Scandinavian Design became a concept after the Second World War. The professional talents of many Scandinavian designers, architects and craftsmen were honed at the Triennale in Milan. Self-confidence grew with the successes. The American Lunning Award, reserved for Scandinavian designers, provided a number of young talents with their American breakthrough. In 1954 "Design in Scandinavia" embarked on a three-and-a half year long tour of the US and Canada. It was not just beautifully crafted objects, but "A Scandinavian Way of Living". that was promoted. Danish teak furniture, Swedish crystal and textiles, Norwegian enamel, Finnish furniture and glass merged into a concept generally perceived as Scandinavian: blond, cool, distinct and refined. Its careful craftsmanship, perfection, harmony and natural feeling were seen as the dream of a better world - in a Europe which had risen from the inferno of World War II.
What were the origins of a common Scandinavian style? Its roots pre-date Scandinavian Design.
The countries situated on the northeastern periphery of Europe have been formally united in numerous ways over the past 1 500 years. Wars and political unions have repeatedly forced the citizens to change both nationality and sovereign. And yet, there has been a common bond. And within the aesthetic field, relations have been quite amicable. Very early on the idea that there existed within architecture, furniture design, industrial decor and pottery, something which might be termed a specifically Nordic style had caught on.
Everyone came together in a spirit of perfect harmony at the big Exposition of Industry and Art in Copenhagen 1888. Finland was considered a member of the Nordic circle even though it was a Russian province at the time. Scandinavia began to develop a distinct profile vis-a-vis the rest of Europe.
In 1897 Louis Sparre, a Swede, founded the legendary Finnish Iris Factory in Borgå, manufacturing ceramics and furniture which added to Finlands international renown - as did Axel Gallens renewal of the art of rya making. The powerful architecture and magnificent interiors of Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen were characterized by Finnish tradition and craftsmanship. These three architects managed to transform the traditional Karelian farm cabin with its tarred logs and grey granite foundation, its built-in benches and gigantic fireplace into modern architecture. The deep forests of Eastern Finland and the glowing Byzantine color scheme lent nourishment to the "typically Finnish" character.
Turn-of-the century Sweden was influenced by the British Arts and Crafts Movement. This, in turn, led to the rediscovery of a distinctly national identity: red cottages with white corners, delicate flowers, light green birch trees with white, silken trunks. In Sweden, the aesthetics of the home was turned into a social issue. It was the task of beauty to transform the individual and create a better world. And beauty was defined as that which was simple, honest, comfortable, sanitary and easy to care for. Interest in crafts and handicrafts was flourishing.
In the case of Denmark, art historian Vilhelm Wanschers articles on classicism, which began to appear in 1906, signalled a return to neo-classicism, the Danish golden age, with its tranquil, measured and well-proportioned rooms.
In Norway, the rosemaling of folk art, the knitted designs and the ornamentation of the Viking era provided the inspiration for a new idiom. Icelandic peat architecture and sheeps wool added to Nordic exoticism.
These national characteristics, first formulated around the turn of the century, have demonstrated an amazing staying power. Generations of young designers have been schooled in this spirit. Karin and Carl Larssons home at Sundborn became a focal point of Swedish identity. Vilhelm Hammerhøis paintings are a recurring Danish refe-rence point, as is Hvitträsk, the home of Lindgren, Gesellius and Saarinen in Finland. In Norway, it was Gerhard Munthe who came to formulate a national identity.
The fact that urbanization and industrialization came late to the Nordic countries meant that the values of rural - i.e. agrarian - culture were carried over into industrial society unlike what happened in the rest of Europe.
Sweden and Norway rediscovered the bronze fibulae of the Viking age, rune stones and the wooden ornamentation of the stave churches. In Finland, there was renewed interest in its Finno-Ugric roots. The treasures of provincial textile patterns and techniques were rescued and incorporated into the interior decoration of the apartments of the urban bourgeoisie. The stripes of the farm wives bolster ticking were borrowed in striped woollen curtains. Rag rugs, which had been used as bed covers in the rural areas, became carpet runners. Similarly, the rya rugs from Österbotten which had served as the traditional protection against cold nights on board fishing boats or on beds, were also given a new and decorative function.
From the very beginning, Nordic design was rooted in the democratic tradition. Of course there were class divisions. But these have always been less pronounced in Scandinavia than in other countries. The lifestyle of the upperclasses was simple and their demeanor not that different from that of the common folk.
We may marvel at the way in which the different cultural idioms of the five Nordic countries managed to blend into something relatively uniform, into something which identified Scandinavian Design as it emerged after World War II. The prime ingredients in Scandinavian Design were not, however, the individual national characteristics. These first had to be purified through modernism.
In the case of Sweden and Finland, the aesthetic background of Scandinavian Design was the international modernism of the 1920s - the Bauhaus, the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, the Dutch De Stijl and concretist art.
The modernist purifying bath was different in all the Scandinavian countries. In Denmark, it took the form of a striving for clarity of form and harmonious order. Functionalism, which was elevated to a religion in Sweden, was in Denmark only a style among others.
The crucial factor behind this forging of the unified concept of Scandinavian Design was the exceptional circumstances provided by the Second World War. Architects and designers from the rest of Scandinavia were forced to flee to Sweden, where they came into contact with indigenous architects influenced by social democracy and functionalism. Together they came to form the nucleus of Scandinavian Design. They were the Danes Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Jörn Utzon, the Norwegian Arne Korsmo (and his wife silversmith and designer Grete Prytz Kittelsen.) The Finno-Swedish cultural elite had traditionally maintained close contacts with Sweden. A deep friendship now also developed between the "Finnish" Alvar Aalto and the "Swedish" Sven Markelius. The true impetus, then was the closeness of a group of Scandinavian designers and architects, all with their roots in international modernism.
The modern matter-of-factness of the twenties was eradicated in Germany in the thirties, but it survived in Scandinavia where the austerity of German modernism was made friendlier and warmer. Wood instead of steel tubing, soft curves instead of German precision, a color scheme rich in nuances. The high point of Scandinavian Design was H55 - the 1955 Hälsingborg Exhibition.
But already much earlier, Eliel Saarinen, as founder and president of the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan in the thirties, had been crucial to American interest in Scandinavian design. The successes of Alvar Aalto and of "Swedish Modern" at the 1939 World Expo in New York were assured.
Toward the end of the fifties, however, new actors came upon the scene, as Italian furniture was efficiently launched in the US.
The flair of Italian furniture design for expressing exclusivity and esprit was much better suited to the booming economy than the sparse aesthetics and goodnatured folksiness of Scandinavian design, which was beginning to feel tame and stagnant. A decade earlier, Nordic coolness and order had been needed to help heal the spiritual wounds in a Europe that was still in ruins and chaos. But now young Nordic designers could no longer walk in the old footsteps. Scandinavian design became unfashionable, also in Scandinavia itself.
The sixties were turbulent. Many of the fundamental concepts formulated by earlier generations were overthrown: taste, wearability, attention to detail, quality raw materials, thoroughness.
Foreign writers have often commented on the handcrafted aspect of Scandinavian products from the fifties. Handicraft came to be integrated into the industrial process in Scandinavia in a different way from the United States. Another aspect of the design was the democratic spirit. The designers put great emphasis on the needs of all social groups, especially the disadvantaged.
This call for the common touch has been an impediment to daring and avantgardism, however. But nowhere in the world did a fully developed, so-called exclusive taste meet with so much criticism as in Scandinavia. The common touch is still a virtue in itself. At the same time there is, at least in Sweden, love for everything foreign. The story of Swedish design is thus actually the story of foreign impulses entering the country and being transformed into "something Swedish". French rococo, British arts and crafts, Deutscher Werkbund, modernism, concretism, pop art and post-modernism - all have their Swedish adaptations.
With the Danish design world there had been a genuine skepticism towards things foreign. The Danes have possibly felt more secure in their own "taste" culture. Danish designers also managed better than the others to hold on to both traditions and the notion of quality, since smallscale craftsmanship still had an important place in Danish production.
Although Scandinavian Design lost its power of attraction already in the sixties, the Scandinavian countries continued to collaborate. Attempts are repeatedly made to infuse new life into the concept of Scandinavian Design.
Today most of this activity is internal. Differences - not similarities - are highlighted. Today that which is thought of as Norwegian, Danish, Finnish or Swedish is represented by a number of individuals.
The idea of a national design lost its attraction all over the world in the eighties when influential designers formed schools of their own. The tendencies towards increased regionalism which developed - and which now are gaining ground - now comprise much smaller cultural entities than that represented by a combined Den-mark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden.
The concept of Scandinavian Design is bathed in the light of nostalgia. In Sweden, at least, young people interested in design are buying up Scandinavian items from the fifties. Scandinavian Design has become a status symbol - at least in Scandinavia.
In a united Europe, differences have become accentuated. Northern design methods and research centering on human needs are contrasted with a southern, sensual and philosophical attitude focused on art and symbolic values. Swedish designers accord greater importance to the physical satisfaction and feeling of sensual enjoyment that comes from holding a well functioning implement in your hand.
Today identity is more important than ever. Modern man of the early century willingly became a mere cog in the machinery in order to work toward a classless, egalitarian, sanitary society. The modern individual of the 1950s found validation and expression in the objects with which he surrounded himself. Post-modernist man wanted to expand and try new roles in order to become somebody else. Now we want to be our-selves. The problem is: we no longer know who we are.