The history of Scandinavian design: the emergence of a style – Part 2

In the first part of our series on the history of Scandinavian design we saw the importance of the national heritage in Finland and how the Finnish people remain very close to nature, a special relationship that is reflected in Finnish design. This can be seen in the designs ofAlvar Aalto, Wirkkala and Sarpaneva, which enjoyed great international success after the Second World War and received numerous awards, notably at the famous Triennales in Milan in the 1950s.


Chair 69 by Alvar Aaalto / Teak dish by TapioWirkkala ©

We have also seen how in Sweden, after finding inspiration in French classicism, German Biedermeider and Art Nouveau, the roots of simple and democratic design developed very early on, under the impulse of the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Arts and Industrial Design) which was created in 1845. But it was especially after the First World War that the Svenska Slöjdföreningen created an agency (in 1915) to facilitate contacts between designers and manufacturers with the aim of improving the quality of Swedish design and encouraging the creation of simple, good quality and above all inexpensive objects. However, the success of these objects was very limited, as they were based on industrial art and 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. For it is well known that the working class of the time aspired to the same objects and furniture as the elite..


The newspaper Svenska slöjdföreningens (1905)

Thus, as was the case throughout Europe, manufacturers turned a deaf ear and continued to make luxury goods for an elite. During the 1920s, many Swedish designers left to study and then work in Paris or Berlin, bringing back the modernist ideas that had taken hold there. Those who remained in Sweden were aware of the rapid industrialisation that marked the country during this period. As everywhere, the 1920s and 1930s were characterised by a mixture of modernist ideas and more traditional inspirations. In Sweden, this resulted in a combination of neo-classical and modern design. With the arrival of the Social Democrats in power in the early 1930s, the watchwords were prosperity and the distribution of goods. The Social Democrats saw modern design as a tool for social change rather than as an exercise in avant-garde aesthetics. The official doctrine of design is social equality. During this period, an aesthetic was adopted that the public would describe as sterile or cold, with metal furniture. The Swedish Functionalism of this period was called “Funkis”.
The Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, directed by Gregor Paulsson, had a great influence.


Poster from the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition

This exhibition put forward a utopian vision of society, with model flats for low-income families. From an aesthetic point of view, it is clear that Swedish designs from this period are not far removed from the ideas of the German Bauhaus. The co-director of the exhibition was Erik Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940), a prominent representative of the Scandinavian functionalist movement and a leading figure in Swedish architecture with his glass and steel exhibition pavilion. He introduced the international style to Sweden for the first time. This functionalist movement was much criticised in Sweden for its coldness and lack of Swedish identity. However, everyone agreed on the need for industrialisation to bring about social change. Opponents of the “Funkis” therefore sought a compromise between the organic and the rational.


Swedish interior, anno 1930

After the Second World War, Sweden was very concerned about its lack of housing and became a pioneer in urban planning and housing in the world, notably with numerous projects developed in the suburbs of Stockholm.
Carl-Axel Acking’s creations are particularly noteworthy from this period. For a time he worked with Erik Gunnar Asplund.


Carl-Axel Acking, Armchair, 1940s

Like many Scandinavian designers of the time he was a complete designer. He designed not only the buildings but also the interior fittings with the furniture. After the Second World War, he designed a bentwood armchair for Svenska Möbelfabrikerna in Bodafors (the Union of Swedish Furniture Manufacturers in Bodafors). The chair is made of moulded plywood and the backrest elements are easy to assemble, making it particularly suitable for industrial production and therefore for export.


Carl-Axel Acking, “Trienna” chair. Produced by NK Nordiska Kompaniet in 1957. Exhibited at the Milan Triennale in the same year.

AB Svenska Möbelfabrikerna Bodafors worked with a number of Swedish designers. Notably Axel Larsson (1898-1975), who was its main designer from 1930 to 1956. Initially, he designed furniture with simple forms, inspired by functional considerations. However, his work was increasingly marked by more organic forms. Like most Scandinavian designers, he designed both luxury furniture made in cabinetmakers’ workshops and a series of furniture suitable for industrial production for the general public.


Axel Larsson, Armchair for the Gothenburg Concert Hall, 1935,
produced by SMF/Bodafors

Another great name to remember from this period is Bruno Mathsson, the forerunner of organic design in Sweden and the creator of such famous pieces as “Grashoppan” (1931), “Pernilla” (1944) and “Eva” (1933). He represents the generation that took Swedish design from geometric functionalism to organic modernism.


Bruno Mathsson, “Gräshoppan”, 1931


Bruno Mathsson, “Pernilla” (1944) and “Eva” (1933) chairs

Mathsson participated in the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques de la Vie Moderne in Paris. His furniture was also shown at numerous international exhibitions such as the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, “Svenska Form” in Copenhagen in 1946, “H55” in Helsingborg in 1955, “Interbau” in Berlin in 1957, and “Formes Scandinaves” in Paris in 1958.


Until the 1950s, Denmark remained a country with little industry and an economy based mainly on agriculture and crafts. After the Second World War, the country, like the rest of Scandinavia, experienced a rapid economic recovery and industrialisation. The great success of the Danes in terms of design and industrial production is to have been able to harmoniously combine old models, inspired by craftsmanship, with a high level of quality. The Danish craft tradition is characterised by the use of organic forms, natural materials, especially wood, and by the attention paid to the functional and aesthetic qualities of objects. Many Danish designers are inspired, for example, by the American Shakers and by Chinese and English furniture from the 18th century. There is also a strong link with classical art and English Arts and Crafts in Danish design. The search for the “ideal form” is also quite characteristic of Danish design, often resulting in great simplification.
Danish furniture before modern design
In the 1770s, neoclassicism supplanted Rococo in Denmark, and in the first half of the 19th century, classicism took two directions, each of which was promoted in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. One of these was represented by the architects C.F. Hansen (1756-1845), G.F. Hetsch (1788-1864) and Jörgen Hansen Koch (1787-1860), executors of the great official commissions. The classicism they represented was based on the Empire style of Percier, as well as on the works in Berlin and Potsdam of the German architect Friedrich Schinkel, i.e. a neoclassical style. The other trend was represented by Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), the sculptor H.E. Freund (1786-1840) and the architect Gottlieb Bindesböll (1800-1856). All three had appropriated the values of classical antiquity and were inspired by direct studies of antique furniture, not by architecture. At that time, Gottlieb Bindesböll, in partnership with the Thorvaldsen Museum, executed the most original antique creation in Denmark. His creation was the result of his aversion to the conventional classicism of the cabinetmakers of the time.


Gottlieb Bindesböll, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Opened 1848

Both Freund and Bindesböll designed furniture, either as direct copies or as free creations after antique models. The Klismos chair, for example, was the most popular antique chair of the time, based on motifs on vases and sculptures.


Nicolai Abildgaard, Klismos chair, c. 1790, Design Museum Copenhagen

This chair can be found both in the paintings of the Danish neoclassical painter Nicolai Abilgaard, as well as in some paintings by David, Canova and some English designers. The influence of this type of chair will have a very long life in Denmark, we will later find variants in the work of Kaare Klint and even in the 1960s-1970s in some Danish designers, such as Poul Kjaerholm.
Even though the influences of French, German and English design were easily discernible in Danish design at the time, Danish furniture still retained an identity characterised by simplicity. This furniture is often referred to as “Empire” furniture, although this term is only appropriate for a small number of the official furniture designs of the time by the architects C. F. Hansen and G.F. Hetsch and linked to the French design of the time under the Empire.


G.F. Hetsch

Hetsch continued to influence design in the second quarter of the 19th century through his teaching and the publication between 1839-43 of his “Patterns of Design for the Craftsman”. The result was the so-called ” Christian VIII ” style, a rather bourgeois style in which the reasonable, the right, the comfortable and the useful were applied without much artistic display.


Christian VIII style mahogany chiffonier. Mid 19th century


Christian VIII style mahogany chest of drawers. Mid 19th century

From this time onwards, the trend was towards a multiplication of styles and their cross-fertilisation, which became even more marked from the middle of the 19th century onwards.
At the same time, a new and very different trend was emerging. These were furniture creations, sometimes called ” Artist’s Furniture“, designed in particular by H. E. Freund, Constantin Hansen (1804-1880), Christian Köbke (1810-1848) and Gottlieb Bindesböll (1800-1856) for their homes, in a style of antique, classical influence, similar to that of Abildgaard. G. Bindesböll also designed furniture, including display cases, for his great architectural creation, the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen. These designs were strongly influenced by his stay in Pompeii.


G. Bindesböll’s seats


Constantin Hansen chair

The demand for furniture was growing in the 19th century, across all social classes. Many pieces of furniture from this period have been preserved but none of them reach the aesthetic or qualitative level of those commissioned by the king. The so-called experimental furniture of this period reflects the economic, technical, artistic, social and political context that marked the whole of Europe and Denmark.
Around 1850, the Neo-Rococo style made its appearance. Mahogany dominated, although there was a clear breakthrough in the use of other noble woods, such as rosewood. The furniture is decorated with inlays and cut-outs. The curved shapes, comparable to those of the Rococo, are recurrent and with them begin the experiments.
The neo-rococo paved the way for more lively furniture forms in the 1850s and 1860s. More daring than neo-classical furniture, the furniture of this new trend was freer. Upholstered furniture, for example, was made to be seen from all sides, unlike earlier furniture.


Danish interior known as “Klunkestil”, mid to late 19th century.

The inspiration for this new furniture came from different periods and styles as well as from other cultures, from the East, but especially from the Renaissance and the Baroque period. This neo-Rococo style continued until the end of the 19th century under the name ” Klunkestil “. In parallel to this rather homogeneous style, the years 1880-1890 saw mainly single individuals who would influence the creation of Danish furniture. One such example is Lorenz Frölich (1820-1908), a painter and draughtsman, perhaps best known as the illustrator of H. C. Andersen’s Counts. In the 1880s, Frölich designed his own furniture, just as the painters of the Danish Golden Age, such as Abildgaard, did in the 18th century. Or in the tradition of those in England under the influence of the ideas and theories of William Morris.
Towards the end of the century, new designers entered the scene, notably Thorvald Bindesböll (1846-1908), the son of Gottlieb Bindesböll, architect of the Thorvaldsen Museum. Bindesböll’s son was himself an architect, but was better known as a ceramist. Thorvald Bindesböll’s success at the time did not extend beyond a small circle of enthusiasts for whom he designed furniture. Most of his furniture has a robust and monumental character with a dignity that some say is Baroque and others say is Classicist. Most of his furniture is decorated with cut-outs in such a personal style that it has been called “Bölle ornamentation”.

Bindesboêll-stol-fin 19eme

Thorvald Bindesbøll, mahogany seat, made by Severing and Andreas Jensen

In conclusion, it seems clear that Sweden has been quicker to adopt a modern approach to design than Denmark. The country was still very much influenced by classicism and even baroque, English and German design until the beginning of the 20th century. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s, with the creations of Kaare Klint, that we saw the beginnings of modernity in Danish design. In our next article we will look at the beginning of modernity in Danish design ….
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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