Scandinavian Design

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.

Gustavian Mirror

Gustavian Mirror

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.

Alf Wallander for Rörstrand

Alf Wallander for Rörstrand

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.


It was also in this interbellum period that Finish architect Alvar Aalto designed his well known Savoy Vase and chair 41 Paimio as well as many other pieces of furniture and buildings we all know so well.
Vase 'Savoy' Alvar Aalto

Vase 'Savoy' Alvar Aalto

The 1939 New York World Fair showcased a series of Swedish and Danish design. It was not until after the war, in the 1950’s that the style gained the commercial success and popularity to make its way into the homes of the everyday consumer. The Antchair, by Arne Jacobsen was one of the first Scandinavian designed chairs to be mass produced. This, as well as his Egg and Swan chairs were to be found in many interiors the world over.
The true recognition of Scandinavian architecture was confirmed in 1962 with the building of the TWA terminal designed by Eero Saarinen at New York’s primary airport.
TWA terminal JFK airport by Eero Saarinen

TWA terminal JFK airport by Eero Saarinen

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s Scandinavian design dominated the world of simplistic and efficient furniture design. The mass produced mostly wooden objects and items made their way into many homes and offices.  And off course, there was the rise of a chain of cheap yet stylish home products; Swedish furniture giant Ikea. This retail outlet started branching out across the Scandinavian borders in the early 70’s opening stores in Switzerland, Germany, Japan and Australia followed by Canada and Singapore. Today the chain is  one of the top known brands in the world with nearly 300 stores in 39 countries.
Many Ikea designs draw inspiration from classic Scandinavian designs. For instance the use of light bended wood as in Aalto’s 41 Paimio chair and 60 stool is found in many products of the retailer. The Ikea Frosta stool sharing a striking resemblance with Aalto’sstool, as seen below, which caused quite a stir with Aalto fans. Other critics call it clever borrowing.
Aalto left, Ikea right....

Aalto left, Ikea right....

Aalto '41' chair, Ikea's 'Benjamin' stool and Ikea's 'Poang' chair

Aalto '41' chair, Ikea's 'Benjamin' stool and Ikea's 'Poang' chair

This illustrates the easy and user friendly approach of mass produced Scandinavian design. Consumers can pick and mix cheaper furniture with a few classic design greats and create their own style and flair. A concept much used by fashion overs around the globe. It is no coincidence that Hennes and Mauritz is also Swedish. 
But leaving it with that would be too easy. Scandinavia still is top of the bill when it comes to design with big names like Iittala, Norway Says, Georg Jensen and Arabia.  Remarkably, the Scandinavian countries today continue to produce many vintage designs and classics. This is yet another testimony to their style, timelessness, practicality and talent to understand or maybe even transcend trends.
sofa 'Break', 2004, by Norway Says

sofa 'Break', 2004, by Norway Says


3 responses to “Scandinavian Design

  1. on you can buy new fabric for your Ikea sofa, which is designed by artists.
    I read that somewhere in a magazine, thought that was pretty cool, since the choice you have at Ikea is pretty limited (and boring).
    love jocelyn

  2. Pingback: Save my (Ikea) sofa! « Share how YOU live, and see how others do

  3. There is so much more to Scandinavian (and since you mention Finland I have to say Nordic design.) Many fun and colorful fresh new stuff to wear, have on the wall and shelves.

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