Interiors & Design

Scandinavian Design File: The Next Chapter

There’s no denying the impact that Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland have had on the way we furnish our homes since the midcentury-modern design boom

Scandinavian design has become a catch-all term to describe the architecture, interior design, furniture, and homeware that evolved in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland in the early 20th century. But one can’t describe Scandinavian design in terms of a single feature or look, for its story and output is a smørgasbord of ideas and innovation that has developed over the course of 100 years. Perhaps this is why, in terms of design, these relatively small nations have managed to punch above their weight for so long.

Alvar Aalto’s iconic three-legged, bentwood stool, designed in Finland in 1932, is typical of a style known for a gentler approach to modernism. Sixty years later, Pia Wallen’s minimalist interpretations of Swedish folk art became an example of how craft and heritage are woven into the narrative of Scandinavian design. Magazine pages featuring cool white space with blonde-wood floors and brightly colored accents that pop with positivity channel the archetypal “Scandi-chic” interior. Uniting all this is an underlying aesthetic based upon an appreciation for simplicity, functionality, a relationship with nature. And there is also a central belief that good design should be an integral part of our lives and available for all. A well-designed and handsome chair that was also affordable became an object of ideological expression.

Finland's Alvar Aalto was the first furniture designer to use the cantilever principle in chair design using wood, exemplified in his iconic Artek 60 stools, above. Photograph: Artek Collection/ Alvar Aalto Museum. Banner image, top: Oslo's Tarald Lundevall-designed opera house has quickly gained instantly recognizable status in the Norwegian capital.
Finland's Alvar Aalto was the first furniture designer to use the cantilever principle in chair design using wood, exemplified in his iconic Artek 60 stools, above. Photograph: Artek Collection/ Alvar Aalto Museum. Banner image, top: Oslo's Tarald Lundevall-designed opera house has quickly gained instantly recognizable status in the Norwegian capital.

As a backdrop to this approach are the long, dark nights of a Scandinavian winter that for centuries have made the home the central focus of people’s lives as a haven from hostile climatic conditions. This climate inspired its people to create, as an antidote, homes that were light, airy, and filled with happy colorsfurther hallmarks of Scandinavian design.

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From this signature style of clean lines, flawless craftsmanship, and warm functionality, countless design classics were produced and the gap between craft and manufacture became pleasingly blurred.

A revolution begins
Denmark was at the forefront of the Scandinavian design movement in the 1930s, with now-familiar names such as Hans J Wegner producing refined teak furniture, and Finn Juhl conceiving alluring organic forms. Original pieces by both of these designers continue to fetch handsome sums at auction today. By the 1950s, Poul Henningsen and Verner Panton would pick up the mantle with funky and futuristic designs, the latter working in plastic and vibrant colors.

The most important proponent of modern design in Finland was the architect Alvar Aalto, who in the 1920s and 1930s was part of the cultural renaissance of a newly independent Finland. His legacy can be seen in the numerous buildings he designed in Helsinki and in the still-popular furniture that he designed for his company Artek. These molded-wood and plywood creations were far warmer and more comfortable than the severe metal frames of Germany’s rigid Bauhaus brand of modernism.

Stockholm, for its part, has recently produced some of the design world’s most exciting creative teams

Other names would follow, from Tapio Wirkkala and his glass and ceramic designs, to Marimekko, the fashion and textiles brand known for its bold patterns in upbeat colors, which hit the international stage when Jackie Kennedy wore its designs in the 1960s.

In Sweden, Carl Malmsten and Bruno Mathsson designed graceful wooden furniture while the country’s 18th-century glassworks Orrefors continued to innovate and gain international recognition. And while some may sniff at the homogeneity of IKEA, this Swedish brand, founded in the 1940s, is without doubt the best-known example of Scandinavian design across the globe.

Like many great successes, Marimekko grew from failure. Its founders Viljo and Armi Ratia decided to set up the company after the former's oil-cloth factory project failed and was converted into a garment plant. Pictured above is the iconic Kompotti cushion cover. Photograph: Marimekko Corporation
Like many great successes, Marimekko grew from failure. Its founders Viljo and Armi Ratia decided to set up the company after the former's oil-cloth factory project failed and was converted into a garment plant. Pictured above is the iconic Kompotti cushion cover. Photograph: Marimekko Corporation

Names to emerge in Norway, where fisheries and oil traditionally loomed large, included Hans Brattrud, whose Scandia range of furniture won multiple awards in the 1960s.

Grand designs, great cities
The diverse output of this time is still as popular and relevant today, and there is a new breed of designers in each of these nations making great strides in reminding us of the particular allure of Scandinavian design, while evolving it for our times.

In Oslo’s Bjørvika area, for example, an award-winning opera house designed by Tarald Lundevall has helped transform an ugly container port into a must-visit destination in a city currently experiencing a cultural boom. Designers such as Anderssen & Voll are continuing the Nordic tradition of innovating with bentwood furniture, and producing upholstered pieces and soft furnishings in colors that pop.

Stockholm, for its part, has recently produced some of the design world’s most exciting creative teams, including Claesson Koivisto Rune and the all-female design house Front, whose witty creations have made them global names.

Tapio Wirkkala was responsible for designing the Finnish markka banknotes, as well as the distinctive Bolle vases pictured above. But by far his most famous and widely appreciated work was the design of the Finlandia vodka bottle. Photograph: Archivio Fotografico Venini
Tapio Wirkkala was responsible for designing the Finnish markka banknotes, as well as the distinctive Bolle vases pictured above. But by far his most famous and widely appreciated work was the design of the Finlandia vodka bottle. Photograph: Archivio Fotografico Venini

The Black Diamond extension to Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Library has become an architectural icon for a city that is also home to creative forces such as Normann Copenhagen, which produces the work of more than 60 young Scandinavian designers. And in 2012, Helsinki served as the World Design Capital in recognition of its implementation of design within the city.

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When the United Nations unveiled its 2015 World Happiness Report, it revealed that Scandinavian countries are among the happiest in the world, with Iceland, Denmark and Norway ranking in the top five. These results support other quality of life surveys regularly conducted by organizations as diverse as Monocle magazine and the influential consulting firm Mercer. Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, and Helsinki are each regularly in the top 10.

While these reports take in factors from healthcare and transportation to job security and political freedom, it is tempting to suggest that part of this happiness stems from living in a society where good design is equally valued.

The credo of the Swedish Society of Craft and Industrial Design is roughly translated as “Beautiful Everyday Goods.” This idea is a central part of the Scandinavian mindset and an apparent goal for its creative industries. There is a belief that well-designed products can enhance quality of life. The evidence suggests this is true.

From this ingrained appreciation for good design has sprung a generation rooted in a very Scandinavian aesthetic. We meet three very different creatives practising the art of “New Nordic”: a restaurateur, an interior architect, and a fashion designer.  

1. Jacob Holmström, Stockholm, Sweden

What do you do?
Together with Anton Bjuhr, my business partner, I run Gastrologik restaurant.

How would you describe your personal style?
My work stylethe style of the restaurantis definitely new-Nordic or Scandinavian, both in our way of cooking and in the interior.

Jacob Holmström pictured in the intimate dining room of Gastrologik, which was created by Swedish designer Joseph Lindvall. Photograph: Lina Iske
Jacob Holmström pictured in the intimate dining room of Gastrologik, which was created by Swedish designer Joseph Lindvall. Photograph: Lina Iske

How would you describe Scandinavian style?
It is something close to nature, you should be able to see and feel the produce or material. The natural way is something everybody understands and knows.

Which Scandinavian design icon do you most admire?
Sigvard Oscar Fredrik Bernadotte (Count of Wisborg)a truly unexpected designer. He made a lot of useful tools.

What inspires you?
Nature, seasons, people…

Who’s in your Stockholm address book?
Hötorgshallen has nice products—mostly food, but much of it from different cultures. For interiors, Svenskt Tenn has great designs. The Johan & Nyström coffee shop in Söder has excellent coffee and the people working there are really skilled. Fotografiska is the place to go if you like photo art, and Atelier Food is an ongoing project with interesting approaches to food and eating. A really nice hotel is Ett Hem, which has interiors by Ilse Crawford.

The private dining room seats just 30 guests, and there are no menus at Gastrologik, in Stockholm. Photograph: Lina Ikse
The private dining room seats just 30 guests, and there are no menus at Gastrologik, in Stockholm. Photograph: Lina Ikse

2. Joanna Laajisto, Helsinki, Finland

What do you do?
I am an interior architect. My latest projects include a restaurant called Michel, and two bars, Le Roy and Bier Bier, all in Helsinki. 

How would you describe your personal style?
I am a visual person and I like beautiful things, but I don’t like too many of them. I like to invest in quality over quantity in interiors as well as in my wardrobe. 

Joanna Laajisto's interiors blend innovative designs with functional spaces. The Helsinki-based interior architect's work includes bars, restaurants, and shops. Photograph: Lina Ikse
Joanna Laajisto's interiors blend innovative designs with functional spaces. The Helsinki-based interior architect's work includes bars, restaurants, and shops. Photograph: Lina Ikse

How would you describe Scandinavian style?
The beauty of simplicity is very Scandinavian. The use of natural, local materials such as wood, leather, and stone is also very characteristic.

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What inspires you?
Big metropolises such as New York, Paris, and London. The atmosphere, even just on the streets, is so loaded with energy it forces me to grab my sketchbook and start doodling. 

Who’s in your Helsinki address book?
For vintage furniture, I like to go to Wanhamania in Töölö. For clothes, I really like Finnish brand Samuji. My favorite bar for cocktails is Liberty or Death with its changing cocktail menu. The same crew, Laboratoriumm, also runs the very popular Grotesk bar in Helsinki.

3. Tina Haagensen, Oslo, Norway

What do you do?
I have my own fashion brand, Tina Haagensen, and I teach design and modélisme at the ESMOD OSLO fashion school. I’ve also developed costumes for a Norwegian children’s movie, and I’m always designing my next collection.

How would you describe your Scandinavian style?
Sophisticated, clean, fresh, calm, quality, functional, and close to nature. Scandinavian design has become a lifestyle. I think the overall look is appealing to people who focus on a sporty and healthy way of living.

Tina Haagensen applies her playful design principles to costume projects for film as well as her own collections. Photograph: Lina Ikse
Tina Haagensen applies her playful design principles to costume projects for film as well as her own collections. Photograph: Lina Ikse

Which Scandinavian design icon do you most admire?
I love the work of Grete Prytz Kittelsen, a Norwegian goldsmith, enamel artist, and designer. She was a part of the Scandinavian design movement and way ahead of her time. 

Who’s in your Oslo address book?
You can always find charming things at Norway Designsa concept store offering only Scandinavian designand Hay, a Danish interior store. One of my weaknesses is shoes; one of Norway’s best shoe designers is Ingunn Birkeland. The Thief hotel in Tjuvholmenan upcoming part of the cityis very interesting.