The Characteristics That Define Scandinavian Design

If someone asks you to describe “Scandinavian design”, there’s a good chance the words “simple”, “minimalist” and “contemporary” will form part (if not all) of your description. While your answer would certainly be true, there’s a whole lot more to Scandinavian design than clean white walls, simple lines, stripped wood floors, and flat packed furniture. If you want to understand the characteristics that define Scandinavian design, the first thing to realize is that Scandinavia isn’t a country, it a broad umbrella term that takes in the Northern European countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland. While these countries have some shared historical and cultural characteristics in common, they also have some significant differences (for example, Finland is known as one of the biggest producers of timber in the world, while Iceland is known for its barren landscape), leading to the question of how such a large group of countries managed to unite to form a centralized, distinct design philosophy.

The History of Scandinavian Design

To understand the genesis of Scandinavian design, we need to trace our steps back to the closing days of the 19th century. The advent of the industrial revolution had radically changed all aspects of life, from the personal to the political to the industrial. Modernism was taken hold, and the old ways where being quickly cast aside for the new. While most were all in favor of the new direction, some were more cautious, seeing modernism as a threat to many of the artistic traditions that had been held so dear for so long. Of these, one of the most vocal opponents was William Morris, one of the principal exponents of the arts and crafts movement, a trend that favored traditional craftsmanship over mass-produced machine productions and advocated a return to simple designs inspired by the medieval, romantic, and folk styles.

While Morris’ design philosophy proved popular, it was Art Nouveau that was at the forefront of the design revolution of the first decade of the 20th century. Like the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau drew on nature for inspiration and encompassed decorative arts as much it did architecture. By the ’20s, however, Art Nouveau had given way to its bastard child, Art Deco, an aesthetically driven, modernist approach to design that relied heavily on the new machinery and industrialization of the age. Beloved of the aristocracy, Art Deco enjoyed a few brief years in the sunshine before the economic downturn heralded by the Wall Street collapse, swiftly followed by the outbreak of World War II, put its popularity into decline.

World War II’s impact on the formerly great empires of Europe had a major knock-on effect on the artistic, social and cultural movements of the day. Prior to the war, the bigger, the grander and the more ostentatious the decorative elements and furnishings of your home, the greater your social standing was perceived. Those who could afford it liked to show that fact in their homes; those that couldn’t made do and mended. While beauty was the preserve of the rich, the poor made do with the practical. In the aftermath of World War II, displaying your wealth through ostentatious splendor became frowned upon, with refinement and functionality becoming the new buzz words of the day.

The new social order demanded the poor enjoy the same access to beautiful decorations as the rich, and the rich to enjoy the same level of practicality in their living arrangements as the poor. Fortunately, the industrialization that had started over 60 years previously was now at the point of being able to support the new democratic attitude to design: furniture that was at once both beautiful and practical could now be mass produced at a level that put it in the preserve of all social classes and demographics. At the same time as this was happening, the Northern countries of Europe were bonding closer together, both in terms of their political and social establishments, and their shared attitude to interior design- something which took the idea of simple, beautiful, but above all else, functional designs, and ran with it.

Plagued by harsh conditions and cold climes, the people of the countries of Scandinavia had long treasured utility above all things. In the 1940s, the seeds of a united, all-encompassing Scandinavian style began to take root- by the 1950s, those seeds had flourished into a recognizable movement that over the following decades, would become one of the biggest and most popular design trends in Europe.

One of the main proponents of the movement and the person who is widely regarded to have bought Scandinavian design to the rest of the world was Elizabeth Gordon. Described by Curbed writer Sarah Hucal as a “prominent midcentury tastemaker,” Gordon presented Scandinavian style as the complete opposite of the class-conscious, fascist designs that had come before it. Bearing in mind that Europe was still reeling from the after-effects of the war, it’s easy to see why a style that was at once democratic and simple, and with its emphasis firmly on the family and the home (rather than king and country), was such an attractive proposition. As noted by Fast Company, with the combined support of the kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, Gordon took both herself and Scandinavian design to the road, traveling between 24 American and Canadian cities between 1954 and 1957 as part of the “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition. Gordon and her exhibition proved a roaring success, and by the end of the 1950s, there was barely a house in America (or indeed, the world) that didn’t have at least some element of Scandinavian style incorporated into its design features. Despite experiencing a slight downturn in popularity after the 1960s, the 1990s saw a return to the stripped back, sustainable designs of the style, and today, it ranks as one of the most popular, and enduring, design movements in the world.

The Typical Scandinavian Room

So, what exactly are the characteristics of Scandinavian design? If we were to describe a typical Scandinavian style room, we’d see the use of a light, neutral color palette as one of its main features. While walls which give a feeling of airiness and space, and emphasize natural light (a rare commodity in the Scandinavian countries and one they’re used to making the most of), are offset by bare floorboards, absent of carpet but with perhaps a few natural fiber scatter rugs to provide warmth. Windows will typically be free of treatment, while materials elsewhere are natural (wood and stone as opposed to plastic or other man-made materials). Colorful art is rarely found in Scandinavian design, but you may see an artistic flourish with a series of graphic multiples.

The Concept of Hygge

Texture is crucial in the Scandinavian style home: expect to see rough, exposed brick, either painted white or left untreated, smooth wood, and coarse hessian. The key to the design of a Scandinavian style room is the lack of clutter and the utility of its contents: don’t expect to see unnecessary ornaments or anything that lacks utility, even if it lends beauty. That’s not to say the minimalist aesthetic is harsh: one of the integral elements of the style is the Danish concept of “hygge”. While the meaning of hygge can’t be translated into a single word, it describes a feeling of coziness and contentment, and enjoyment of the simple things in life. How does this translate into design features? With the strategic use of cozy materials and the addition of decorative items that add warmth and comfort while also adding functionality. Think of candles in simple brass candleholders, curtains to separate the sleeping quarters, a small landing rug at the foot of a bed, a cozy sheepskin throw or a kilim rug by the sofa to rest your feet on.

Typical Scandinavian Style Furniture

When it comes to furniture, you’ll be pleased to know Scandinavian design isn’t limited to flat packed, mass-produced IKEA offerings (although these undoubtedly have their place). The movement has inspired and produced some of the most popular architects and designers of the past 2 centuries, resulting in furniture that manages to be at once beautiful, practical and ergonomic. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, for example, masterfully combined utility with artistic expression in his works, which reached their peak in the creation of the “Paimio” chair. The Danish designers Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen, meanwhile, showed exactly what could be achieved with their country’s bountiful supply of timber in their masterful creations. Wegner’s iconic “Round” chair and “Wishbone” chair are as hotly in demand today as they were 60 years ago, while Jacobsen’s best-selling “Ant Chair” competes only in popularity with his legendary “Swan” chair and “Egg” chair. Elsewhere, Finn Juhl’s striking “chieftain” chair, Pohl Kjaerholm’s tasteful combination of rattan and bare metal, and Vernor Panton’s exuberant use of shape and form exemplify the principles of Scandinavian style at its best.

A Concept of Contrasts

While Scandinavian design is typified by a neutral color pallet, it’s not just a sea of white. Modern Scandinavian style often incorporates elements of color as a way of creating a bold, impactful statement: a typical example of this will include sculptural black furniture in an otherwise all-white room. The overall effect is still minimalist, but the contrasting shades add enough drama to avoid a slide into the monotonous. Just as much as there’s a contrast in color, there can be a contrast in style: as My Domain notes, in a typical Scandinavian style room, you’ll often find modern furniture competing against the ornate architectural details common to Northern European homes. Similarly, the stark, clean lines of modern Scandinavian furniture are offset by the rich warmth of the polished blonde wood and sumptuous cognac leather materials that goes into its making.

The Role of Decorations

While minimalism is at the heart of Scandinavian design, there are sufficient details and decorative items to avoid a descent into the sterile. Black and white photographs, strategic placement of olive branches and other simple floral decorations, and small, brass bowls often serve to add a homely feeling without adding unnecessary clutter. Elsewhere, Flos table lamps compete for attention against dramatic, stylish overhanging ceiling lights. One of the few areas Scandinavians get extravagant is in the bedroom: as any good Scandi knows, the multilayered look is key to creating a welcoming, inviting bedroom. Expect layered bedding with an artfully combined blend of cool linen sheets, warm woolen blankets and a carefully balanced pile of accent pillows. The colors of the layers are kept muted and tonal (greys, camels, and creams are often used as base shades) to avoid an overly cluttered effect. Elsewhere in the bedroom, colors are kept just as muted: expect off-whites, sepias, and blondes to keep the space restful and welcoming.

The Importance of Placement

Just as important as the furniture itself is its placement. A feeling of space is integral to a Scandinavian styled room, and furniture is placed to maximize its airy feel. Traditional northern European homes feature a fireplace in the corner of a room (rather than in its center, as is often the case elsewhere). Furniture is placed to accommodate this design feature, with small, single chairs often sat around the fireplace itself, while larger sofas drift towards the middle of the room.

Scandinavian Design in Conclusion

As we’ve seen, Scandinavian Design is a broad term that encompasses many different elements. As striking as it is minimalist, as stylish as it is functional, as modern as it is traditional, it’s a design that can be re-worked and reimagined to suit almost all tastes, budgets and preferences. At its heart, however, are certain unifying concepts that are responsible for its broad appeal and the undying loyalty of its fans: comfort, practicality, and universality. The style grew to prominence during a time in which the class and social barriers of old were being broken down, and today, you’re as likely to find its hallmark features in the houses of the workers as you are in the houses of the aristocrats. After all, who can’t stand to have more hygge in their lives?


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