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An Introduction to Scandinavian Design
From its beginnings in the early 20th century to today, this streamlined style of modern furniture has become ever more popular
For more than a century, the Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and especially Denmark have enjoyed outsized renown for modern furniture and interiors. Clean-lined and functional, yet taking on evocative shapes drawn from nature, Scandinavian design helped bring modernism to the masses by making it more humanistic. And whether it's an Eero Saarinen Womb Chair, an Arne Jacobsen teapot, or a Poul Henningsen Artichoke light, many of these works have proven to be timeless modern icons.
By the early 20th century, the influence of the Industrial Revolution and Germany's Bauhaus school inspired many European designers to create furnishings free of ornamentation, yielding a streamlined, machine-inspired functionalism. Scandinavian designers put their own spin on the style, incorporating elements of their longstanding craftsmanship traditions, particularly with wood.
Finland's Alvar Aalto, celebrated architect and furniture designer, helped pioneer the use of bending plywood in the mid-1930s. His career included many pieces still in production today, such as the Stool 60, which just celebrated its 80th anniversary with numerous designer reissues, as well as the Chair 611 that pairs a crisscrossing grid of leather straps with angular birch wood framing. Aalto's Armchair 400, another standout, features a plush lounge seat and two molded wood pieces of wood that form the base and armrests.
After World War II, a new generation of Scandinavian designers enjoyed increasing influence with furniture that combined new materials and familiar natural forms. Finnish-born architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen, for example, made his name in the United States while a student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, co-designing a bent-plywood chair with Charles Eames that won the Museum of Modern Art's "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" competition in 1940. Saarinen would go on to design modern furniture classics like the Womb Chair in 1948 and the Tulip Chair in 1957, as well as architectural landmarks like the St. Louis Arch and the Trans World Airlines terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Thanks to the success of numerous Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner, the phrase "Danish modern" became shorthand for middle-class sophistication. Like Aalto, Jacobsen was an architect and furniture designer. He created not only the elegant glass tower SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, but also its interiors, including two chairs that would sell worldwide in the millions: the Egg Swan Chairs. Hans Wegner would become one of the most prolific modern designers. His Round Chair from 1949, sometimes known simply as "The Chair," represented his philosophy of "continuous purification," its curving back rail swooping down to form armrests.
Embracing new technologies and forms, Scandinavian designers like Poul Henningsen and Verner Panton adopted a more futuristic style, favoring extravagant geometric forms and bold colors. Henningsen's PH Artichoke lamp, designed in 1958, may look like that petal-covered vegetable but does so for a practical reason: to distribute overhead light without glare. It has since become one of the most iconic works of modern lighting design. Panton's Heart Cone Chair forms a valentine shape from its oversized wings. And his S-shaped Panton Chair from 1967 became the first formed from one piece of molded plastic.
Today the popularity of Scandinavian furniture has reached every corner of the globe, with many of these classics still in production by brands like Vitra, Artek, and Knoll. Scandinavian style has spread to accessories as well, including Ferm Living's pillows and wallpaper and streamlined kitchenware from brands like Stelton, Gense, and Menu. Yet over the years, its appeal endures: warm modernism with a natural, human feel.
— Brian Libby