Nordic Design comes of age

Nordic Design Review
Nordic Design Review

Nordic design was without doubt the epitome of post-war good taste. The cabinetmaker’s tradition remained central to the whole concept of practical pieces that relied on the age-old skills of the craftsman and natural materials for their undeniably Scandinavian look. The Nordic tradition is rooted in centuries of rural-based culture, as opposed to the urban/industrial model of other parts of Europe. 

Given the sometimes turbulent, political histories of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, it is interesting that these countries have such a cohesive design identity, as exemplified by the work of Danish designer Finn Juhl. His Chieftain chair is a sculptural rosewood and leather classic, which was executed by master craftsman Niels Vodder.

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The post-war period required a new direction. Relative isolation during the war had hampered the flow of new ideas from America and the rest of Europe, and Scandinavian designers were faced with the challenge of moving away from the tradition of small workshops into a more innovative period of mass production without sacrificing any of the ideals intrinsic to Scandinavian style. 

The creation of functional classics using innovative materials became central to the approach of the men and women who shaped the direction of Modern Scandinavian design, while protecting the deep-rooted Nordic quality that so defines their work. From the sculptural forms created by Juhl to the mass-produced Ant chair by Arne Jacobsen, it was an aesthetic that went on to dominate international design.

Earlier influences fostered by Eliel Saarinen, the Finnish architect who designed and headed the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in the early 1930s, had been crucial to American interest in Scandinavian design. 

The Finnish pavilion designed by Alvar Aalto, and the concept of Swedish Modernism as a style, had been great successes at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, and this interest was rejuvenated after the war. 

In 1954, the Design in Scandinavia exhibition, which promoted a Scandinavian way of living in every medium from glass to furniture, embarked on a tour of the US and Canada lasting three-and-a-half years.

Furniture designers such as Hans Wegner, Ole Wanscher, and his mentor Kaare Klint, emphasized the Danish cabinet-making tradition while creating functional and highly sculptural classics. Børge Mogensen, had also worked closely with Klint to produce simple, dependable, but beautifully made pieces, which helped Danish design gain worldwide respect. 

Poul Kjærholm pursued new avenues in Scandinavian design with elegantly framed metal furniture more reminiscent of the Modern movement. His PK22 chair has achieved iconic status and is still in production today. 

Finnish designers such as Ilmari Tapiovaara, and Yrjö Kukkapuro, similarly challenged the Nordic tradition. 

Nordic design has its roots in a strong cultural and historic philosophy based on craftsmanship and tradition. After World War II, a new generation of designers built on this tradition while also addressing the need to adapt these principles of good craftsmanship to new industrial production methods. 

The sculptural, elegant wooden furniture produced by Danish designers such as Hans Wegner, and Børge Mogensen both from the cabinet-making tradition, had a more human, gentler feel than the cold, metallic austerity of pre-war Modern design

These designers worked primarily with traditional, rather than cutting-edge, manufacturing techniques. In 1983, Wegner said that ‘technically there was nothing new in our work’.

Poul Kjærholm graduated from the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts in 1952. His work is characterized by its understated sophistication, grace, clean lines, and attention to detail. 

He managed to combine the typically Scandinavian skill of imbuing furniture with warmth and humanity with the more rigorous, purist approach of the German Bauhaus. 

Although he always considered functionality an unconditional requirement, he was also reluctant to compromise himself as an artist. While most of his contemporaries chose wood as their primary material, Kjærholm preferred steel, using it in combination with materials such as wood, leather, cane, or marble.

Denmark was the centre of the post-war design boom of the 1950s. Struggling in its midst was the young architect and designer Verner Panton. He started his career in the architectural practice of Arne Jacobsen, where he worked from 1950 to 1952, learning a great deal. 

As much artist as architect, Panton went on to buck the natural, organic trends followed by his fellow Danish designers to produce bolder, more industrial pieces, experimenting with man-made materials such as plastics. 

He set out across Europe in his customized Volkswagen camper van, hoping to peddle his innovative style to manufacturers and distributors. Panton got his big break with the Cone chair. Originally designed for his parents’ guesthouse, the Komigen inn on the island of Funen, it was featured in a shoot for the design magazine Mobilia, surrounded by naked mannequins.

The photograph caused a scandal, but helped Panton establish himself as an exponent of Pop culture. Panton’s repertoire was diverse, ranging from lamps and textiles to furniture. Other career milestones include the Heart and the iconic Panton chair.

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Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.