THE GRETHE MEYER STORY

Born in 1918 in the Danish shipping town of Svendborg on the island of Funen, Grethe Meyer was the daughter of a lithographer and a pianist. Having inherited both technical and artistic traits from her parents, she studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen – graduating as the only woman among the class of 1947. Prior to this she had managed to distinguish herself, starting out as a researcher in 1944 on “Byggebogen” / “The Building Book” – a detailed compilation of observations, measurements and knowledge about Danish rational building techniques and home decoration of the time.

In fact this Building Book would remain the basis of teachings at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts for decades. Grethe Meyer continued her work on “Byggebogen” until 1955 and would then work five years for the Danish Institute for Building Research. Here she dedicated herself to surveying and analysing the things that people needed in their everyday lives – furniture, clothing, linen, books, suitcases etc. The basic idea being that even in a very modest one bedroom apartment a family should be able to live a comfortable life.

These thorough investigations would eventually translate into the cabinetsystem Boligens Byggeskabe – a collaboration with architect Børge Mogensen conceived to meet every single aspect of storage for the home and sometimes hailed as the ultimate storage unites of all times. Grethe Meyer founded her own design studio Grethe Meyer Design in 1960 and her name remains closely linked to designs, produced with great success by among others Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen – notably Blåkant (faience dinnerware), Hvidpot (porcelain dinnerware), Ildpot (stoneware series) and Copenhagen (steel cutlery).

A MODERN MIND

Grethe Meyer gave birth to her only daughter Dorthe. The father was colleague and fellow architect Bent Salicath, but Grethe Meyer chose not to marry him – or any other suitor for that matter. Opting out on what was considered a woman’s duty at the time, she devoted her life to pursuing a career and to the constant search for functional and aesthetically simple designs.

Totally modern in her take on family life and her own role as a woman in a design world mostly ruled by men, Grethe Meyer lived alone with her daughter. As a consequence she was forced to work even harder to fit life as an employed architect with her personal ambitions of obtaining independence as a designer.

A LIFE AT WORK

Grethe Meyer was a driven perfectionist and her work was all-consuming. In an interview with the Danish newspaper Politiken in 2011 her daughter Dorthe Salicath would reminisce: 

“My mother always worked, it was her life. When I was a child, she would bring me along to lectures at the Academy of Fine Arts. She would sit in the drawing room during the day, and in the evening, when I was put to bed, continue working on various design competitions late into the night. Money was scarce, but she had the imagination to get something out of the circumstances and create things herself. We lived in a small apartment where one room served both as living room and my mother’s bedroom cum working space. The other room was mine, and I think these limitations really helped her develop the idea that things should take up as little space as possible.” 

It seems obvious that the restraints and challenges of her own daily life would fundamentally shape and inspire Grethe Meyer’s design thinking – and her insistence on simplicity, quality, stackability and multifunctionality.

TABLEWARE AND WELFARE

Following these formative years, it seems natural that the table and the kitchen would become the focal points for her own, independent practice. Defying resistance and scepticism from many sides she toiled five years on Blåkant, her first production for Royal Copenhagen. 

This faience dinnerware captured the very spirit of the times, marking her breakthrough and becoming an icon of the 1960s and the booming years of construction, optimism and build-up of the Danish welfare state. A new prosperity enabled many families to move into their own newly constructed homes and furnish them with Danish design. 

As women entered the labour market, preparing and serving meals became more of a family affair. The concept of the dining kitchen was born leading to a new demand for practical and functional ware that could easily be handled, stored, go into the dishwasher etc. And keeping special dinnerware intended for festive occasions grew out of fashion. 

Grethe Meyer’s simple and straightforward designs met these needs and new social values perfectly. Elegant and unassuming they were equally suited for everyday use or entertaining guests. Grethe Meyer would say: “One must not have too many objects – refined things belong in a museum”.

DESIGN BY DOING & DINING

Combining humanist thinking with an almost scientific methodology, Grethe Meyer analysed her way into all her designs; working, reworking, testing. 

She was a sublime cook, a generous host and her kitchen and table functioned as a laboratory where she could put her designs to a test in practice. Checking their abilities and functionality, experimenting with the way she cooked and the way she presented the food. 

Never quite satisfied, she was always pushing, challenging, measuring – focusing on every single detail that would help improve daily life and meet the needs and values of a hastily changing society. 

Grethe Meyer surveyed every aspect of both the production and the presentation of her designs: the way they were described and photographed, the catalogues and packaging, the podiums, shop presentation and exhibitions. 

AN UNCOMPLICATED BEAUTY

Looking back and reflecting on her career when she received the Danish Design Award in 1997 Grethe Meyer acknowledged her close link with tradition, the proud heritage of Danish craftsmanship and concept of applied arts for everyday use:

“Mostly I meet new tasks by trying to build on earlier inspirations and ideals, improving them and where needed bringing their qualities up to date, while preserving what I think is important; namely that the design must be uncomplicated and the product easy and comfortable to use. In this way I think that beauty will present itself – a beauty that gives the people who are using the product a natural pleasure, a pleasure that preferably grows stronger the more the product is used.” GRETHE MEYER

A few months after giving this speech, Grethe Meyer would – in true line with her character – celebrate her 80th birthday by presenting something new: 4 All Seasons, a totally new table concept designed for Royal Copenhagen.

GETTING CREDIT, AND SHARING IT

Though we are keen to reinforce Grethe Meyer’s legacy and her role in the Danish design history, it is important to say that during her lifetime her work was indeed acknowledged and acclaimed. She was a very private person and this is probably why the public knew her designs very well but not so much the creator behind them. 

Grethe Meyer received all major design awards and honours in Denmark and the Nordic countries, but in keeping with her belief in the common effort – the collaborative spirit at the very base of the Danish welfare system – she did not forget to share these honours. Accepting the Danish Design Award in 1997 she stated: 

“As I am not a painter or sculptor… I do not translate my intentions into physical specimens or unique pieces. Therefore I share the prize with all the artisans, silversmiths, chemists, technicians and other specialists, who have understood my thoughts and drawings and turned them into the finished products.” GRETHE MEYER 

Always willing to acknowledge others, Grethe Meyer was however also conscious of her own accomplishments and never shy of pushing forward in what she believed in. Her energetic force, persistence and determination were recognized early on and mentioned already in 1965 when she received the prestigious Kay Bojesen honorary grant: 

“Grethe Meyer’s great strength as a designer is the almost scientific thoroughness she applies when working on the utilitarian aspect of objects. She bases form on usage and very seriously considers the economical aspects of production. In a time that abounds with superficial “design” it is invaluable to meet people who stubbornly adhere to the principle of form following function.”

SETTING THE STANDARD

Summing up the story of Grethe Meyer it is important to note that her legacy is not just made up of products. Her commitment to her work, her belief in the value of design and humanity and her uncompromising spirit – all this singles her out and makes her an ideal for anyone who wishes to become a designer even today. In her own words: “I find it very important that each of us put our full endeavour into the work we do, and for us creative individuals to persevere until we reach the core, the essential, the soul of the matter.”