Scandinavian design has long been in the doldrums, dependent on its august past. But, thanks to an international perspective and a fresh playfulness, a new generation of designers is now coming to the fore, writes Nick Compton
There are many reasons to find IKEA, the experience and the product, rather depressing; those meatballs, the trolley hell of the basement bazaar, the giant bags of useless tealights you end up buying. But the most melancholy aspect of Ikea’s success is that it is now the flag-bearer for Scandinavian design.
This is to belie the impact and relevance, even half a century on, of the more true heart of that design ethos, with its good design for everyday and everyone idealism. That sales pitch is one that is now being answered with new vigor. Indeed, the interest in Scandinavian design is now at an all time high, according to design commentator Henrietta Thompson, who has worked with the Norwegian Embassy for the last five years on the design show 100% Norway. “It’s everywhere,” she says. “You can’t open a lifestyle magazine without an Alvar Aalto 60 stool, Arne Jacobsen flatware, or a lovely Louis Poulsen lamp featuring somewhere, rip-off or otherwise.”
So great has this renewed interest been, even McDonald’s is now stocked with knock-off Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs, while specialist retailers such as London’s Skandium sell expensive re-issues of the Nordic classics to a metropolitan elite. But what the success of this design pincer movement hides is the degree to which Scandinavian design arguably lost the creative initiative a long time ago - to the Italian Memphis school, to the conceptualism of Dutch design, the new industrial evangelism of Konstantin Gric, a German, the re-imagined modernism of Brits such as Barber Osgerby or the almost cartoon playfulness of the Spaniard Jaime Hayon.
As Ms Thompson points out, the sheer weight of the Scandinavian design legacy has, in some ways, held a generation of new Scandinavian designers back. “The contemporary design scene there has been criticised in the past for being too stuck in the past, being boring, with every young designer just trying to be the next Aalto or Arne Jacobsen,” she says. “But that’s changing now, with the new generation at last finding its own voice - using new technologies and materials, showing more of an international influence too.”
What designers - such as the Swedish trio Front, fellow Swede Martin Björnson, the Danes Mathias Bengtsson and Line Depping, the Norwegian design collectives Angell Wyller Aarseth and Anderssen & Voll, country-mates Hallgeir Hommstvedt and Magnus Peterson and the Finns Aamu Song and Johan Olin, known collectively as Company, and Harri Koskinen - have finally learned to do is take the founding principles of 20th century Scandinavian design and successfully update them.
The cream perhaps remains. The Angell Wyller Aarseth collective argues that it is operating by the same guiding principles as the Scandinavian design gods Aalto, Wegner et al. “We still work with the idea of ‘as little design as possible’,” it says.
“We want to build on the style which has its roots in traditional craftsmanship and making it fit for the contemporary industry and lifestyle needs. We still work with the familiar, with archetypes, stripped down but shaped in a characteristic way.”
The geographical breadth of their design education is breathing new energy into their Scandinavian approach
There is the same classically Scandinavian emphasis on materials, particularly wood. And the understanding that: “You cannot fake a good product through good ideas alone; a product will never be any better than the efforts the manufacturer is willing to invest in it,” as the collective stresses.
Line Depping makes a similar case: “There are definitely lasting characteristics of Scandinavian design. Shape and function are always closely related. When I look at a table or a chair I will always look underneath to see how it has been solved. You cannot cheat.”
But the key to the success of Scandinavian designers now is that these principles are being taken forward, applied in new ways, notably with some playfulness, as Martin Björnson’s Octopus stools suggest. The new Scandinavians are never reluctant to combine fine natural materials and handcrafts with the latest in tool technologies either. Think of Front Design with their 3-D Sketch furniture for example, or Mathias Bengtsson, with the amazing topography of his Slice Ply Chair.
Of course, a design movement or moment is about more than individual designers. It’s about them having somewhere to work and a system that will keep new and better designers coming along. And industry and education have been key reasons for the eclipse of Scandinavian design. Italian manufacturers have dominated high-end design for half a century. A more recent development has been the ascendancy of London’s Royal College of Arts and Design Academy Eindhoven as the leading design academies with schools like Switzerland’s ECAL also challenging strongly. And while Scandinavian students and designers can and do travel to study and work, it inevitably leads to a dilution to a particular Scandinavian design style. Or perhaps it has lead to a healthy internationalisation of Scandinavian design.
“In the past decade the world just got so much more global in so many ways. And where designers study and who they do work experience for or where they settle for a while tends to have a stronger influence on their styles than their national identity,” argues Sophie Lovell, author of the design book Limited Edition. The geographical breadth of their design education is breathing new energy into their Scandinavian approach. Magnus Pettersen is a case in point. “I am naturally inspired by 20th century Scandinavian design,” he says. “But having a design education from the UK, I am influenced by a number of cultures and styles.”
The success of Scandinavian design at the moment might be exactly because it has absorbed other influences and become part of a new Scandinavian design orthodoxy that, after some hiatus, ticks all the right boxes. This is how Kerstin Wickman, professor of the history of design and craft, at Konstfack, University College of Arts and Design in Stockholm, sees it. For her the new interest in natural materials, sustainability and craftsmanship have inevitably led to a renewed interest in Scandinavian design. But that has moved on and become part of a larger design movement that is also influenced by Dieter Rams, Jasper Morrison and Vico Maggistreti, among others.
Indeed, well-established Scandinavian design companies the likes of Iittala, Marimekko, Svenskt Tenn, and Artek have recently all learned how to get the most out of impressive back catalogues whilst also making the most of this new wave of talent. And as Depping points out, there are new companies launching all the time to push Scandinavian design still further forward. “Look at Hay, Muuto, Normann Copenhagen,” he suggests. “They are interested in new designs, both international and Danish design - and that’s of enormous importance, because design then doesn’t become something from the past, but what we create today.”