Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Scandinavian Report: Its Origins and Impact on the Kilkenny Design Workshops

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Scandinavian Report: Its Origins and Impact on the Kilkenny Design Workshops

Article excerpt

The publication of Design in Ireland: Report of the Scandinavian Design Group in Ireland in 1962 has been described as providing the catalyst for change in the Irish state's approach to design.1 The Report was commissioned by Coras Tráchtála, the Irish Export Board, a state-funded company, and the Scandinavian Design Group was formed expressly for the purpose of writing the Report. As well as stimulating protracted debate, and eventually some change in design education in Ireland, the Report also provided a reason for establishing the state-funded Kilkenny Design Workshops and offered a blueprint for its early years of production.

In considering the origins and significance of Design in Ireland, generally referred to as the Scandinavian Report, a number of recurrent underlying themes arise. These include the assumed desirability of state intervention in the area of design, the perceived necessity for particular national attributes in goods designed in Ireland, and the need for an improvement in public taste.2 The assumption that it was 'natural' to emulate the Scandinavians, and the supposed similarities between Ireland and the Nordic counties, are tropes also frequently repeated in the literature surrounding the Report.3

The paper will start with a brief overview of the Report and the rationale for commissioning it. This will be followed by an examination of government interventions to improve design standards in Ireland from the founding of the State until the 1960s. The paper will examine the origins of Scandinavian influence on the evolution of public policy on design in Ireland. It will question whether the Report expanded the discourse on design in industry in Ireland, and assess the influence of the Report during the early years of the Kilkenny Design Workshops. This research draws on unpublished material from the Irish National Archive as well as the Thomas Bodkin Collection at Trinity College Dublin, the Arts Council of Ireland Archive, and the Kilkenny Design Workshops Archive held by the National Irish Visual Arts Library.


Design in Ireland was produced following the visit of members of the Scandinavian Design Group to Ireland in April 1961and published in February 1962. The Scandinavian Design Group was initiated by William H Walsh, the general manager of the Irish Export Board. The Group was made up of three Danes - Erik Herlow, Gunnar Biilmann Peterson and Erik Sorensen - one Finn - Kaj Franck - and one Swede - Ake Huldt, all of whom were engaged in design in industry and design education in their respective countries.

An earlier Export Board proposal had been to engage a design consultant as a permanent staff member. A Department of Finance report on economic development from 1960 indicates that potential candidates were considered from the US and Britain as well as Denmark and Sweden.4 The suggestion that an 'industrial designer of international calibre' be engaged is repeated in the Export Board's own annual report for the financial year ending in March I960.5 There is no indication in the 196061 annual report as to why this earlier proposal was changed or why the Report, shortly to be published, was commissioned.6 Nor is there any explanation of the selection of a body of experts drawn solely from the Nordic countries. It appears that some related documentation may not have been preserved in the relevant files deposited in the National Archive.

The foreword to the Report, which is unattributed though Hogan identifies the author as William Walsh,7 states that the Export Board, with its recently acquired responsibility for improving design standards in industry, sought an 'authoritative and impartial assessment of where we now stand'. It goes on to say it 'was natural in the situation to turn to the Scandinavians'. Among the reasons for considering it natural Walsh lists their significant and recent success in design and the fact that 'the scale of their industry, their raw materials, the patterns of their society, are similar in many respects to ours'. …

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