Our deliberations on Bauhaus and music very naturally led us to a whole raft of further deliberations on the associations between music and other forms of creative expression; and for all the question, given that so many of those Bauhäusler who had/could have had second careers as musicians were artists, are there designers who have/had second careers as musicians…….
…….of course there are……
…..not that many, but a few, and few who together could form a most interesting quartet……….
“With a few exceptions, my solutions for furniture products can be divided into two broad categories situated at opposite ends of a scale”, opined once Peter Opsvik, “rational and ergonomic at the one end. Emotional and expressionist at the other end.”1
As his furniture, so his music.
Born in Stranda, Norway on March 25th 1939, Peter Opsvik enrolled in Bergen College of Applied Art in 1959, and where in 1961 he realised his first furniture project: a wooden cantilever chair which unquestionably owes a nod of gratitude conceptually, constructively and materially, to an Alvar & Aino Aalto or a Marcel Breuer, and also, if with the aid of a six decade retrospective view, a work which implied a path Opsvik could take, or perhaps more accurately, implied a path Opsvik’s furniture design, could take.
Following his graduation in 1963 Peter Opsvik spent a year at the State College of Applied Art, Oslo and where his 1964 Diploma project, a lounge chair which allows for a variety of sitting positions, tended to confirm that Opsvik’s furniture design would indeed be taking a path with a focus very much on the functional, of furniture as something dynamic and responsive, something which one cooperates with rather than something one uses, and for all of seating informed and rooted in the nature, demands, traditions and practices of sitting rather than in the formal conventions of the chair.
A path that has seen Peter Opsvik develop projects as varied as, and amongst many others, the Capisco “saddle” chair for HÅG, the Variable balans “kneeling” chair, the Mini Max “growing” chair, the Garden “tree” chair or, and as one of his earliest commercially realised furniture designs, the Tripp Trapp “adjustable child’s” chair from 1972.
1972 also being the year Peter Opsvik joined the Christiania Jazzband. Formed in 1970 by the trombonist Tore Frøberg the Christiania Jazzband specialised in 1920s and 30s New Orleans, Dixieland, jazz, released their first album in 1973, for which they were awarded the Spellemannprisen Norwegian Music Prize, and from where the band went on the release a further nine albums, appear at jazz festivals around the globe, and also spend some 25 years as the house-band in Oslo’s New Orleans Workshop jazz club, a club largely established as a platform for the Christiania Jazzband, and which can still be found and visited in downtown Oslo. In the early 2000s the Christiania Jazzband transformed into the Christiania 12 with a much more lounge orientated jazz, but one thing remained as it had done since 1972: Peter Opsvik on tenor and alto saxophone.
Away from the Christiania Jazzband/Christiania 12 Peter Opsvik has realised numerous other projects, including a collaboration with the pianist Aage Lade in which they interpret a dozen Jimmy Van Heusen ballads, and in doing so place them firmly late-night, and with a subtle intensity that forces you to unwind…. The soundcloud profile which hosts the album is named Kivspo: bragging rights for the rest of the week to the first person to see what he did there…
Alongside such “rational and ergonomic”
furniture jazz, Peter Opsvik’s oeuvre also includes much more “emotional and expressionist” moments.
In the 1990s Peter Opsvik began developing a series of what he refers to as Sound Pictures, wooden panels which when stroked and/or tapped resonate at differing frequencies and which thus allows them to be played musically, and also a collection of drums, played not only by beating on the furs at the ends but also along the length of the body; and a series of self-created instruments, self-developed explorations of the creation of sound and the interaction between human and objects which feature on the 1999 album Woodwork, an experimental work, at times darkly so, at times soothingly so, and on which Opsvik and a number of fellow musicians, including his son Eivind, himself a professional jazz bassist and composer, improvise to impetuses from Opsvik’s numerous sound objects.
And an album which for all its formal disparity to the Christiania Jazzband/Christiania 12 similarly features Peter Opsvik on saxophone; just as furniture designs as formally disparate as Capisco or Garden arise from Peter Opsvik’s understandings of sitting.
As previously noted, although principally known outwith Denmark as a designer of lamps, within Denmark Poul Henningsen enjoys a much more varied fame, or perhaps better put, fames, amongst others as a journalist, cultural critic, author, architect, film-maker, social commentator, poet …… and songsmith. The latter most notably in the form of the revue; Henningsen authoring, or co-authoring, neigh on a dozen revues in the course of the 1930s, starting with 1929’s Paa Hodet which opened at the Nørrebros Teater in Copenhagen on May 31st 1929, and which marked Henningsen’s first cooperation with actor and cabaretist Liva Weel, a cooperation that in many regards defines Henningsen’s musical work of the 1930s.
We are, admittedly, unfamiliar with all, any, of Henningsen’s revues, but by all accounts they, generally, criticised the prevailing social and cultural traditions of the contemporary Danish bourgeois and advocated, demanded, a shift; advocated, demanded, if one so will, a modernisation of Danish society. And did so through those two most powerful of weapons: satire and parody.
Characteristics also found in Henningsen’s ever glorious For din skyld, which, as sung by Birgit Brüel represented Denmark at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest, and which isn’t as innocent a work as one might expect to hear at an event such as Eurovision.
Whereby, and as also, previously noted, one of the most unscalable barriers to allowing non-Denmark to understand the breadth and scale of Henningsen’s contribution and relevance to Danish society and culture, a contribution underscored by the fact he is widely referred to in Denmark simply as PH, his revues collectively as the PH-revyer, is that near everything he wrote is still only available in Danish. As is near everything written about him. And so outwith Denmark he remains a designer of lamps, when interesting and important lamps. For any one skilled in translation from Danish, with an interest in early 20th century culture and society, and currently looking for a new project, PH could be it.
We aren’t skilled in translation from Danish, and so his lyrics and poetry remained locked to us; however, there is not only something very satisfying in the rhythm and metre of his works, but something alluring, warming and inviting in PH’s voice, something that, for us, particularly joyously unfolds in Byens Lys or Humanistvise, and something that not only, almost, makes that ugliest of tongues sound like the natural language of poetry, but almost leads you, almost motivates you, to learn Danish in order to full immerse yourself in the ebb and flow of his prose. Which is no mean feat. For it is an ugly tongue.
That we aren’t skilled in the Danish means that in recommending Henningsen’s songs and poetry we have no real idea of what is being said, either directly or subtly implied between the lines, and so apologies in advance to Denmark for any offence caused: although knowing what we do about Poul Henningsen, we can’t imagine he’ll be be offending, parodying and satirising, anything beyond early 20th century century bourgeois values and conventions, or as Sven Rossel and Niels Ingwersen describe the targets of Henningsen’s social criticisms, “snobbishness, prejudices, the galling desire “to fit in” and all that [stands] in the way of the human being’s sense of freedom and joy.”2 As we say Poul Henningsen is a lot more than lamps.
In addition to composing and performing music PH also created the means of performing his works, his canon including numerous piano designs for Andreas Christensen.
Although known as a furniture and product designer, and less well known as a co-collaborator on the plywood chair designs of Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia always understood himself as a sculptor, and from the 1960s onwards turned his attention ever more to musical sculptures, or as previously noted, “sculpture as a musical instrument which everyone could “play” regardless of talent or training.” The result was a family of several hundred tonal sculptures crafted from materials such as brass, bronze or monel and which he housed in a barn at his home in Barto, Pennsylvania; and where in the course of the 1970s Harry, along with his brother Oreste, created, and importantly recorded, untold compositions, collectively termed, Sonambient.
And which following Harry Bertoia’s death in 1978 became a largely overlooked aspect of his oeuvre. Until his family, thankfully, made the recordings available.
Minimalist, avant-garde, at times ethereal, at times painful, often challenging, often comforting, distracting and engaging in equal measure, and regularly the background drone to the industry of the smow Blog office, Bertoia’s Sonambient recordings are in many regards ambient music before music was ambient, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, the first “ambient” album, being released in 1978. And music that continues to resonate, pun intended, the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, for example, citing Bertoia as an inspiration for his 2017 album Async. And a contribution to the development of ideas and positions in and of music that is often overlooked not only by music historians, but in studies on Bertoia’s oeuvre. Which seems like an error to us. For it was clearly important to Harry Bertoia, and thus is something one must fully understand in order to fully understand Harry Bertoia.
While, and returning briefly to Bauhaus, listening to the Sonambient works we can’t help imagining what a Wassily Kandinsky, an Oskar Schlemmer or an Andor Weininger would have made of it all.
In addition to the sound sculptures in his barn, Harry Bertoia also realised numerous public sound sculptures, a great many of which can still be found, and interacted with, at locations across the US; and thereby continuing to perform, again, pun intended, their function as “a musical instrument which everyone could “play” regardless of talent or training”.
As it is probably helpful to visualise the Sonambient process, here a video of Harry Bertoia’s son Val performing in the Bertoia family barn in Pennsylvania
Having spent six months in the late 1970s at Chelsea College Art Tom Dixon left: partly on account of being laid up with a broken leg, in the late 1970s bones took a lot longer to heal than they do today, and partly through a realisation that a formal creative, certainly formal art, education wasn’t really his thing. His path to what would become his thing taking him over numerous stations, including spending two years as bass player in the early 1980s combo Funkapolitan.
Musically very much of the late 1970s/early 1980s, that period which as disco faded sought a new soundtrack to take us into a new, postmodern, age, and discovered a rich funk driven groove, Funkapolitan may be unable to claim any great commercial success, but did trouble the lower reaches of the British charts in the summer of 1981 with their debut single As the time goes by.
In addition they appeared on Top of the Pops; their only album, 1982’s eponymously titled Funkapolitan, was produced by August Darnell a.k.a Kid Creole and featured a cover by Peter Saville a.k.a The Peter Saville; they included in their line up not just musicians but dancers; supported The Clash in America; and brought out a double single with Bananarama: Funkapolitan on the A side with Run Run Run, Bananarama on the B side with Really saying something, which they would later, and much more famously, record with Fun Boy Three. Bananarama going on to have the bigger musical career, and Tom Dixon the bigger design career.
A design career which, in many regards, also has its origins a broken limb, this time an arm, which, leaving him him unable to play bass, even into the 1980s bones took an excruciatingly long time to heal, saw Tom Dixon enter the nightclub business.
A design career which, primarily, has its origins in Tom Dixon learning to weld; a trade he would often practice as a form of entertainment in the club evenings he was co-promoting.
And a design career which Tom Dixon regularly notes is immeasurably informed by and indebted to his experiences in and with the music industry.
Funkapolitan sadly aren’t on Spotify, so here their video for As the time goes by. Tom Dixon is the slap happy bassist, which also means he’s the poor individual who has to run holding a double bass. An act that, to our interpretation, doesn’t appear necessary for the video’s narrative, and so we presume that Tom Dixon lost some bet or other.
We don’t know for certain, but he probably did. Or probably didn’t. Probably did. Probably didn’t, Probably did…….
The Radio smow Musical Designer Playlist, and all Radio smow playlists can be found on the smowonline spotify page.
1. Peter Opsvik, Rethinking Sitting, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008
2. Sven H Rossel and Niels Ingwersen, Between the World Wars in Sven H. Rossel [ed] A History of Danish Literature, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1992
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Tagged with: design playlist, Harry Bertoia, Peter Opsvik, Poul Henningsen, Radio smow, Tom Dixon