From furnishings to kitchenware, auromobiles to toys, an emphasis on quality, creativity and social responsibility has led to highly functional objects.
How northern European design conquered the world
"Why are they so good at it?" a colleague recently asked on the subject of Scandinavian design.
This question got me to thinking about all of the products and manufacturers from northern Europe we have come to take for granted, even though this collection of small countries didn't have a role in modern design until the early 1920s. To appreciate how the people from a remote geographic area influenced the lifestyles of people in all corners of the globe, one needs to understand their culturally rich background.
With a total current population of less than 20 million, a mere three countries consisting of Sweden, Norway and Denmark officially make up the area known as Scandinavia, although when referred to in the context of the Nordic countries, Finland and Iceland are included in the region. Each of these Scandinavian nations has a strong and robust national identity, yet a remarkable link among ethnic, religious and moral values. Long-established traditions and a general need to be relatively self-sufficient because of the climate and historically low population - as well as the cohesive belief in the concepts of practicality and comfort within the home as both a centre for family gathering and a retreat from the harsh climate - remain pervasive qualities. In large part, due to the harshness in their surrounds for much of the year, the Scandinavian people have always been more concerned with their homes and indoor life than those from more temperate regions, where for a great part of the year, family life can be lived and enjoyed outside.
The modern traditions of Scandinavian design began in the latter half of the 19th century, when Sweden, Norway and Denmark retreated from the domination of industrialisation and celebrated their own renaissance, similar to the arts and crafts movement that was having a dramatic influence in post-Victorian England. With the goal of reinforcing their heritage of craftsmanship, the use of only essential materials and the adherence to minimal ornamentation, Scandinavian designers and manufacturers developed a design philosophy where quality and honesty were paramount to cheap and quick. While industrial production permitted a democratic access to beautiful everyday objects, Scandinavian designers understood that an overly industrial aesthetic could be too cold and uninviting, subsequently proving them masters at balancing functional design with efficient manufacturing, softened forms, natural materials and humanistic qualities.
A respect and appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and the collective well-being of their communities inspired a design aesthetic that celebrated the inherent qualities of locally available materials and the pride of craftsmanship. For most of the Scandinavian people, thoughtful design is considered a fundamental aspect of everyday life, with creativity and innovation necessary to ensure the efficient use of limited resources and the minimisation of waste.
Ultimately, the belief that "good design is a birthright of all citizens" led Scandinavian designers to uphold the social ideal that life is enhanced when form and function, the respect of materials and social responsibility, are revered and celebrated.
By the end of 1930s, numerous objects had been designed that defined the goals and intent of the Scandinavian design aesthetic. The influential Danish architect Jacob Bang described the PH lampshade (1927) by Poul Henningsen for Louis Poulsen, as an icon of the period that summarised the objectives of Scandinavian design. "We wanted a synthesis, a pure, genuine, clarified type: for example, not simply a lampshade but the lampshade… We were convinced that the pure objective functional form was beautiful, because it was no more than objective, self-effacing, neutral, and anonymous."
By the 1950s, Scandinavian furniture became popular around the world, in large part because of the availability of teak, which was being imported from the Philippines. So much of the wood had been logged during Second World War military exercises that there was a vast supply available at a reasonable cost. The high-quality and attractive wood allowed the Scandinavian furniture designers to create modern, soft-edged pieces that reinforced their concept of refined informality and comfort. In fact, it's usually this "teak style" that we customarily associate with Scandinavian furniture design.
There are many famous designers who emerged during this time, with one of the most recognised designers of the 1950s and 1960s being the Danish designer Finn Juhl (pronounced "jewel"). He created an endless array of chairs, sofas and cabinets, many of which appear futuristic even now. When we think of the typical style of a 1950s piece of furniture, chances are it's an image of a Finn Juhl piece.
Arne Jacobsen's moulded-plywood Series 7 and ANT chairs for the manufacturer Fritz Hansen are some of the first truly modern furniture pieces to gain widespread popularity, with the No 3107 chair becoming one of the best-selling chairs of all time - and one of the most copied.
With more than 500 chair designs to his credit, Hans Wegner is probably the single most prolific furniture designer from Denmark. His Round chair, now simply known as "the chair", rose to prominence after being used for the presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. In 1950, the American magazine Interiors placed a photograph on the cover, calling it "the world's most beautiful chair".
Henningsen, a lighting designer for Louis Poulsen, created some of most iconic light fixtures of the 20th century, from the PH Artichoke hanging light (see page 2), to the PH 4/3 table fixture. Through extremely complex engineering, each fixture is designed to direct illumination in specific directions while shielding the light source from view.
Of course, a discussion about Scandinavian design would not be complete without mentioning the toy that remains as popular now as it ever was: Lego. From its humble introduction in 1932, Lego is now the fifth largest toy manufacturer in the world and its products are sold in more than 130 countries.
Ranging from luxury to everyday household products, Danish companies including the silversmith Georg Jensen and the kitchenware manufacturer Bodum are found throughout the world. The Bodum founder, Peter Bodum, said: "Good design doesn't have to be expensive" and this is reinforced in how the company develops its continually expanding line of products, which consistently pay tribute to functionality, quality and affordability.
Beginning in 1925, two young engineers from Denmark brought Bang & Olufsen to the marketplace featuring an innovative technology in their first radio. From its modest beginnings, B&O is known the world over for leading-edge technology, beautiful components and attention to detail.
The interior and furniture designer Verner Panton pioneered many new approaches to furniture design and manufacturing. His innovative, one-piece moulded plastic Panton chair with lacquer finish was introduced in 1967. His Living Tower organically shaped furniture sculpture is often called a "furniture landscape", and epitomises his unique approach to furniture and its use in interior space.
Two of the three largest Scandinavian companies include the automobile manufacturers Volvo and Saab. While Volvo started as a car company in the 1920s and quickly developed a reputation or building safe, affordable and quality automobiles, Saab formed in the late 1930s as an aircraft company to build bombers and fighter planes to support Sweden's entry in the Second World War. While continuing with the production of planes and aircraft engines, the need for purpose after the end of the war led Saab to diversify into cars, commercial vehicles, motorcycles and kitchens.
Likely one of the Scandinavian companies best known throughout the world remains Ikea, formed in Sweden in 1943 by an ambitious 17 year old, Ingvar Kamprad, who began by selling a simple range of household products. By 1945, he began selling furniture, and in 1953, Ikea had its first furniture showroom. From its introduction of furniture, the Ikea business concept has been to "offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them". Adhering to the Scandinavian principle of design being a fundamental and important part of everyday life, Ikea states that its way of doing business is to "maximise the use of raw materials in order to fulfil people's needs and preferences by offering quality products at an affordable price".
The reach of Scandinavian designers extends directly into the Middle East with the influence of the Norwegian architecture practice Snøhetta, which designed the Library of Alexandria in Egypt and recently won the competition to design the King Abdulaziz Center for Knowledge and Culture in Saudi Arabia.
So, why are they so good at it? With an egalitarian and honest approach to design, material use, functionality and ultimately placing the user paramount in their approach, Scandinavian designers have, for almost 100 years, created timeless products blending function and aesthetics that have mass appeal to all cultures and classes - without sacrificing quality.
Robert Reid is a professor at the college of architecture, art and design at the American University of Sharjah.