The history of Scandinavian design: the emergence of a style – Part 1

For the past ten years or so, France has been experiencing a craze for Scandinavian design, and yet the interest in this design is not new. Since the interwar period, the French have been interested in the design of the Nordic countries, which they discovered at the Universal Exhibitions in Paris in 1900 and 1925. But it was only after the Second World War that Scandinavian design, and more particularly Danish furniture, became increasingly popular. The 1940s to 1970s saw the creation of the great names of Scandinavian design that we still admire today: Kaare Klint, Alvar Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Finn Juhl, Hans J. Wegner, Börge Mogensen, Grete Jalk, Nanna Ditzel, Poul Kjaerholm, Verner Panton, to name just a few of the best known. Today their creations are part of the world’s design heritage, and are sought after by design lovers not only in France, but all over the world.
In order to help you better understand the particularity of this design, its creations, the evolution of its style, the materials used as well as the known and less known designers and manufacturers, we are going to present you in the coming months a series of articles, allowing you, thereafter, to identify this design more easily. In our first article we will look at the emergence of Scandinavian design, which began even before the Second World War, and the particularities of the three great Scandinavian countries, Finland, Sweden and Denmark, in the field of design:
Indeed, the emergence of design and especially Scandinavian furniture already starts before the Second World War, continuing its rise during the 50s and 60s. As we shall see, all European countries were to be marked by this exceptional development. If the United States, England and Germany were among the leading export countries for Scandinavian furniture manufacturers during the 30 glorious years, France was not left behind. As soon as the Second World War ended, France became fascinated by the Scandinavian countries; their way of life, their school systems, their architecture and their design. If at first it was Sweden that was the object of all the attention, as well as Finland, notably with the creations of the Finnish Alvar Aalto and the Swede Bruno Mathsson, it was quickly Denmark that was going to impose itself as a great design nation.
But let’s take a look at the Scandinavian countries to better understand the emergence of design in these Nordic countries.

Finland is the northernmost country in Scandinavia, a strange country covered with vast expanses of pine and fir forests. In this country, where the winters are extremely harsh, the people remain very close to nature, a special relationship that is reflected in Finnish design. This is reflected in a great respect for materials and a taste for natural forms. Having struggled for centuries against an extremely hostile environment and repelled many invaders, the Finnish people have gradually built up an incredible strength and determination to overcome the insurmountable. In contrast to this rather introverted temperament, creation has been the vehicle of great expressiveness. The long struggle against the invaders resulted in a strong attachment to traditions and the affirmation of their cultural, economic and political identity. One of the great sources of inspiration for many artists is the famous poem Kalevala, composed by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) in 1835 and based on Finnish mythology. This poem embodied the unique cultural source of art and design in Finland in the second half of the 19th century. It was from this that Finnish National Romanticism developed, embodied in particular by Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), the architect of the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, and who later became the president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the United States. This academy trained all the new American avant-garde designers, such as Charles and Ray Eames (1912-1988). At Cranbrook, Eliel Saarinen promoted the humanist principles of Scandinavian design. His son, Eero (1910-1961), would later become one of the great figures of post-war design.


Eliel Saarinen, Cranbrook Arm and side Chairs, ca. 1929


Eliel Saarinen, House Round Table and Chairs, ca. 1929-1930

The National Romanticism advocated by Saarinen was part of the European Art Nouveau movement, which would later become one of the hallmarks of Finnish design: an ability to integrate both the national and the international in their creations. For example, Saarinen created a series of wooden furniture in which the national and rustic tradition is clearly perceptible. Similarly, the link with the country culture remains very present, using mainly wood of indigenous origin such as birch, maple, oak but also imported mahogany in these early creations. It is part of an aesthetic that can be linked to English Arts and Crafts.
During the First World War, Finnish design was still influenced by Art Nouveau, but it was not until the interwar period, with the creations of the architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), that a new type of design emerged.


Alvar Aalto, “Paimio” armchair, 1932. Still published today by Artek.


Alvar Aalto, Armchair 401, 1933. Still published by Artek.

After the Second World War, Finland, forced to pay war reparations to Russia, had to regain its national confidence. The 1950s saw the emergence of great Finnish designers who helped Finland achieve international status. Designers such as Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985), Timo Sarpaneva (1926), Vuokko (1927), Antti Nurmesniemi (1927), Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914-1999) and Maija Isola (1927-2001) raised Finnish design to an aesthetic level never before attained, and at the same time met with great success at various exhibitions around the world, including the famous Triennales in Milan.


Wirkkala, Kantarelli Vase, 1946. For the Milan Triennale in 1951 – 100 pieces made in two series of 50 and 50 (only 25 pieces belonging to the second series)


Timo Sarpaneva, “Claritas” and “Tear” model


Antti Nurmesniemi, Stool


Ilmari Tapiovaara, “Domus” chair

Sweden is the largest of the five Scandinavian countries. It is also a country of contrasts, with lakes, forests, waterfalls, agricultural plains and many small islands. Since the Second World War, it has remained neutral in the face of conflict. And like most of its Scandinavian neighbours, it has been able to transform a relatively poor economy based on agriculture into an industrialised nation with a highly advanced social production system that is much admired by the international community. The state religion is Lutheranism, a religion that emphasises personal morality and the idea of ‘living faith’. A worldview that will direct design towards purity, functionality and social harmony. With humanism permeating all aspects of Swedish life, Swedish design is marked by a belief in a moral duty to produce solutions that meet real social needs. In the 20th century, Sweden, at the cost of the highest tax burden in the world, built a universal welfare system that is often seen as the most generous, including many free (i.e. tax-funded) benefits in the areas of school education, childcare, health services, pensions, care for the elderly, social services and other social schemes. The welfare state, “folkhemmet” as the Swedes call it (literally the home of all the people), was a societal project followed with great interest by political scientists and politicians around the world. Other countries have been inspired by it in many ways. The Swedish experience is known by many names: “the middle way”, “cradle-to-grave care”, and of course the “Swedish model” are just a few.
Swedish decorative arts also have a long tradition. Already in the 18th century, King Gustav III (reign 1771-1792) established a neo-classicism very much inspired by the French model, even if it remained lighter, with influences of Rococo or Louis XV style, with interiors painted in pastel tones, pale coloured pine furniture and bare wooden boards. Now known as the Gustavian style, it has been enjoying a steady resurgence of interest in its more romantic version, both in France and in Scandinavia in recent years.


Pair of Gustavian style armchairs from the late 18th century.

Between 1830 and 1840, Sweden was influenced by the German Biedermeier style, which suited the Swedish spirit of simplicity and modesty. In the middle of the 19th century, there was a “revival” movement characterised by a mixture of historical influences ranging from Gothic to Baroque and even Rococo. Fin de siècle artists such as the ceramist, glassmaker and designer Gunnar Wennerberg (1863-1914) introduced a style close to Art Nouveau inspired by nature, in a more simplified version than that of the French movement.


Vase by Gunnar Wennerberg, ca. 1900

In response to this eclecticism, the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society for Art and Industrial Design), the world’s first association of designers, was formed in 1845. The idea of the Svenska Slöjdföreningen was to improve handicraft products through the cooperation of artistic forces, to advance domestic culture and to raise the general level of taste. Svenska Slöjdföreningen is driven by the idea that design should be used as a catalyst for social change.
At the end of the 19th century, under the influence of English Arts and Crafts, Sweden would, for a short period, turn more towards its cultural roots, and in particular towards rurality. With this in mind, Carl (1853-1919) and Karin Larsson (1859-1928) furnished and decorated their small house in Sundborn in a simple, unpretentious style, a mixture of peasant culture and the idyllic vision of a classic country house. The Larssons’ work can be seen as a reflection of a rejection of the industrial society that was slowly beginning to take place in Sweden. The Larssons’ interiors were widely publicised through the series of watercolours that Carl Larsson painted of their house, and reproduced in the album “Ett Hem” (1899). In Paris we could admire his illustrations at the Petit Palais in 2014.


Watercolours by Carl Larsson showing the interior of his house in Sweden.

These images by Carl Larsson were to greatly inspire the Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key (1849-1926) for her pamphlet “Skönhet aat alla” (Beauty for All, 1899). Key’s idea was that by raising consumer taste and developing aesthetic perception, design standards could be changed, reflecting a profound social transformation. In her view, a beautiful environment contributes to well-being. Key’s ideas were reflected in many of the cheap Swedish products made in the early 20th century. In 1915, Svenska Slöjdföreningen set up an agency to facilitate contacts between designers and manufacturers in order to improve the quality of Swedish design and to encourage the creation of simple, good quality and, above all, cheap objects. However, these objects were not very successful because, as they were based on industrial art, they did not reach the expected clientele, namely the working class. Although the cost of these objects may have been prohibitive, it was rather the connotation of these “simple”, inferior domestic objects that heavily affected sales. It was not until after the First World War that the idea of simplicity as a principle of beauty began to take hold, particularly as a result of European events.
In a later article we will look at how modernism was introduced into Swedish design and the beginning of Danish design..
> Read more about Scandinavian design

Written by Rikke JACOBSEN

Doctor in Art History – Design, graduate of the Sorbonne Paris IV
Thesis on the subject of “Wooden furniture after the Second World War