Scandinavian design: A functional, durable, and simple style where less is more

Chairs at the Dansk Design Center, København. Author: Tu. CC BY 2.0

The Scandinavian design movement emerged in the 1930s in the Nordic countries and is characterized by functional simplicity. Scandinavia is the area of Northern Europe consisting of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, as well as Iceland.

The movement’s name originates from a design exhibition that traveled the USA and Canada under the name Scandinavian Design between 1954 and 1957. The exhibition featured sustainable, practical, and affordable products accessible to all users, as well as various works by Nordic designers. It had a huge impact on design principles in Europe and North America. The simple designs and clean lines were inspired by nature and the Nordic climate.

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Scandinavian furniture. Author: Edward Generozov. CC BY 2.0

Scandinavian people are well-adapted to coping with a harsh climate that has up to 9 months of winter in some regions. During this period, they would spend their time mostly in their small houses, which drove the practical setup and design of their homes.

As the nights were long and dark, they had wooden floors in light tones or would paint their floors white to brighten up the houses’ interiors. The region is known for its long tradition of craftsmanship.

Nordic style. Author: Herry Lawford. CC BY 2.0

Using the sometimes limited raw material resources available, they masterfully combined beauty with practicality to create unique pieces of furniture and objects that are still popular today. The philosophy dominating Scandinavian design is that things should be made to last rather than be replaced.

Materials were mostly chosen for their durability as well as their beauty. Wood is the main material for producing furniture, especially light-colored woods, such as teak, oak, and pine. Metal and plastic are also often used in Scandinavian furniture, offering designers more flexibility to work with. Upholstery is made from natural fabrics, such as wool, cotton, linen, and leather. A strong emphasis on organic materials has fostered the use of sustainable and eco-friendly substances in the process of creating new furniture.

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The color palette of Scandinavian home décor is also influenced by the climate. Scandinavian design typically employs bright neutral colors such as white or beige, with small bursts of muted or pastel shades to make their home appear bright and spacious during long, dark winters.

In Scandinavian design, every item should have a purpose. Non-functional or impractical items and showy ornamentation are anathemas to this style’s principles.

Scandinavian kitchen. Author: Susan Serra, CKD. CC BY 2.0

Scandinavian design became popular in North America around the 1950s, favoring function and affordability over luxury. The idea was that beautiful and functional products should not be accessible only to the wealthy, but to everyone. Therefore, it is often referred to as the democratic design. The development of the design continued with the increased availability of new low-cost materials and methods for mass production. The Mid-century modern movement in the United States was heavily influenced by both Brazilian and Scandinavian design.

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Scandinavian design. Author: Jim_K-Town. CC BY 2.0

The golden age of Scandinavian design lasted from the 1930s until the 1970s. Many prominent furniture designers left their mark on Scandinavian design philosophy and style, but the pioneers were undoubtedly Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, and Eero Arnio. These Nordic designers were founders of what is today known worldwide as “Scandinavian design”. Their classic pieces of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s have earned them a place in the history of modern design.

Chairs at the Dansk Design Center, København. Author: Tu. CC BY 2.0

Jacobson’s famous Swan and Egg armchairs, the Verner Panton’s Panton Chair (the world’s first single-form molded plastic chair), and Aarnio’s Ball chair are some of the most iconic creations made by the most influential Scandinavian designers.

The Lunning Prize was awarded between 1951 and 1970 in recognition of the most outstanding Scandinavian designers. Although the popularity of Scandinavian design declined in the 1980s, this style celebrating simple elegance had a resurgence the following decade. Scandinavians have proven that less is more and greatly influenced trends in global design.