Scandinavian furniture is currently greatly esteemed in many parts of the world. In times past, one would think it highly unlikely that a cluster of five small countries in Northern Europe could be the source of many of the most influential furniture designs of modern history. By the middle of the twentieth century, these five nations were producing some of the world’s most applauded furniture.
Defining Scandinavian Furniture Design
Scandinavia itself consists of just three countries: Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which all share related languages and geographic proximity. Together with Finland and Iceland they make up the Nordic nations and today the term Scandinavian Design generally refers to all five. Scandinavian furniture design, can’t be pinned to one particular piece or shape yet refers to an aesthetic approach that is shared by all five countries. The similar traditions, culture and interrelated histories of the Nordic nations fostered the growth of a shared aesthetic and distinct attitude towards furniture design.
Nordic designers believe that design is a central part of human experience, their modern design approach highlights simple lines and natural materials. A quintessentially Scandinavian piece of furniture is functional, comfortable and appealing to look at. Swedish author and critic Ulf Hård af Segerstad noted that, ‘a piece of furniture from Scandinavia is practical, well constructed, unpretentious, thoroughly thought out and elegant.’ Segerstad celebrated the explosion of great Scandinavian furniture as a welcome response to his critical call for, “the need of more beautiful things for everyday use” - this is the very essence of Scandinavian furniture design to this day.
The understated lines, natural materials, emphasis on quality and timelessness rather than on current fashions contributed to the global success of the Scandinavian design. The soft curves of Scandinavian modern furniture were much more appealing to the populace than some severe mid-century fashions of geometric steel, leather and glass from The Bauhaus School of Modernism in Germany. Scandinavian or ‘Scandi’ furniture emphasises nature and simplicity with an ergonomic concern for the end user. Scandinavian furniture is pleasing to the eye, to the touch, and comfortable to use; the integrity of each piece being more important than the pursuit of fashion.
In the Nordic interpretation of modern design, beauty and function are interdependent; objects were meant to be used, rather than merely admired. Scandinavian designers were concerned with finding timeless solutions that satisfied the demands of modern living. Their furniture designs were easy to understand, attractive, and for the most part affordable. Celebrated names amongst the original stable of Scandinavian furniture designers include: Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Børge Mogensen, Verner Panton and Poul Henningsen. The qualities that distinguished mid-century Scandinavian design continue to inform objects created in the new materials and advanced technologies by second and third generations of Nordic designers. Today, a new generation of contemporary Scandinavian furniture brands such as Bolia Denmark, Carl Hansen & Sons and Brøste Copenhagen are still carrying a tradition begun more than a century ago.
Scandinavian Furniture - Tradition & Modernity
The Nordic designers serve as a great example of successfully moving into the 21st century without severing time-honoured traditions of the past. Scandinavia became industrialised later than many other developed countries, aiding the establishment of a comfortable and thought-through partnership between handwork and machine manufacturing. This enabled Nordic designers to combine the best of both, successfully blending craft tradition with the manufacturing advances of contemporary Europe.
Scandinavian furniture design has had a profound influence on the contemporary design interpretations of many other countries. The Nordic style can be clearly identified today in both the USA and Britain. Many British furniture designs being released showcase: simplistic natural forms, soft lines and the use of blond woods. The influence of Scandinavian modernism has been extraordinary particularly in view of the comparatively humble economic position and size of the five countries from which it was birthed.
The Preeminence of Danish Design
Of all the Nordic nations, Denmark has the strongest heritage of furniture making, one dating back hundreds of years. The Kingdom of Denmark is the smallest of all the Nordic nations. It occupies a peninsula which borders continental Europe to the South and more than 400 islands linked by an impressive network of bridges. Denmark is traditionally a farming country with very few natural resources, so has always depended on imports. These and the relatively high standard of living are supported primarily by the export of furniture and agriculture.
Denmark’s tradition of world-renowned craftsmanship began with the operation of the Royal Furniture Emporium. This state-funded establishment started in 1777 as an outlet for handcrafted goods and quality workmanship. The Emporium operated until 1815, yet it's untold impact on the Danish handcraft tradition can still be seen today. Some argue that the true roots of modern Danish furniture can be traced to the Department of Furniture and Interior Decoration at Copenhagen’s Academy of Fine Arts established in 1924. Under the direction of designer Kaare Klint this department had tremendous influence on generations of furniture designers. Klint pioneered the study of what we now call ergonomics, developing a system of determining furnitures exact dimensions based upon the the human body. This birthed an integral component of Scandinavian modern furniture - the combination of style and comfort.
Amidst the boom of new smaller housing in the years following World War I the demand for simple, well-proportioned furniture was at an all time high. Danish designers began to apply themselves to the design and production of honest everyday objects. The Danish Export Council encouraged the export and, during World War II, of a collection of practical designs by Børge Mogensen, whose furniture put Denmark in the forefront of Scandinavian modernism. Denmark and Sweden worked out a new idea called ‘knock-down’ (KD) furniture. KD furniture could be sold disassembled and then unboxed and put together by the receiving customer. This innovative idea facilitated increased shipping, reduced costs, and benefitted Denmark’s exports greatly.
In 1927, an association of small workshops called the Cabinetmakers Guild started to celebrate craftsmanship through yearly exhibits held at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen. Design competitions held from 1939 helped revive innovation and iconic design, now coined as Danish Modern furniture. Denmark’s competitions & exhibitions became the primary stage for outstanding Nordic craftsmanship and design. In the early years many now famous Danish designers cut their teeth on Copenhagen’s Cabinetmakers Guild exhibitions. The organic shapes of Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner’s refined classical designs, the functional aesthetics of Mogens Koch, and designs by other legendary names included Børge Mogensen, Peter Hvidt, Mogens Lassen, and Grete Talk.
The majority of first century Danish furniture designers were trained cabinetmakers and also able to translate their designs into real life furniture. The Danish furniture makers most often used imported teak from Thailand or rosewood from Brazil. Such Danish designs today are still sought after by those wanting to curate a vintage aesthetic. However the majority of contemporary consumers favour the native blond woods traditionally used by the other Scandinavian nations for their Nordic home furniture.
It is clear the world owes much to the Nordic nations in the area of furniture design. For all those looking for timeless comfort that’s made to last, Scandinavian furniture is the definitive choice.
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