A Little History of Scandinavian Design

scandinavian design history via the urban pig

[via the design files]

I apologize for the delay in today’s post. Things have been extremely busy – working all weekend to catch up on school projects, and last night myself and several others were responsible for giving a tour of our school and in particular our building of design and construction. It went really well, but by the time I got home I was way too tired to write.

Also, I had originally said I would be talking about Europe this week, however, a lot of things have been happening lately, and there are a lot of issues and feelings that I’m not quite ready to share yet, let alone face myself. So today I am going to change the subject to some design stuff and ignore everything else for a bit. I hope that’s okay. This weekend I finished a paper I have been writing since January – it feels good to wrap that up! I chose to write my paper on Scandinavia’s design culture, partially because Scandinavian design is extremely attractive, but also because I knew nothing about it! I learned a ton over the last few months, and after much research, I aimed my paper’s topic on how Scandinavia’s design identity reflects their philosophies of adapting to and appreciating the natural environment. It’s truly fascinating, I think, for anyone, but especially those interested in design or decoration.

So if you care about Scandinavian design, or you just want to see some gorgeous pictures, read on!

scandinavian design history via the urban pig

[via ikea]

Sweden and Finland’s broad spectrum of wood species, including pine, spruce, aspen, birch, maple, elm, and alder, has contributed to this region’s love for wood and traditions in carpentry. The inability to import materials, high production costs, and economic hardships of the region created numerous limitations on Scandinavian design and handicrafts. However, these constraints also contributed to a simple aesthetic which often defines Scandinavia’s design culture. Craftsmen had an essentialist approach, using only the pieces essential to creating the final product. Many of these products were left untreated, in the wood’s raw and natural state, or when they were finished, it was done in light stains.

scandinavian design history via the urban pig

[via stil inspiration]

The Industrial Revolution caused design to transition from a tool for survival to a tool of needless consumption. Resource deficiency was no longer a problem due to the increased ability to import goods and financial independence, and readily available materials meant mass produced objects were dispersed to the market in large quantities. In this way, consumerism was encouraged. However, consumers eventually grew tired of trying to keep up with the changing fads. They demanded product longevity and flexibility; products which would survive through the passing trends They also demanded functional beauty. Ellen Key, a highly influential writer on matters of family life, creativity, and self-expression; wrote “Beauty in the Home,” which was published as one of the Three Founding Texts for Modern Swedish Design, in which she persuaded,

“The beautiful is that which is practical, useful, informed by its purpose, and expressive of the soul of its user or creator. All people need to create beautiful surroundings for themselves, and this creation begins in the home. If beauty exists in the home, lives will be transformed, and ultimately so will every aspect of society.”

scandinavian design history via the urban pig

[via style at home]

Although good design can be said to have started within the home, Scandinavians realized how it could aid real people and real problems outside of their homes as well. Dominating the Scandinavian countries is the Lutheran religion, which teaches that “salvation can be gained through honest work that benefits one’s fellow man.” In 1971, a writer from Norway named Dag Solstad, stated, “Modernity changed from aesthetics to politics, from art to revolution” (Fallan). As knowledge increased about the human impact on the natural world, Scandinavian countries were some of the first to react with the creation of government taxes and penalties for excess pollution, research and fund development for environmentally-friendly solutions, and encouragement for local citizens to participate and promote collectivist behaviors through design.

scandinavian design history via the urban pig

[via the design chaser]

Scandinavian design was very influential for political propaganda and social change. Graphic and interior designers were often hired to work with the government to develop environmental campaigns advocating for more sustainable actions, such as “how to be a good eco-citizen.” For those interested in improving their homes, government-sponsored handbooks specified ideal sizes for rooms, efficient kitchen layouts, materials and finishes including indigenous wood species, and low-cost furniture recommendations. Public housing was built with traditional materials using simple construction methods and adapting to the natural landscape. Site orientation was considered to capture views and sunlight, even during the winter, and large covered entrances protected the users from the weather. In this way, good design which considered the environment was promoted through education and collaboration with a variety of disciplines, often times including government officials. In addition, Scandinavians typically rank among the top five of the most green countries in the world, judged on a variety of factors such as environmental health, air pollution, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources, and climate change.

scandinavian design history via the urban pig

[via style at home]

Throughout history, Scandinavians have supported the idea that man should adapt to nature by using design responsibly for not just survival, but also functional beauty, and political change.

I hope this information is helpful on giving a better understanding of Scandinavian design, it is a truly beautiful style, but it is always more enjoyable when understanding its origins and realizing that design does not just come out of nowhere!

Please Note: The writings here are portions of the actual paper I wrote – please give credit if it is used! Some of the information is also from months of researching articles and books which I cited in my actual paper. Thanks!
Update: Because I have had many requests for my sources, I have included them below so fellow researchers have some sources of where to start:

  • Ahren, Uno, Lucy Creagh, Helena Kaberg, Barbara Miller. Lane, and Kenneth Frampton. Modern Swedish Design: Three Founding Texts. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008.
  • Daugbjerg, Carsten, and Anders Branth Pedersen. “New Policy Ideas and Old Policy Networks: Implementing Green Taxation in Scandinavia.” Journal of Public Policy 24.2 (1999): 219-49.
  • Fallan, Kjetil. “”The ‘Designer’ — The 11th Plague”: Design Discourse from Consumer Activism to Environmentalism in 1960s Norway.” Design Issues 27.4 (2011): 30-42.
  • Fiell, Charlotte, and Peter Fiell. Scandinavian Design. Koln: Taschen, 2002. Print.
  • Harwood, Buie. “Scandinavian Modern.” Architecture and Interior Design: An Integrated History to the Present. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2012. 669-683. Print.
  • Ingebritsen, Christine. “Ecological Institutionalism: Scandinavia and the Greening of Global Capitalism.” Scandinavian Studies 84.1 (2012): 87-97.
  • Strand, Robert. “Corporate Responsibility in Scandinavian Supply Chains.” Journal of Business Ethics 85.S1 (2009): 179-85.
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  1. Pip Jay

     /  07/08/2015

    Where could i read your whole paper? I am doing my dissertation on Scandinavian Design, and this was super helpful!

    • Hi there, I am glad you found it helpful!
      I apologize, but I no longer have my original paper accessible on my computer. I would highly recommend looking into the sources I have listed at the bottom of the original post, as they were very helpful in guiding my research and thoughts.
      Good luck on your dissertation! I would love for research to get published so the information becomes more readily available.

  2. Hi! I am doing a small assignment about Scandinavian interior style at the moment and your post is a great summary! Thanks ;)

  3. Ines

     /  10/22/2014

    Hi, interesting article! I wonder if you still happen to know where to find the government-sponsored handbooks that, as you wrote, “specified ideal sizes for rooms, efficient kitchen layouts, materials and finishes including indigenous wood species, and low-cost furniture recommendations”. Thanks!

    • Unfortunately, I don’t. The book that mentions these handbooks is called Architecture and Interior Design: An Integrated History to the Present, and has a section called Scandinavian Modern. However, it does not mention the details of these handbooks besides the overall feel/concepts I mention in this post. I would also be curious to see the suggestions they have. Maybe you could search it online and there may be an old copy?

      • Ines

         /  10/23/2014

        Thank you for answering! I’ll look it up and let you know if I find anything on the subject. Also, I happened to live in Sweden for 10 years and intend to ask a couple of friends who are architects if they’ve heard of those handbooks.I’ll let you know. Many thanks again! Saludos from Lima, Peru

  4. Hi lovely article :) I was wondering if you would be able to let me see your bibliography/ sources :) Thanks

    • Hey there! I apologize, but I cleaned off my computer and no longer have this essay saved in my documents. I know I have it saved to a CD, but since we are in the middle of moving and our stuff is in storage, it is lost somewhere in the boxes! I would be happy to send it to you when I run across it, but it may be a month or so down the road. If you are still interested, you can e-mail me at shaleesa.mize@gmail.com.

  1. Inspiration: Scandi & Nordic Style Crush | suzik

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