Decoration
Another example of a humorous and conceptual piece of furniture from Ditte Hammerstrøm is the “Chair for the One Who Wants to Be Heard” from 2002. The simple three-legged stool is accompanied by a megaphone executed in veneer with feminine, punched out decorations. The simple coupling between the seating function and the megaphone makes the spectator smile a little and think of the numerous TV transmissions showing men of power sitting on dull conference chairs while fighting for the floor, for the right to say something, and for the right to decide. Chairs signalling power is not a new phenomenon; just think of Finn Juhl’s Chief Chair, where the person seated must spread his or her arms and try to seem huge in order to fill out the majestic dimensions of the chair. Or Arne Jacobsen’s high-backed Oxford, which in the swivel chair version signals power and energy through the excessive height of its back. In Ditte Hammerstrøm’s version, the chair is just a shy stool, where the symbol of power – the megaphone and with that the right to speak – is furthermore decorated in a tradition miles away from the traditional aesthetics of the boardroom.
The feminine decorations and colours are repeated in several of Ditte Hammerstrøm’s pieces of furniture and help mark the fact that a generation of younger female designers have taken the lead with a vengeance. Without tending towards too many clichés the women’s entry on the Danish design scene has created a new departure with regards to decoration. It has once more been allowed to tell stories and decorate furniture as is the case with “Bench in Bits”, designed for the exhibition Walk the Plank, where designers and cabinet makers worked closely together in creating innovative pieces of furniture in the spirit of the heyday of Danish furniture design. With Hammerstrøm’s “Bench in Bits” the decorative golden ornaments play up to both the graphic red line tying the long bench together and the classic furniture material, oak wood. Once again, it has also become accepted to use flouncing, folding and wrinkling techniques, such as Hammerstrøm has done with the small settee “Wrinkle”, shown at the Biennale for Arts, Crafts and Design in 2007. To create the simple white settee, techniques of draping normally associated with dressmaking and a feminine world of fashion have been employed, and in this way the settee helps to stress how the fields of fashion and furniture has been approaching each other through the past twenty years. Some people might be of the opinion that furniture ought to be regarded as a long-term investment and should be treated accordingly by the designer, and other people like changes and regard furniture as replaceable consumer goods in line with many other products. One thing is certain: much has happened in the area of furniture since the time when a young couple ordered a so-called “butcher’s set”, a complete sitting room, and kept the furniture for the rest of their lives.
The white colour is repeated in much of Hammerstrøm’s furniture, such as the small chair “Bistro Light” with the kind of lashings that are so very characteristic of Hammerstrøm, and that makes one think of a pair of stays. In this case, however, it is not the female body being tamed but the upholstery, which is normally hidden from view. In “Bistro Light” the upholstery is put on the outside of the chair on full display, merely fastened with the decorative lashings. The ravages of time are revealed with the visible upholstery material, as the white foam rubber upholstery with its strained relation to daylight soon assumes a yellowish colour – but then again, who says that being timeless and having a long life is necessarily good qualities? In any case, only time can tell whether some pieces of furniture become classics because of their particular qualities, whether or not these have to do with the artistic or material quality of the pieces.
Landscape and Company
Landscape painting is one of the oldest genres of pictorial art, but in Ditte Hammerstrøm’s interpretation the landscape becomes a “loungescape”, where the furniture merge into each other in delicate yellow and green nuances, as in a photography of an archetypical Danish summer landscape. “Loungescape” is a flexible upholstered piece of furniture consisting of seven individual parts of various heights. The seven sofa benches are decorated with penetrations and yellow rubber bands, and the feet are shaped with inspiration from the animal kingdom, yet not the classic lion’s claws known from earlier style periods, but in Hammerstrøm’s version a light and elegant deer’s foot. “Loungescape” is a different suggestion for the great “floaters” offered in recent years under the heading of “creating a lounge atmosphere”, and it breaks, like the “Sofa Set”, with the customary notions of how we furnish our homes.
Ditte Hammerstrøm pursues the same motif with “Socialising Sofas” from 2007. Once again a number of individual pieces of furniture may be grouped in different ways as sofas socialising, where the people may be placed tête-à-tête for pleasant conversation or in a large festive group. The varied heights of the side pieces – some reach all the way to the floor and create an effective shielding – make it possible to vary the degree of privacy. The furniture is executed in an exclusive furnishing fabric that reminds one of grandma’s sofa made of uncut moquette, and the rose-pink colour chosen for the upholstery fabrics balances between being extremely funky – and being an expression of elderly people’s preference for quiet colours à la beige and sandy. With “Socialising Sofas” the designer calls our attention to the social context of which furniture often forms part, and to the fact that the piece of furniture can both contribute to promoting dialogue or the opposite. We all know those public benches located so far away from each other that conversation is impossible or fortunately can be avoided, depending on the eyes that see. The public bench is thus in fact a solitary phenomenon, where you are soon inadvertently invading other people’s zones of intimacy, and where you would be well-advised to place yourself on the extreme edge of the bench with the greatest possible distance to the other people seated. In the future, perhaps one ought to conceive of public seats or waiting rooms as “Socialising Sofas” so that an informal dialogue might become possible?
Dialogue and company is on the other hand obviously and urgently necessary with “Soft Shaker” from 2004, a swing sofa for two inspired by the beautiful, functional furniture of the Shakers. “Soft Shaker” is designed such that one in a simple, single movement can add a shielded cradle that mum and dad can sit next to and with one leg on the ground set the swing in motion. People with small children will recognize that this sofa borders on genius with its modern idiom and functional detail, gently rocking the child to sleep and offering everyone some peace and quiet. For its new thinking, “Soft Shaker” was awarded Bo Bedre Magazine’s Design Award 2004.
Refurnishing Habitual Thinking
Even though Ditte Hammerstrøm has become known for her furniture, she also has a predilection for working with light and, in closing, what could be more obvious than looking back in order to look forward, that is, to Ditte Hammerstrøm’s graduation project from the Danish Design School in 2000. The project was a study into light: what kind of meaning we give to light, and how we use light in the furnishing of our homes. In continuation of this, she, among other things, designed a reading lamp in the shape of a blanket with which to wrap oneself and create a safe den or an extra layer of skin. It was possible to adjust the light of the lamp by folding the blanket in various ways, and it switched on automatically when used. The reading lamp was a showdown with the classic standard lamp that stands where it stands and that is, in other words, not very flexible.
With the retrospect to the graduation project, a single clear theme or main thread begins to emerge through Ditte Hammerstrøm’s design over the last eight years. A theme, which she approaches again and again from different angles: the multifunctionality or rather the showdown with our habitual ways of thinking when it comes to furnishing. With basis in an almost anthropological method Ditte Hammerstrøm investigates why things look the way they do, what they mean to us and if it might not be possible to do things differently – and better. She is interested in the direct interaction with the object – why the need to go to a switch to turn on a reading lamp – and in making objects become a statement about the times in which we are living. All the time, her focus has been on the artistic idea rather than the saleability, and yet several of her pieces of furniture and lamps are immediately readable and accessible for production. It is in her predilection for details and workmanship and in her decorations that one can draw a line back from Ditte Hammerstrøm’s design to what Danish design stood for internationally in its heyday in the 1940’s and 1950’s with world-famous people like Finn Juhl and Hans J. Wegner. But the connection with what once was is perhaps not important except as a past that one can be proud of or distance oneself from. Ditte Hammerstrøm’s design is able to do something else and more essential for our time, that is commenting on those currents in the post-modern society that are turning our homes into identity projects, and furniture and furnishing into important statements about who we are.