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Chairs by well-known Nordic designers
Chairs by well-known Nordic designers
Kaye Blegvad

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Scandi Crush Saga

How Scandinavian design took over the world

From her new home in Åre, a Swedish ski village of roughly 1,400 inhabitants, 24-year-old Elise Kubicki hatches her plan to bring contemporary Scandinavian design to the world. Born in Cincinnati, Kubicki traded a hectic career as an investment banker to join her Swedish partner and make a living out of her passion for design.

In only six months she has seen success as the founder of Norsebox, a quarterly subscription-based design box that brings a curated selection of works by Nordic designers straight to subscribers’ doorsteps in the U.S. and Canada.

"There are really great things happening in design out of this region," says Kubicki, exuding the palpable excitement of a Scandinavian design convert. She hopes the smaller items in curated packages will entice subscribers to dig deeper into the design treasures of a region she has fallen for (hint: you won’t find them in IKEA).

Founded in September, the service has 45 subscribers and also accepts individual monthly orders, which have already doubled with each shipment. Norsebox filled the void left by Scandicrush, a Nordic design box service that folded last spring after it became unable to keep up with demand.

The early success of packaging the region’s aesthetic is yet another indicator of the world’s renewed fascination with design from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, referred to in the design world as ‘Scandinavian’ or, more accurately, ‘Nordic’ design. (Scandinavia includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, but the term "Scandinavian design" is often used to describe design from Finland and Iceland as well.) While familiar works, like the chairs of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Arnio, and Alvar Aalto made popular in 1950s and 1960s, are experiencing a renaissance, a new generation of Nordic design firms are also making their way into the hearts and living rooms of design lovers all over the world.

The term "Scandinavian design" first appeared outside of the region in 1951, in the title of the Scandinavian Design for Living exhibition in Heal’s department store in London. Since then, it has often been accompanied by adjectives such as "democratic," "functional," "natural," and "minimal," in attempts to fuse a diverse potpourri of influences and tastes. In the catalogue for an exhibition of Scandinavian ceramics and glass at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 1989, curator Jan Opie writes that Scandinavian works typically share "craftsmanship, quality, humanity and restraint combined with a sympathetic respect for the natural materials and a concern for their ‘proper’ use by the designer and their consumer." While myriad definitions of the style have surfaced over the years—many more ambiguous than Opie’s—the precise description is likely to vary depending on who is asked.

Adjectives aren’t enough for Kubicki. "When I see a beautiful Arne Jacobsen chair, it represents the culture of Scandinavia and a way of life with its function and raw materials," she says. "It’s another way of thinking."

In early February, the young designer headed south to join the 40,000 attendees of the annual Stockholm Furniture Fair, the world’s premiere showcase for the latest and greatest in Scandinavian interior decor and a forum for discussing the future of design in the region.

How did countries with disparate histories, languages, and even geographical features—Finland is known for its birch forests, while Iceland is largely tree-free—become lumped together in a single design movement? The branding of "Scandinavian design" is the result, according to some scholars, of a major international PR campaign. Solidarity between the Nordic countries grew during and after World War II, writes historian Widar Halén in Scandinavian Design: Beyond the Myth. Conferences held throughout the 1940s in Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen concluded that "Nordic countries could be perceived as an entity when it came to design issues," according to the historian. Strengthening Nordic design language both in the region and abroad became a priority, and by the mid-20th century the plan had seemingly succeeded. Names like Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen were on the tongues of an American public that had fallen for the humanistic functionalism of a design movement referred to as Scandinavian, or Scandinavian Modern. Wegner’s elegant wooden chairs, often described as having an "organic functionality," became popular in the U.S., while Danish architect Arne Jacobsen’s famous Series 7 chair took the world by storm.

A watershed in the movement’s rise was the "Design in Scandinavia" exhibition, which toured 24 locations in the U.S. and Canada between 1954 and 1957. Proposed by House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon, a prominent midcentury tastemaker, and supported by the kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, among other notable patrons, the exhibition secured the region’s place on the North American market.

Scandinavia’s focus on the home and family, assertions of democratic principles, and emphasis on traditional craftsmanship fit in well with consumerist ideals of the postwar period. Gordon, a staunch critic of the radical direction American modernism was taking, published a series of articles lashing out against the International Style—another name for the modernist architecture and design that emerged out of Europe in the 30s—which she referred to as "totalitarian," and those responsible for it as "dictators in matters of taste." Such sentiment played on Cold War era politics of the period.

Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto

The international heyday of Scandinavian design in the late 1950s and 1960s was the culmination of a gradual buildup in interest that had begun two decades prior. Already in the 1930s, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Swede Bruno Mathsson were well known across the Atlantic, having exhibited at MoMA. George Nelson, then chief designer of Herman Miller, was a major proponent of all things Scandinavian, having loaned Aalto’s chairs to his initial American exhibit at MoMA in 1938. The museum’s director of design, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., became a major advocate of Scandinavian design after World War II, helping to push the movement forward. The Danish modern look, lauded for its simple elegance and finely crafted wood, received a nod when Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl designed a modern line for Michigan’s Baker Furniture in 1951.

By the end of the 1950s, international imports had increased markedly, with companies including Herman Miller, George Tanier, and Raymor, and local department stores, many in New York City, showing off the streamlined forms of Nordic furniture and decorative arts.

Yet the international popularity of Nordic design was short-lived, petering out by the late 1960s. In the postmodern heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, many classics went out of production as focus shifted to other corners of the globe. But once the 1990s hit, austerity and an interest in sustainable development overtook the decadence of the previous decade, bringing Scandinavian design back into the spotlight. Designers like Jasper Morrison drew on Scandinavian and Danish Modern traditions early in the decade, while Swede Thomas Sandell set high standards for new Nordic design. A flurry of traveling exhibits and academic writing helped to usher in a new era for the region’s design.

Today, Scandinavian design is once again riding a wave of success that many say stems from a wider fascination with Nordic countries. Kjetil Fallan, professor of design history at the University of Oslo, attributes the present popularity to the greater visibility of the Nordic lands during the period after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

Hans Wegner
Hans Wegner

"When a lot of large stable economies like the U.S. were having major problems, they discovered small Nordic countries were hardly affected by it at all," said Fallan, barring Iceland, of course. He cites a renewed interest in what is commonly referred to as the Nordic model in governance and society, which is typically categorized by a strong welfare state and an emphasis on individual autonomy. Just in the past year, Sweden’s flirtation with six-hour workdays and Finland’s planned experiment with universal basic income have grabbed headlines, further piquing the world’s curiosity. Such publicity may have had trickledown effects on the design field. "There is a tendency," Fallan says, "to equate Scandinavian design as a reflection of Scandinavian society."

Nordic arts and culture, too, have become increasingly popular abroad. "I think it started with a mix of different furniture, interiors, food, music, and film," says Poul Madsen, co-founder of Normann Copenhagen, a Danish interior design brand. "Danes were announced as the happiest people in [the] world a couple of years ago and even Oprah was talking about it," he added. "Suddenly, everything we did in Scandinavia really echoed." Indeed, increased media coverage, the popularity of Danish TV in the UK, and Copenhagen’s cache of Michelin-starred eateries, like world favorite Noma, have been rolled into what Madsen describes as "one big mass of Nordic living."

Even 2009—a shaky year for consumerism in the West—was a success for the firm. Normann Copenhagen’s New Danish Modern furniture series designed and produced within Denmark included Jesper K. Thomsen’s molded beech wood Camping set, which was awarded the Good Design award by the Chicago Athaeneum later that year.

Since then, business has been booming. The company, which sells to 82 countries, has seen export markets up 45 to 50 percent per year for the past two years, although Madsen admits that their pieces are still most successful within Denmark.

Kristian Byrge, co-founder of Muuto, another Danish design firm that’s riding the wave of Scandi-love, feels Scandinavian design aptly captures the present zeitgeist, which has pushed it into the spotlight. "If you go back to the core values, not just of Scandinavian design, but also of Scandinavia, the understated, authentic, long-lasting, democratic, and social elements are a good fit with the times we live in," he says. These values, according to Byrge, are also appreciated outside of Scandinavia.

When Byrge and his business partner Peter Bonnén founded the firm a decade ago, they choose to call it Muuto after the Finnish word muutos, which translates to "new expressions." Adding the tagline "New Nordic" was aspirational, says Berge. "The idea was to present Scandinavian design of our generation and hopefully start a wave that would reclaim the position we had in [the] 50s and 60s," he added. Commissioning top designers from all over the world while experimenting with new materials has worked well for the company, and the pair are zeroing in on consumers in the U.S., where they have noticed an increased interest. Bonnén recently moved to TriBeCa to be closer to the U.S. market, and will show at this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair during New York Design Week.

This tendency of contemporary designers to rely on the heritage of the midcentury golden years is widespread, says Kjetil Fallan. The current generation of designers, he adds, are those who began their careers around the change of the millennium. "They are part of a retro revival in the sense that they rediscovered these pieces from the 50s and 60s that the previous generation had discarded," he says. To put it in the words of Alvar Aalto, one of the period’s most prominent designer-architects, "Nothing old is ever reborn, but neither does it totally disappear. And that which has once been born, will always reappear in a new form."

Danish furniture company by Lassen has embraced the traditions of two major figures in the Danish Functionalism movement, brothers Mogens and Flemming Lassen. The company, which launched in 2008, is co-owned by Nadia Lassen, the great-granddaughter of Mogens.

While searching for a thesis topic for her bachelor’s degree at the Copenhagen Business School, Nadia Lassen began to research her great-grandfather’s career. "I initially thought there wasn’t enough there," she said, sitting on a prim sofa—one of Mogens’ designs—at the company’s booth during the Stockholm Furniture Fair. "My uncle convinced me to take a deeper look, and we found there was so much to be re-discovered."

Although Mogans and his brother Flemming were schoolmates of Arne Jacobsen, Ole Wanscher, and Hans Bretton-Meyer, all top architects in their day, they lacked business know-how and interest in self-promotion, according to Lassen. Only Mogans’ Bauhaus-inspired "Kubus," a metal candleholder crafted by Danish artisans, was in production after his death. After securing the rights, Nadia and her uncle Søren Lassen discovered hundreds of unrealized furniture design sketches, which they have since brought to life. The use of materials like nickel, misty green laminate, and lacquered steel bring the pieces into the present while the original design remains unchanged.

Reviving the works of past masters, says Lassen, is a trend at the moment. "Because we had so many great Danish designers, all the Danish design companies are looking back," she says. "Why bother to make a new design if we have so much great design in history?"

Mogens Lassen
Mogens Lassen

Many are paying close attention to auctions in hopes of ‘discovering’ new old designers. By Lassen fortuitously secured the rights to the work of Flemming Lassen just in time for the architect, previously famed and forgotten like his older brother, to become a best-seller at auction. In 2014, his original 1935 teddy bear-reminiscent chair, "The Tired Man," became the most expensive designer chair sold in Denmark, going for approximately $210,000. The trend isn’t limited to auction houses within Scandinavia—a one-off coffee table by Peder Moos sold for $1.3 million at the October Nordic Design sale at Phillips Auction house in London, breaking the record for Nordic design at auction.

Big-name classics too, are making use of the world’s fascination with Scandinavia, while also injecting new life into their product lines and looking outside of the region for inspiration.

On a rainy morning midway through Stockholm Design Week, which ran parallel to the Furniture Fair, design cognoscenti gathered at the Wetterling Gallery in the heart of the city, snacking on miniature slices of green tea cheesecake and sipping strong cups of coffee. The occasion was the unveiling of a long-awaited homeware collection by Finnish glassware company Iittala and Japanese fashion house Issey Miyake.

No less than four years in the making, the 30-item Iittala X Issey Miyake collection includes pastel colored plates, bowls in ceramic and glass, and pleated placemats and cushion covers. Japan and Finland are design soulmates: they share a love of minimalistic elegance, natural materials, and functional designs in the home, among others design principles. The collaboration is significant for Iittala, which typically re-issues works by Fins like Alvar Aalto and Kaj Franck from the 1930s and 1940s that they are famed for. "Something new came out of Iittala and something new came out of Miyake that wouldn’t have previously existed," said Jeremiah Tesolin, director of design for Fiskars Living, which includes Iittala, Arabia, and Rörstrand. "We have been interested now in that sort of synergy."

Founded in 1935 by Alvar and Aino Aalto and colleagues, design firm Artek has also recently collaborated with top international designers. The Kaari collection by popular French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, on display at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, points to another important feature of the new Nordic design: it’s a matter of mentality, not nationality.

The Bouroullec brothers share Aalto’s penchant for working with systematic parts, according to Marianne Goebl, the company’s managing director. "Aalto like[d] the idea of having one component that you can use in many products," she explained. Employing what she describes as "poetic simplicity," the brothers’ collection utilizes bent steel in a variety of ways, a practice Aalvo almost certainly would have approved of. "The work is simple, but has character," says Goebl. "They were a good fit for us."

Arne Jacobsen
Arne Jacobsen

Artek is primarily known for its reissued classics, including light fixtures by Tappio Wirkkala and chairs by Aalto from the 1930s to the 1950s. The company moved away from the non-Nordic markets between the 1970s and 1990s, but increased international outreach in the early years of the millennium when business picked up.

Part of that success, Goebl thinks, is a renewed interest in making ethical purchases. Today’s consumers are conscientious, she says. They need to know where their products come from. "Generally, the Aalto collection comes from Finnish birch trees [that] are 80 years old, and from two sawmills," she says. "This transparency, honesty, and proximity to nature are what people are interested in."

As it turns out, customers are also interested in vintage Artek furniture. As part of the firm’s sustainability policy, the company launched Artek 2nd Cycle in 2007, giving buyers a chance to purchase classic Artek works that have been refurbished.

Back at the Furniture Fair, the future of design was shining brightly in Greenhouse, a wing dedicated to design schools and young independent designers. The small booths were occupied by students of the region’s famed design schools and young up-and-comers, who showcased everything from textiles to lighting in a space designed by Swedish firm Form Us With Love. Earlier in the day, winners of the Ung Svensk Form, the annual award for young designers, were presented with five-month scholarships to work in IKEA Sweden’s product development center, among other prizes.

Near the entrance, 24-year-old design student Olivia Öberg displayed her latest work in a deliciously Instagramable mint green booth. The fledgling furniture designer, now in her final year at the Carl Malmstein Furniture Design program in Linköping, Sweden, presented a smart, customizable drop shelving unit, a mint-green armchair, and a wooden "Helio" lamp inspired by the solar system.

"I think it’s beneficial for everyone to have influences from all over the world," says Öberg of Scandinavian design’s global appeal. As for the classics, she acknowledges the extent to which their legacy has been an influence, but says she would never have them at home. "Every other house has 60s design and at a certain point it becomes like a caricature," she says. "It gets boring."

Öberg doesn’t take inspiration from a single period or designer, but rather picks and chooses. Ironically, she is occasionally influenced by American blogs’ interpretation of Scandinavian design, such as pairing Nordic furniture with what she considers un-Nordic elements, like splashy retro decor from the 1970s.

Despite the region’s design legacy and present popularity, the young designer is looking to the future. "I want to build my own box, and not fit into one," she says.

Editor: Sara Polsky
Illustrator: Kaye Blegvad


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