An Introduction to Scandinavian Design
From its beginnings in the early 20th century, Scandinavian design’s streamlined style of modern furniture and decor has become even more popular today.
The Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and especially Denmark are renowned for their modern living room furniture and interiors. Clean-lined and functional–yet taking on evocative shapes drawn from nature–Scandinavian design initially helped bring modernism to the masses by making it more humanistic. More than that, many classic Scandinavian works have proven to be timeless design icons.
In the early 20th century, 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 light-colored woods.
Finland’s Alvar Aalto, celebrated architect and modern furniture designer, helped pioneer the use of bending plywood in the mid-1930s. Many of his bent wood pieces are still in production today, such as the Stool 60, which recently celebrated its 80th anniversary, and perhaps the best-known of all his furniture pieces, the Paimio Chair, which was named for the town in which Aalto designed a hospital and all its furnishings.
The 1940s and ’50s
During and after World War II, a new generation of Scandinavian designers enjoyed increasing influence, and explored modern furniture designs 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. He co-designed 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.
It was also around this time that Denmark took the lead in Scandinavian design. Thanks to the success of numerous Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner, the phrase “Danish Modern” became shorthand for Scandinavian design (and middle-class sophistication). Like Aalto, Jacobsen was an architect and furniture designer. He not only created the elegant glass tower SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, but also all of its interiors, including two chairs that became popular worldwide: the Egg and Swan Chairs.
Hans Wegner also became one of the most prolific modern furniture designers. His Round Chair from 1949, sometimes known simply as “The Chair,” represented his philosophy of “continuous purification,” with a 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.
The 1960s and Today
While he started in the ’50s, Verner Panton really hit his stride in the non-conformist 1960s and ’70s. His look was all about improbable shapes, vibrant colors and exploring innovative manufacturing processes. Take his Heart Cone Chair, which forms a valentine shape from its oversized wings. And his S-shaped Panton Chair from 1967 became the first chair formed from one piece of molded plastic.
Today, the popularity of Scandinavian furniture has reached every corner of the globe. Many of the classics discussed here are still in production–as well as new designs inspired by them–by brands like Vitra, Artek, and Knoll. Scandinavian style has spread to accessories as well, including things like pillows, wallpaper and other decor from Ferm Living, and streamlined kitchenware from brands like Stelton and Menu.
It’s easy to see how, over the years, the appeal of Scandinavian design endures: warm modernism with a natural, human feel. That’s something we hope never goes out of style.
(Updated version of post originally published in September 2015.)