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Davis, California

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Weaving and Wordwork: A Scandinavian Design Partnership

Local Olsens honored in exhibition

On Jan. 24, “Weaving and Wordwork: A Scandinavian Design Partnership” debuted at the UC Davis Design Museum. The exhibition honors the careers and creations of UC Davis design professor emeritus Helge Olsen and his wife, Birgitta Olsen.

Helge Olsen was a pioneer of the UC Davis Design Department. His wood furniture work channels inspiration from his Danish roots. His wife, Birgitta Olsen, weaves tapestries with cotton materials.

The Olsens hail from Scandinavia, Helge Olsen from Copenhagen, Denmark and Birgitta Olsen from Sweden. The couple moved to the United States where Helge Olsen became a founding faculty member of the UC Davis Design program in teaching furniture making. After raising two children here and being active members of the community, the Olsens have made their home in Davis.

Helge’s furniture is rooted in Scandinavian design but is also true to Danish design tradition. Many of the pieces are dual-purpose and were made with the intent of wasting as little as possible.

Birgitta’s tapestries are rich in color and textures and are inspired by the Central Valley and her life in Davis. Like her husband, her pieces are sustainable in nature; the cotton strips coming from old, discarded clothes and fabrics. Some of the tapestries are on loan from UC Davis and Davis City Hall.

When asked what influences her work, she credits train views and her children’s passions. Everything around her inspires her creations. One tapestry is a scene of her son running in the Arboretum, another features her son swimming freestyle in bright blue water.

“I think it’s really admirable that someone can take the time to do all of this,” said Ilya Shrayber, a third-year transfer and design major. “And the results really speak for themselves, I think. It’s really beautiful. I’m kind of floored by all the colors that come out. And I’m stunned that she can create the gradients that she does just with cotton woven into tapestry. It’s killer. I’m really enjoying myself.”

Tim McNeil, a professor of design and the director of the Design Museum, was one of the co-curators of the exhibition. The exhibition aims to be both an homage to the Olsens and their art, as well as a celebration of the city of Davis. While weaving and woodworking don’t seem to go hand-in-hand at first thought, McNeil recognizes how the two complement each other.

“They seem very harmonious,” McNeil said. “I’m sure some of that is the fact that they’ve been produced by two people who are very close together, so there’s certainly some influence there, but also their Scandinavian upbringing [is an influence]. There’s a sensibility in their work, a simplicity, a form of purity that’s very rooted in Scandinavian design tradition. A sense of sort of fun and playfulness.”

Helge has dedicated part of his career to working with people with disabilities. Inspired by this and as part of design student Zoe Martin’s undergraduate honors project, the exhibition aims to be accessible to those who are visually impaired and blind. All of the tapestries are allowed to be touched and visitors are encouraged to sit in the furniture. In the back of the exhibition, there is a “Create and Print a Tactile Design” activity, where drawings are printed in a raised form, like Braille.

“I think the more people that can consume the art the better,” Shrayber said of the exhibition’s accessibility. “It’s a breath of fresh air. “

“Weaving and Woodwork: A Scandinavian Design Partnership” is on display in the Design Museum until Apr. 21 and is free and open to the public. The Design Museum is located in Cruess Hall, Room 124. It is open weekdays noon to 4 p.m. and Sundays 2 to 4 p.m.

Written By: Liz Jacobson — arts@theaggie.org


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