The Long Shadow of Scandinavian Design

PRINCIPLES OF SCANDINAVIAN DESIGN

What’s so new about New Nordic design?

In the Scandinavian design industries there have been attempts to escape the long shadow of the region’s design titans. 

Just as the current hunger for the Scandinavian aesthetic may feel like a self-conscious spotlight for practicing designers and architects, the region’s prolific design heritage - its heroic figures and iconic objects - is a similar weight on young designer’s shoulders.

Yet, there’s is little open discussion of how the new wave of designers are choosing to interact with their heritage. Contemporary Danish designer Cecilie Manz confessed to the iconic inheritance, being ‘both a burden and a gift’.

We have so much history to reflect on, but it’s tough to find your own way of doing things,’ says Manz.

There’s talk of a ’new chapter’ in the story of Scandinavian style and a clean break from the Mid-century modern’s lessons. However, there’s little indication of a marked change in plot.

So what is actually new about New Nordic design? And what do young designers have to rebel against when the values of the Golden Age are as relevant as ever?

 

PHOTO OF CHAIRS HANGINGHANS JØRGEN WEGNER'S CH31 AND THE CHAIR AND BØRGE MOGENSENS BM155

1950’s SCANDINAVIAN MODERN PRINCIPLES

Functional

Functionalism has become synonymous with the Scandinavian aesthetic and is perhaps the crux of the ethos. The functional product is one designed with a vision of how it will be used. It is design built for life.

Yet, this principle also extends beyond the product itself, referring to a design that is not driven by the ego of its designer. The motivation behind creating for functionality is not for it to be an outlet for a designer’s creative flair, instead it must stem from a place of service and empathy for the eventual user.

Democratic

Scandinavian Modern design was deeply reflective of the Nordic socio-political milieu.

At the foundation of the Nordic Model of Social Democracy, is the ‘Law of Jante’; a code of conduct that asserts that no one is elevated above anyone else. The free market and the welfare state (free education and healthcare) are the output of this model.

Although the welfare state did not dictate Golden Age design, Scandinavian architects and designers were responsive to their zeitgeist. They crafted works that creatively reflected attempts to neutralise hierarchies and promote accessibility.

Danish furniture company FDB was one of the first brands to imbue their designs with a socialist ethos. Director Børge Mogensen who took over the company in 1945 described an ambition to give the regular man his natural environment. Whilst international competitors focused on exclusivity FDB had a collectivist vision - "Of the people, for the people ".

Natural 

Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobson were the pioneers of the concept of Organic Modernism that has become central to the Scandinavian aesthetic. This is a design with an affinity toward the natural rather than the mechanical.

Scandinavian design’s showcasing of local material has been attributed to the comparatively late industrialisation of the Scandinavian countries, ensuring that there was a retention of craftsmanship in the region.

Locally sourced materials were championed in the region and these were treated and shaped by hand. As a result, Scandinavian designs were regarded as examples of a creative’s mastery over a brutal landscape. 

PHOTO OF TINGBJERG LIBRARY

COBE ARCHITECTS CONTEMPORARY TAKE ON ORGANIC MODERNISM AT THE NEW TINGBJERG LIBRARY ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF COPENHAGEN (PHOTO BY ZANE KRAUJINA)

NEW NORDIC DESIGN PRINCIPALS

Functional | Hygge

In this New Nordic era, functionality has been interwoven with the concept of Hygge (pronounced “Hoog-ah”). This is the Danish and Norwegian word that has been proliferated globally and roughly translated into English as cosiness.

During the long and dark Scandinavian winters, a cosy and functional home is not simply an aesthetic choice but a necessity. Scandinavians simply spend more time in the company of their furniture than those in other more temperate climates.

PHOTO OF HYGGE INTERIOR

THE WARMTH OF WOODEN INTERIOR ADDS HYGGE (PHOTO COURTESY OF STIKNORD)

Scandinavian design acknowledges that these domestic products are very much in-use and valuations of ‘good’ design are tied to the object’s purpose beyond its beauty. Today, Scandinavia’s most successful designers are as much concerned with the way their object works in a space as the space itself.

What was initially a response to the unpredictable weather that characterises the Nordic climate, is now salient on the international marketplace because of the unpredictability of all climate due to human impact. The mutability of design is now more important than ever and Nordic design has reaped the benefits of this.

PHOTO OF WINTER

THE COLD AND GLOOMY NUANCES OF A LONG SCANDINAVIAN WINTER (PHOTO COURTESY OF STIKNORD)

Democratic | Affordable

The two Scandinavian brands that have most successfully crossed borders have the democratic tenet woven into their DNA.

Both Swedish furniture giant IKEA and more recently Danish design company HAY espouse a mission that mimics that established by FDB in the post-war era - that well designed products should not be a privilege. 

PHOTO OF HAY HOUSE IN COPENHAGEN

HAY HOUSE IN COPENHAGEN (PHOTO COURTESY OF HAY)

IKEA’s ‘Democratic Design’ line openly leant into the international image of the Scandinavian political model. This fed the idea of the Scandinavian model as being an antidote to growing the wealth disparity in other countries.

Design theorist Kjetil Fallan partly attributes the rise in demand for Scandinavian design in America to the 2008 financial crisis and a renewed interest in the Scandinavian welfare model. In this way, a wander through an IKEA showroom became a taste of the Nordic social model.

Natural | Sustainable

Scandinavian Modern’s championing of natural fibres and local materials has been described as eerily prescient of the current environmentally conscious epoch.

Designing responsibly and with ecological impact awareness is a requirement in this milieu when sustainability is the theme for nearly every international design celebration.

Loyalty to one’s landscape has been a key principle of Scandinavian design for the last 70 years. This has allowed New Nordic design to claim a pedestal on the most pressing design discourse and lead the world in eco-design innovation.

BURDEN OR PRIVILEGE?

To design in Scandinavia today is to work among ghosts. This is the haunting of the masters of Scandinavia Modern who set the precedence of the regional brand.

Knud Erik Hansen, third generation CEO of Danish furniture brand Carl Hansen & Søn, aptly observed Scandinavian designer’s indecision between moving forward and celebrating the past.

‘We feel a little bit for what you experienced when you were a child – being at your grandparent’s place, or your parent’s place. Those days are normally associated with peace, and safety, and happiness. Therefore, we have a certain – perhaps, unconscious – culture in the back of our heads saying this is where we come from. This is beautiful. This is what we want to keep,’ says Hansen.

As a result of this temporal tension many Nordic brands claim both era’s within their philosophy and choose to divide their catalogue between new works and ‘legacy‘ or ‘classics’ collections.

The portfolio of Danish furniture brand Republic of Fritz Hansen is splintered between reissued classic pieces from their 150-year-old history and pieces by contemporary designers.

Tellingly, when set by side-in-side it is difficult to differentiate the classics from the contemporary. These are undoubtedly designs working within the same conventions and deeply rooted in the same landscapes.

PHOTO OF FRITZ HANSEN SHOWROOM

REPUBLIC OF FRITZ HANSEN SHOWROOM IN COPENHAGEN (PHOTO COURTESY OF REPUBLIC OF FRITZ HANSEN

What was established in the 1950s was a philosophy linked to environment rather than time, and there was no expiry date attached to functionalist, democratic and natural design.

What is new about New Nordic design is its practitioner’s ability to simultaneously look backward while moving forward. This has created a dynamic and innovative design scene that has managed to reinvent itself while reaping the benefits of its heritage.

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Check out Larsen & Eriksen’s Absalon Collection for design that pays homage whilst making way for the new.    

Learn more about the development of Scandinavian design and Copenhagen culture with a beautiful coffee table book