If we take Scandinavia to include the mainland of the Nordic region (excluding Iceland and Åland), there is a persistent view through the media that Scandinavian design is a consistent and homogeneous design culture and ethos which leads to a consistent and homogeneous design product.
It isn’t true. It’s a construct of the need to find a convenient label, much like there is meant to be such a thing as ‘middle eastern cooking’ or an ‘English accent’.
Despite the laudable efforts of such firms as the new pan-Scandinavian design firm Muuto (from muutos, ‘new perspective’ in Finnish: muuto.com) which is intentionally bringing designers together from across the region, the concept of Scandinavian design itself needs to be deconstructed.
Here’s why. Historically, the four nations of Scandinavia have spent their time dominating, or being dominated by, each other. The Danes and the Swedes were on top (intermittently, of each other); the Norwegians and the Finns underneath, though the Finns as a Russian archduchy did have a degree of freedom the Norwegians did not. The historical picture is therefore informed by the desire of two nations to spread their culture – and of two others determined to build up theirs under the pressure of others.
The assimilation of foreign styles, and making something unique of them (Gustavian neo-classicism in Sweden, the National Romantic Style in Finland, the assimilation and use of Schleswig architecture in southern Denmark, for instance) provides a concrete backdrop to national difference. The way architectural and visual design styles were used, particularly in Finland and Norway, not to identify the nation with the wider world (as they are in Denmark and Sweden, for instance) but to identify them as something other, something different and unique, continues to inform the design ethos of the various countries in many ways.
If the view of the outside world of Scandinavian design is blond people making beech furniture, then it is equally easy to stereotype – though with a greater degree of accuracy – the various nations (spoiler alert – wild generalisations imminent).
Danish style is actually the one people in the outside world, the influence of IKEA notwithstanding, think of as being ‘Scandinavian’. Human proportions, clean lines, whites, greys and blacks with some silver and red as an accent colour. Precisely engineered, beautifully thought out, intensely practical. (en.ddc.dk)
The design of Norway comes across much as its people do – thoughtful, ecological, distinctly different – and frequently quirky. In fact, this sense of humour, almost Italian in its approach, is one of the most striking features. (norskdesign.no)
As for the Finns, they design their products to fit their country – though they do have something truly unique in the rya rug. Finnish design is closer to Danish, though they won’t like me for saying so – its preoccupations are the same, but with more of a stress on the use of wood and glass, and a move in colours away from the greys of Denmark to whites, light colours and wood tones. (designforum.fi)
Sweden is interesting. IKEA seems to have sent the product design industry into a bit of a spin – taking their cues more from their history than their present, Swedish design seems to be trying to find its feet as its ideas, and its talent, are increasingly plucked to make some kind of affordable mélange which whilst practical, lacks the intensity of workmanship and attention to usability that, ultimately, is the mark of design excellence. (svenskform.se)
Four countries. Four histories, deeply intertwined – but four clear and distinct design cultures, informed by that history, by geography and personality. Paul Simpson, in his Summer 2009 piece for the British Design Council (designcouncil.org.uk), makes the argument clear, by making it more complex. His ‘Myths of Scandinavian Design’ include ‘Myth 1: There is such a thing as Scandinavian design’ – followed soon after by ‘Myth 5: There is no such thing as Scandinavian design’.
You can’t have it both ways. Spend enough time in the countries of Scandinavia and it becomes clear: there is design in Scandinavia, some of the best in the world. It’s just that there is no design of Scandinavia, but instead four unique and independent design worlds which cross over and cross fertilise – but which ultimately stand on their own.