A (Not So) Brief History of Scandinavian Design

A (Not So) Brief History of Scandinavian Design

By Liv Buli

A (Not So) Brief History of Scandinavian Design
Aarhus city hall, designed by Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller. Image courtesy of Seier+Seier.


The history of Scandinavian design as we know it today really begins in earnest in the 1930s, though it is difficult to trace the origins of this style of design without accounting for both the cultural and social norms, as well as the artistic movement that lays at its foundation. (So while I had planned to keep this concise, I guess there’s no such thing as a “brief history” after all. Sorry, not sorry.)  

Let’s start from the beginning. 

Modernism as an artistic and cultural movement was spreading rapidly at the turn of the 20th century. Scandinavian culture is almost inherently egalitarian, meaning that ideas that could be considered frivolous or ostentatious, or not of the people (such as Surrealism) would struggle to find footing. 

But beyond what we rejected, there is a clear connection between many elements and foundational ideas of modernism and the fundamental principles Scandinavian designers adhere to - such as the idea that beautiful things can truly enrich our lives.

Now, let’s remember the conditions Scandinavian artisans and craftsmen were working under when this idea began to spread. They were relatively isolated, had limited access to materials beyond natural resources, and the harsh Nordic climate made functionalism an imperative. Before all else, it needs to work, work well in fact, in order to be useful.


The Design in Scandinavia exhibit traveled the United States and Canada between 1954-1957The "Design in Scandinavia" exhibit traveled the United States and Canada from 1954 to 1957. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

The 1930s

In the 1930s, through both institutional support and the vision of talented designers and architects, the basic concepts of Scandinavian furniture design start to really take shape. Social democratic ideals drive the ethos of designing for all (accessible and affordable are keywords here). Homes are small, and winters are long and dark, and so creating a space that was functional, but light and bright and airy, became an imperative.  

The work champions a minimalist approach, all the while still striving for beauty – Scandinavian designers are and were modernists after all. 

The Post-War period

But it wasn’t until the post-war period that this movement and style of design started to gain international recognition. The Scandinavian nations are struggling to rebuild after the war, the industrial revolution is booming, and the way humans live and work are changing rapidly around the world. 

In 1947 an exhibition of Scandinavian furniture, home goods, and glassware is presented at the Triennale de Milano, and is widely celebrated. Almost a decade later, an exhibit entitled “Design in Scandinavia” is brought to the United States and Canada, and is housed in various museums over the course of three years. 

During this period, designers like Eero Saarinen, Poul Henningsen, and Arne Jacobsen are spearheading the movement, designing and creating iconic pieces of furniture that are still in production today, adhering to these principles of simplicity, functionality, natural forms, and beauty. 


breakfast table decorated with marimekko home goods and textiles Marimekko's playful patterns and textiles are iconic of Scandinavian design. 

The swinging 60s

Design across the rest of the continent leans more towards the ornate and opulent, but clean lines, geometric shapes, and simple, yet functional furniture becomes the standard for Scandinavians and is what the movement is known for today. 

But this does not mean the approach to design is sterile and requires you to paint every room in the house white from top to bottom. Pops of colors became a popular way to add warmth to the Scandinavian home. And it was during this colorful period in history, that the Finnish textile brand Marimekko took the world by storm, introducing bright and whimsical textile patterns to the range of Scandinavian home goods. 

You’ll often find that the lines are blurred between mid-century modern (think Ray and Charles Eames, etc.) and Scandinavian design. Likely, this is because Scandinavian design inspired the former in many ways and because many of these designers were peers that collaborated extensively. A good number of Scandinavian designers emigrated to the United States, bringing with them their nouveau approach to furniture, home goods, and architecture.


Scandinavian wood dining furniture exhibited at the Stockholm furniture fair There are multiple celebrated design and furniture fairs hosted in Scandinavia each year, such as the Stockholm Furniture Fair

The 1970s and beyond

As the standard of living continues to improve in the Nordic region, design traditions are refined. And what was once considered modern, has evolved into an ambition to create pieces that are timeless. In 1972, Norwegian Industrial designer Peter Opsvik creates the now well-known Tripp Trapp high chair (it has been manufactured more than 2 million times to date and is sold across every continent). 

Opsvik’s focus on ergonomic design, and the idea that movement, rather than sedentary support creates comfort for the human body, is an extension of the Scandinavian design principles that emphasize functionality. The adjustable chair was designed to grow with the child and allows them to move around and change position as desired. Opsvik was so successful in this endeavor that you’ll find a version of this chair is standard fare in pretty much every Scandinavian home.


Modern Scandinavian home and living space with minimalist furniture and functional designThe Scandinavian home strives for a balance of functionalism and beauty. Image courtesy of Impressive Interior Design

Scandinavian design in 2020

The basic principles of Scandinavian design are applicable even as needs and conditions continue to evolve. Today, there has been a natural evolution toward a focus on sustainability in Scandinavian design.

Many within the movement are exploring the use of renewable and natural materials for mass-produced goods in order to reduce waste. Energy-positive architecture is seen as the gold standard for development. There is also a continued emphasis on durability and timelessness in design that allows products to be handed down over generations in an effort to reduce the footprint of modern consumption. Only that which is needed, is used. 

My children, as I did, sit on (or honestly climb all over) their Tripp Trapps when at the kitchen table, eating breakfast or doing their arts and crafts. Both my parent’s home and our summer cabin in Norway (we’ll talk about the difference between summer and winter cabins another time) is decorated with much of the furniture my grandparents bought when building their own home. 

Scandinavian design, by virtue of its minimalism, prioritization of function, and commitment to beauty, resonates with people across the world. But when you’re drooling over the latest Scandinavian marvel on the pages of Dwell, do remember, it’s not modern, it’s timeless. 

Now, let me ask you this. What do you think is the most exciting time for Scandinavian design? Share your thoughts in a comment below.


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