Danish Modern Love:
Collecting Poul Kjærholm
with the Briskeys
by Don Schmaltz,
Senior Specialist, Modern Design
Specialist, Modern Design
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will proudly offer several lots by Danish modern designer Poul Kjærholm and other notable Scandinavian and American designers from The Collection of Ernest and Marjorie Briskey of Madison, Wisconsin during Tradition & Innovation on Thursday, December 3 and Art & Design on Sunday, December 6.
The Briskeys were highly successful and worldly academics who spent a memorable sabbatical year (1958-1959) living 20 miles west of Copenhagen in Roskilde, which lit the spark of their lifelong passion for Danish modern design. It is rare to find such a large grouping of early works by Kjærholm in excellent vintage condition — even more so because these items have been held exclusively by the Briskey family since their purchase and copies of the original receipts are included with each lot.
Poul Kjærholm’s Minimalist Modern Design
For many Nordic design cognoscenti, the works of Poul Kjærholm are a pivotal cornerstone within the generally defined Scandinavian mid-century style.
Kjærholm’s designs both originated and embody the more austere modernist side of Nordic design and, as many have observed, they appear as freshly focused and refined today as when they were first conceived.
Looking back through the history of modern Scandinavian design (and modern design writ large) the importance of Kjærholm’s work is obvious to those who appreciate the genre.
It is therefore impressive to discover a pair of culturally curious and artistically engaged Americans who, despite little background in the field of design, had the foresight to recognize and respect these works upon discovering them in their very first years of production.
The Briskeys Discover Poul Kjærholm
Amid their many travels to over 85 countries and time living abroad in Denmark, Thailand, and Kuwait, Ernest and Marjorie Briskey gathered various objects and artworks from throughout the world. Eventually, they would fill their home with such varied objects as historical textiles, abstract art, antique Middle Eastern coffeepots, and even a meticulously curated dollhouse, which will soon join the displays at the Madison Children’s Museum.
While on sabbatical in 1958-1959, the Briskeys found themselves living near Copenhagen, where Marjorie pursued work as a home economist and Ernest carried out research to complete his postdoctoral studies at the Danish Meat Research Institute in Roskilde.
According to Marjorie, the couple first encountered modern Danish design, and the work of Poul Kjærholm in particular, by simply exploring Copenhagen and its shops at the time. “We fell in love with the quality of his materials,” Marjorie said of Kjærholm, “his technique of curving the backs of his chairs, and each piece’s overall simplicity.”
The Briskeys were immediately struck by these minimalist Kjærholm pieces produced by Ejvind Kold Christensen, which so sharply contrasted with many of their former conceptions of furniture design. They were smitten and determined to acquire all they could afford to then ship back to their Wisconsin home.
Choosing a broad representation of Kjærholm works, the Briskeys first built their collection around a PK 51 work table (Lot 33) and a set of eight PK 11 dining chairs (Lot 32). Of course, as they increasingly came to admire Kjærholm’s aesthetic, it did not make sense to stop with only a few examples.
The Briskeys loved what they found and rounded out their collection with a PK 80 daybed (Lot 35), a pair of PK 22 lounge chairs (Lot 36), a PK 33 stool (Lot 38), and other works, amounting to a nearly complete grouping of the designer’s oeuvre.
Other Danish Modern Designers in The Briskey Collection
Although Kjærholm became the central focus of the Briskeys’ mid-century collection, they paired his furniture with attractive designs by other Scandinavian makers.
During their time in Denmark, they also selected such complementary works as a Hans Wegner for Andreas Tuck Cube Bar cabinet (Lot 307) and a pair of Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen Egg lounge chairs (not currently on offer) as well as smaller items such as a Tapio Wirkkala for Iittala Kaleidoscope vase (Lot 313) and a Georg Jensen round footed bowl with foliate pedestal base, which sold recently for $1,125.
The Briskeys developed close channels of communication with the retailer S. Chr. Sørensen, through which they acquired most of their pieces, but also developed relationships with other manufacturers and distributors.
By corresponding with Niels Vodder, they were incredibly fortunate to have an opportunity to acquire a truly rare pair of Finn Juhl-designed unique cabinets (Lots 40 and 41) that were made in anticipation of the 33rd Copenhagen Cabinetmakers Guild Forum in 1959.
These simply refined cabinets in oak and brushed steel are one of only two examples of this design ever produced, with the other two having been executed in teak.
Marjorie always loved to point out that the designer’s pencil marks remain inside the Finn Juhl cabinets and that throughout their time with the Briskey family they sat side by side and functioned as the sideboard gracing the Kjærholm dining set. This will be the first time these rare cabinets will be on offer at auction.
Pairing American and Danish Modern Design
Back in the United States, the Briskeys remained in touch with their contacts in Denmark as their desire to expand their modern design collection only grew. In 1967, they had their eyes on more works by Finn Juhl, but were unable to come to an agreement with Niels Vodder in an attempt to acquire a pair of NV 45 chairs and an NV 54 sideboard. Fortunately, there were also some impressive American modern options that fit nicely within the Briskeys’ collection, such as a fine Florence Knoll for Knoll International credenza (Lot 424) in teak and marble that they purchased instead.
Poul Kjærholm’s ‘Lost’ Chair Completes The Briskey Collection
A few decades after their initial foray into collecting Kjærholm, the Briskeys found one last opportunity to acquire an early chair of his that had essentially been lost to history. The Briskeys were already aware of this design and, similar to many other Kjærholm aficionados, regretted that the sculptural form had never made it into production.
What was to be called the PK 0 chair (Lot 39) was one of Kjærholm’s earliest designs that he had vetted for production. Regrettably, in 1952, when he presented the chair design to the director of Fritz Hansen, Kjærholm was told it could not be produced because the company’s facilities were already being utilized to make a first order of Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair.
Unlike the Ant chair, Kjærholm’s design employed just two pieces of one material, bent and molded plywood. He was certain it was the more innovative design, and Fritz Hansen’s refusal to produce the chair ultimately created a rift between Kjærholm and the company, compelling him to leave the firm shortly thereafter.
With a renewed interest in Kjærholm’s work in the 1990s, Fritz Hansen finally decided to retail just 600 examples of this early design. For the Briskeys, the ‘lost’ PK O chair was an important missing piece of their collection, and they secured the purchase of one of these limited-edition examples, numbered 364, in September 1997.
Traveling and Working Abroad Enhances The Briskey Collection
Throughout their lives, the Briskeys’ opportunities to travel widely continued. After Ernest began his career as a notable meat scientist who made highly influential contributions to the field of ‘muscle biology’ and taught at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, he went on to work in the corporate world at Campbell Soup Company, became the Dean of Agricultural Science at Oregon State University, and worked for USAID in Bangkok, Thailand before serving as the Senior Scientific Advisor at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. Marjorie matched Ernest’s passions step for step. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Home Economics (Nutrition) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison as well and taught home economics and science in the United States, Thailand, and Kuwait.
The Briskeys’ homes always reflected the growing list of countries they visited and embraced, but at the center of it all remained their Danish “treasures.” They truly lucked into being at the right place at the right time to become such avid early collectors of what has become such highly sought-after and forward-thinking design by Poul Kjærholm and others.
Nonetheless, Ernest and Marjorie’s careers in research and teaching do not fully account for the couple’s vast curiosity and refined taste. The Kjærholm designs and related modern pieces are probably the Briskeys’ most impressive achievement as collectors, but they represent only one side of the eclectic vision that led to the acquisition of various historic objects and artworks. Formerly spread throughout an interior framed by Danish and other modern furniture in the Briskeys’ home, their diverse collection somehow always made perfect sense, and the central importance of the Kjærholm designs was abundantly clear.
Biography of Ernest and Marjorie Briskey
Wisconsin natives Ernest Briskey and Marjorie Swanson Briskey married in Madison in December 1955. They had both previously earned their undergraduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin – Madison: Ernest a B.S. in Meat and Animal Science in 1952 and Marjorie a B.S. in Home Economics in 1953. Following service as an officer in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Ernest got his M.S. in Animal Science from Ohio State University in 1955 before returning to the University of Wisconsin – Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Meat and Animal Science under the mentorship of Dr. Robert W. Bray. Ernest ultimately earned his Ph.D. in 1958 and, along with Dr. Bray, helped make the University of Wisconsin a global leader in the field for years to come. In particular, Ernest carried out research on animal muscle protein and the postmortem changes in swine muscle under stress.
During a postdoctoral sabbatical year (1958-1959), Ernest and Marjorie lived outside of Copenhagen in Roskilde , Denmark, where Ernest continued his investigations at the Danish Meat Research Institute and Marjorie worked in business and research herself. With Danish modern design at its apex, Ernest and Marjorie became enamored of the cutting-edge furniture and decorative arts then being produced, especially that of Poul Kjærholm, but also works by Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, and others. Before returning to the United States, the Briskeys applied their academically trained keen eyes and evolving interior taste toward the purchase of several original pieces from local shops and makers, establishing lines of contact that would last well into the future, and they arranged to transport their new collection of Danish mid-century design back home.
After returning to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Ernest became a Meat and Animal Science faculty member, full professor, and eventually the director of the Institute of Muscle Biology. Marjorie earned her M.S. in Home Economics in 1962 and was an instructor and student supervisor for the University’s School of Human Ecology. In 1970, Ernest and Marjorie relocated to Camden, New Jersey, where Ernest acted as the Vice President of Technical and Administration for the Campbell Soup Company until becoming Dean of Agricultural Science at Oregon State University in Corvallis in 1979.
As the 1980s progressed, Ernest and Marjorie felt their wanderlust return, heading east this time, first to Thailand (1984-1986) and then to Kuwait (1986-1998). In both countries, Ernest acted as a science advisor for the U.S. State Department. He held his deanship at Oregon State remotely until 1987 and stayed a professor thereafter. Marjorie taught home economics and advised the International Human Assistance Project in Thailand and she taught various subjects during the Briskeys’ extended stay in Kuwait, which included four suspenseful months in hiding during the Gulf War.
In 1998, the Briskeys returned to the United States and Ernest retired from Oregon State. He and Marjorie proceeded to split their retirement between Arizona and Wisconsin. Ernest was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2000 and given membership into the Diamond Pioneer of Agriculture Career Registry by Oregon State while undergoing treatment for leukemia at the University Hospital shortly before his passing on June 24, 2006. Ernest was survived by his wife of 50 years, Marjorie, who moved back to the Madison area permanently, their three children (Kemble, Carla, and Paul), and their five grandchildren (Chelsea, Kevin, Jackson, Marisa, and Ernest).