The easy and no-nonsense approach to furniture of Ikea stems from a long tradition of Scandinavian furniture design. A design movement aptly called just that; Scandinavian Design which became well known in the 30’s of the 20th Century. It has won the hearts of even the most critical design aficionados on the planet. It’s origins are to be found in modernism, but it has graduallydeveloped into a movement with its own distinct signature. And if you think it’s all wood and pre-fab; you are very wrong.
Typical are the simplistic shapes and materials, often pale wood, used in the various designs. Function prevails over aesthetics which is often not the case when it comes to furniture design.
This typical feature was already noticeable in the 18th century in the Gustavian period. This furniture style originated in the Swedish court. Wood, pale coloured fabrics, functionality and subtle yet rich decorations marked this movement. In the early 19th century, General Karl Johan Bernadotte, later to become King of Sweden and Norway, introduced the immensely popular Empire traditioto Sweden. He commissioned many carpenters to create Empire furniture with a distinct Swedish style. This type of furniture was later named after him, Karl Johan. It succeeded the earlier Gustavian style which was lacking the richness and extravagance of what the king had witnessed in France. This little side step to rich and over the top patterns, decors and bolder coloured prints later turned out to be one of very few frivolities the Scandinavians allowed themselves. Since then, they have mostly gained recognition for their neatness, functionality and simplicity.
The Scandinavian countries were very successful in introducing a distinct and clever aesthetic ingredient to their traditional crafts. Obviously these countries had and still have many of the natural resources available for carpentry. Yet with the continuous development of industrial production, true craftsmanship was endangered. It was considered too costly. To make sure their particular craft industries survived the industrial revolution the Swedes established a number of associations to protect them from an overkill of inferior and mass-produced goods. The Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Craft and Industrial Design), for example, was established in 1845 to promote Swedish craft production.
Up to 1900 the designs were mainly inspired on national folklore and, albeit cute and charming, got little attention from critics abroad. This changed when the countries joined forces at the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in 1900 in Paris. Particularly the products of the Swedish Rörstrand porcelain factory proved to be a big hit with international design lovers. Their simple porcelain series with large native flora dessins caught the attention of a large audience.
This was a time still largely dominated by Art Nouveau, a movement with a distinct love for floral patterns and shapes. Scandinavian design quickly found its way into architecture, furniture design and decorative elements. However, with the start of a new century, everybody meaning anything in the industry soon agreed that a new century needed a new approach on design and style. Figurative forms were more and more abstracted. This was to be seen in both product design and architecture. The simple style favoured by most Scandinavian designers and craftsmen meant that Scandinavian design was closely watched by trendsetters and spotters alike.
Of huge importance for the popularity of Scandinavian design was Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (Father of Eero Saarinen). He was in his fifties and could look back on a successful career in his homeland, when, in 1929, he left Finland to settle in the United States. He soon became director of the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, which he designed himself. This was and still is an institute focusing on the education of designers, architects and artists. This was the breeding ground for big names such as Eero Saarinen, Carl Milles and Ray and Charles Eames.