Working world is sleek and stylish

Acclaimed designer Timothy Jacob Jensen explains why functionalism lies at the heart of the Scandinavian approach to design


During the Seventies, Denmark fell into a deep energy crisis and, as concerns over global warming grew in the Eighties, it was a natural choice for it to invest in renewable energy. Today, Denmark is at the forefront of developing commercial wind power and remains one of the largest manufacturers of wind turbines in the world.

Each graceful, utilitarian turbine is a great example of functional design in action - an approach that is characteristically Scandinavian. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is essential to understand that in Scandinavia functionality and society mirror each other.

Throughout the centuries, Scandinavian functionalism has grown out of the values that characterise the region, politically, socially and culturally - above all a drive towards liberty, equality and a socially responsible democracy.

These influences refined a set of values that might be said to underpin the meaning of Scandinavianism: a preference for the authentic - we prefer to use genuine raw materials of the highest quality as opposed to imitations; an open-mindedness - we enjoy a high amount of mental freedom and are willing to consider different points of view; a sense of responsibility - for the world we live in; a strong sense of the natural environment that characterises the land and which feeds a good sense of aesthetics, materials and colours; and a high regard for the enduring - which means we strive for intelligent solutions that make sense today and in the future.

The vital need that objects should just work was, not long ago, a condition for basic survival

What might be said to unite these is functionalism - a kind of democratic design, appealing to modern consumers. It’s high quality, yet accessible and affordable. And it works. Indeed, the vital need that objects should just work has been embedded in the Scandinavian soul for centuries. After all, in these parts not long ago it was a condition for basic survival. The primary focus was on need and function and secondarily on beauty. With industrialisation it was easier to survive, and then functionalism developed to also satisfy a need for a sense of beauty. But it remained nevertheless.

One great example of a product that exudes functionality is the Margrethe Bowl, designed by my father in 1955, selling more than 50 million pieces by 2005 and now one of the most represented products in the Danish home. Perhaps this is one of those products that have reached the apex of functionalism. A few years ago, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this melamine mixing bowl, the manufacturer Rosti Mepal invited us to develop a new generation. But we failed. After designing more than 70 models it became apparent that it was, we felt, impossible to improve the basic design. All we could do was adapt it to modern living, by, for example, adding drain holes to make it dishwasher-friendly.

Yet this approach applies as much to larger industrial products as small, homely ones. Volvo says in its mission statement that: “Good design is not only a matter of styling the surface - it is just as important to make the product easy to understand and use. If the product is not functional, it can’t be beautiful.” Saab, similarly, has transposed the very necessary utility of the cockpits of the fighter jets it has historically made to the cars it also makes. Each of its models has, for example, the ignition slot down by the hand-brake. This is more than whimsy. A key on the dash has been proven to cause great injury in some crashes. So Saab moved it.

This may all sound no more than classic Bauhausian form follows function. But there is more warmth to the Scandinavian take on this philosophy. Designers today have been influenced by the early, local craft traditions here and the effective use of limited material resources.

The fact that the industrial revolution came later to Scandinavia than to the surrounding countries has helped to preserve these very human craft traditions even today. In the encounter of the material needs and the general human need for beauty and empathy arise that clean-lined minimalism with which Scandinavian design is so associated. We tend not to like products that don’t explain themselves - that present unnecessary obstacles to their ease of use.

The Finnish telecommunications company Nokia, for instance, has consistently applied inclusivity to its products. Take for example, the Nokia 8810, designed in 1998, and compare it a Nokia 8800, designed in 2005. Yes, the materials and hardware may have been updated to meet the needs of the market but the underlying interface functionality hasn’t changed at all. In fact, any person who has ever used a Nokia phone at one point or another in their life will feel naturally familiar with any model. That has also helped give the devices wide appeal.

Indeed, it is not going too far to say that Scandinavians see functionalism as a force for social change. Many of the artists, architects and intellectuals who participated in the early 20th century radical movement across Scandinavia also worked together to create exhibitions and publish books, newspapers and magazines. The movement was strongly politically influenced and advocated for change through art and design. They in turn had a wide influence and were truly vital in creating the social changes that took place, and they allowed no superfluities, only functional rigor and immediate beauty.

While some will argue that there are differences country to country, generally Scandinavian design has become a globally-recognised style and ethos. Perhaps necessarily so. The Scandinavian market is not large - that means it rarely warrants expensive marketing campaigns, but rather limits itself to promote design as developed in accordance with and adapted to consumer needs; and a small population means both that it is hard to market avant garde or overlyexpensive design concepts to consumers here, and that any design company creates with exports in mind.

Fortunately, looking at the sales figures, it seems that there are plenty of customers ready to buy into what comes naturally to us.