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What is Scandinavian Design and Why is it so popular?

Swedish design, popularly known as Scandinavian Design, or Scandi, is a distinct aesthetic, but it also does in fact come from a specific region. Read on to discover the history of this Design trend, why it’s so popular, and the defining features that make it what it is!

Scandinavian design is about so much more than furniture; from electronics to fashion, architecture to interior design, Nordic design, and especially elements of Scandinavian minimalism, have found their way into every aspect of our lives. But what does Scandinavian design actually mean? Well, let’s start from ground zero. Scandinavia is comprised of three Northern European countries: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. While some people mistakenly include Finland and Iceland in this definition as well, they’re not actually Scandi. However, they are considered Nordic countries along with the three Scandinavian countries. Norway and Sweden occupy the Scandinavian Peninsula, with Denmark located just to the south of Sweden, across the Kattegat strait. Scandinavian design is marked by a focus on clean, simple lines, minimalism, and functionality without sacrificing beauty. It first came to prominence in the 1950s, around the same time as modern style took hold in America and Europe. Part of what makes it so aesthetically pleasing is its lack of clutter. You won’t find any superfluous items haunting Scandinavian-style rooms; instead, everything has a place and unnecessary tchotchkes are nowhere to be found. Every few years it seems like a new design style takes over the public consciousness and reigns supreme for a short time. We’ve seen multiple design genres, from rustic farmhouse to mid-century modern to eclectic bohemian, rise to prominence, but none of them seem to have the same staying power as Scandinavian style. That’s not to say those other designs have fallen out of favor, there’s something about Scandi decor that people can’t get enough of. And we’re not just talking about IKEA’s continued popularity either. And while it shares many elements with mid-century modern, according to the Washington Post, Scandinavian style favors bright, airy spaces, while MCM spaces tend to showcase darker colors and focus less on light.

History of Scandinavian Design 

The Scandinavian design movement in its current form emerged in the early 20th century and flourished throughout the five Nordic countries from the 1930s onwards. In the period between the two World Wars the designers of Europe shared a desire for modernity and innovation in design, where the creative process of design is placed in reaction to new industrial technologies: as a result, the Scandinavian designers developed an exemplary style. Keeping in mind the mass-production costs at the core of new stylistic research, Scandinavian design created new lines that enhanced the structure of the product and the natural characteristics of the materials used. In this symbiosis of creativity and industrialization, Scandinavian design focuses on the creation of shapes with delicate profiles, slight inclinations, and sinuous curves, in creations with light, soft and flowing features. Originating from the Danish Selskabet for Dekorativ Kunst, who launched its Skønvirke (literally “Graceful Work”) magazine in 1914, the title went on to become the name of a new Danish style of arts and crafts to rival contemporary trends like Art Nouveau – often reserved for the social elite – whereas Skønvirke promoted local crafts and accessible, democratic design. From the 1930s, designers such as Alvar Aalto (Finland), Arne Jacobsen (Denmark), Josef Frank (Sweden), and Maija Isola (Finland) began producing their work, creating a “golden age of Scandinavian design.” Their work was inspired by the concepts of Constructivism, Functionalism, and in some cases Surrealism. It didn’t reach international recognition and its stellar levels of popularity until the 1950s, when the Lunning Prize was awarded to outstanding Scandinavian designers between 1951 and 1970.

Among the many examples of interpretation of this trend is the Chinese Bench (Chinese Bench) multi-seat chair made of ash wood by Danish designer Hans J. Wegner in 1946, where the natural color of the wood and the soft undulations harmonize with the load-bearing structure of the product. In 1954, the Brooklyn Museum organized the exhibition “Design in Scandinavia” from which he began a trend for “Scandinavian Modern” furniture in America. However, Scandinavian design is not limited to furniture and household products but is also applied to the industrial design of consumer electronics, mobile phones, and cars. Further applications of the Scandinavian methodology expand to the plastic processing technologies and find their greatest exponent in the world-renowned Danish designer Verner Panton who creates countless creations in various shapes and colors. Starting from the creation of the Stacking chair, the first to be entirely produced by the use of a single mold, thePanton chair, a further evolution of the technique, and the surreal installations are all an excellent example of the interaction between creative expressiveness and technological evolution. Scandinavian design history and its concept has been the subject of scholarly debate, exhibitions, and marketing agendas since that time. Many emphasize the democratic design ideals that were a central theme of the movement and are reflected in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary Scandinavian and international design.


Main Elements of Scandinavian Design 

1. Minimalism 

With a heavy focus on functionality, this design style leans toward modernism and minimalism, while incorporating coziness. The Scandinavian design style aims to provide a way for people to live more sustainably and in harmony with one another. Scandinavian design combines clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic with traditional craftsmanship and multifunctional elements. This is a versatile style that offers plenty of room for self-expression but helps to create bright and airy interiors. Beautiful and simple, the Nordic style also suits modern living spaces that require functional and adaptable products that stand the test of time. Thanks to the simple elegance of Scandinavian design, it’s easy to create a stylish and modern space. A few well-chosen items along with quality furniture and lighting can make all the difference. Plus, Scandinavian interior design elements complement a wide range of styles. In Scandinavian design, less is truly more, and every item really must earn its keep. Because housing was generally expensive and smaller in Scandinavian countries, creating furnishings that were multifunctional was also a goal.

2. Light, Neutral Colours

While Scandinavian style interiors vary and may include different influences like industrial or boho, they usually feature a similar Nordic color palette. Scandinavian interiors and furniture designs feature white, off-white, and gray hues along with muted blue and green colors. Darker accents can also create bold color contrasts. Other hues include beige and cream hues as well as muted brown colors, as these interiors generally feature an abundance of wood flooring and wood furniture. An authentic Scandi palette would have no more than four key shades and rely heavily on whites and lighter hues because, well, it’s dark over in that region for a much of the year! Plus, white and lighter colors reflect the natural light better. While this is true for a lot of contemporary Scandinavian design, it wasn’t always the case. A lot of Mid-century Scandinavian Design uses bright bold colours like orange and red, in everything from wall panels to lamps, to even chairs. This is perhaps where an interesting separation is made clear, between contemporary applications of Scandinavian design, and its historical origins. One may say that the origins are more accurate and authentic, and a lot of what is produced now that is labelled Scandinavian is a far offshoot from authentic Scandinavian design. 

3. Wood furniture and wood accents

Think of Scandi style as sort of an addition through subtraction. Rooms really derive their decorative punch through a “less is more” philosophy. Furniture is beautiful but not ornate. Wood arms and legs typically have a handcrafted nature to them with radiused corners and flowing edges. Despite their soft hand, the profiles were famous for sharp angles and tapered arms and legs. This is where classic Scandinavian design really comes in—think of a Hans Wegner wishbone chair, for example—and the style really became a predecessor to mid-century modern. Designed in 1949 by Hans Wegner, this masterpiece in solid teak became a furniture star after it appeared in the very first televised presidential debate in the history of the USA. Both J.F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were sitting in The Chairs during the event which made this streamlined round chair not just a symbol of good taste, but power too.


4. Stacking Pieces 

Stacking is a signature feature of Scandinavian design, from tables to chairs, to even full sets that stack together. This marriage of form and function, where beautiful simple lines facilitate ease of use, and multi-functional use of small spaces is vital to some of the ethos of Scandinavian Design. Sensual curves and a pioneering single-form single-material design pushed the Panton S Chair to become one of the most groundbreaking chairs of all time. Created back in the ‘60s, the futuristic Panton S Chair defined the vibrant colour scheme of the era and eventually found its place in almost all modern interior styles. Perfect for a dining room or a study, the Panton S chair is engineered to be used anywhere, anytime. Light and stackable – just perfect for small space living. One of the most cherished products in the history of furniture design, the Model 60 Stool by Alvar Aalto packs its superior practicality in the most simplistic of forms. This three-legged birch stool can serve as a seat, a side table, a storage or a display surface, and can easily be stacked in a spiralling structure to save space. Thanks to its well thought L-legs, the Model 60 Stool goes away without a complicated supportive framework as the legs can be mounted directly to the underside of the seat.


5. Natural Light, Large Windows 

There’s some crazy stat that says Danes burn more candles than anyone else in Europe. But when it’s dark for so much of the year, a candle’s warm glow can really make a difference. And layered artificial lighting can supplement as well. A cool pendant overhead, task lighting, table and floor lamps—these are all essential in Scandi interiors for that extra bit of warmth and visibility. There is also an emphasis on large glass windows to allow as much natural light to flow in as possible. Because it’s dark so much of the year in Scandinavian countries, natural light is an important thing to try and maximize. If any window treatments are used at all, sheer or translucent ones are favored to let in as much light as possible. To help brighten up spaces and to bring in some life, plants are found in plenty of Scandinavian homes. This works well in conjunction with the large windows, nourishing the plant life. 


6. Natural Materials 

Organic shapes, natural materials, and clean, layered, comfortable designs are prominent elements of the Scandinavian design style. Scandinavian design style stems from a culture of living in small rural communities that were generally isolated, requiring reliance on natural materials. Eco-friendly materials such as tree stumps, animal hides, and lush greenery are also staples of Scandinavian design. Throughout Nordic history, people used whatever materials they had to craft functional, beautiful homes. Born out of the Scandinavian design movement is the concept of hygge, a Danish/Norwegian style of being that promotes the ideals of wellness and contentment. While you can’t necessarily design a hygge space, Scandinavian design can encourage the pleasurable emotions that are essential to hygge. When you think of a Scandinavian room, you probably also imagine a black fireplace and a sheepskin rug. The use of animal fur, combined with wood and metals creates the warmth that is essential to this kind of design, while also adding an elevated feeling. 


7. Curving Lines 

Scandinavian Design features beautiful curving lines that makes a space feel  The Globe or Ball Chair was invented in 1963 by Eero Aarnio. Even with half a century behind its back, this unconventional, playfully relaxed chair still feels a bit futuristic today. It is very cosy and snug, just perfect for isolating yourself from wondering eyes. The Arne Jacobsen Series 7 (or sometimes referred to as the Butterfly Chair) wrote history as one of the all-time best-selling Scandinavian Modern chairs. Excellent design and fine craftsmanship teamed up to produce this stackable, pressure moulded sliced veneer piece of furniture heaven. While curving lines are an essential part of Scandinavian Design, Geometry also plays a huge role. Geometric doesn’t always mean straight lines: Furniture and lighting can curve, and odd numbers make for a better aesthetic. Pictures can be of different sizes and heights, remember; it’s all about a clean finish. Designed back in 1957 as Model 3130 Chair, this ambitious design got its more catchy moniker after it won the Grand Prix at the Triennale in Milan. The unusual shape of the backrest is tailored to the human body, so the chair is not only interesting to look at but surprisingly comfortable too. Pieces like this utilize curving lines to better suit comfort of the human body, which is a vital part of the innovation of Scandinavian designers. 

8. Accent Lights 

Danes, on average, spend 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors. No wonder they dreamed up hygge — a term encompassing coziness and conviviality. The concept developed in the 19th century as a celebration of warmth and comfort at home. And a key contributor to warmth and comfort, of course, is illumination. Although most Danes didn’t have electric lighting until the 1920s, the Poul Henningsen household became electrified in 1907, when he was 13. He later recalled watching his mother struggle with the transition from the warmth of a kerosene lamp to the harsher, white illumination from the lightbulb. It’s fair to say that finding a balance between technology and aesthetics was at the core of Henningsen’s design career. He joined the wholesale lighting firm Louis Poulsen & Co. in 1924 and the following year presented an early version of the PH 3/2 table lamp at Paris’s Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. It featured stacked concentric shades that were mirrored and curved to guide the direction of the light. However, too much glare filtered through the clear glass. It’s not often that a light fixture is celebrated as much for auditory as for visual allure. But that was the case for Verner Panton’s Shell lamp. “The sound is like cow bells ringing in the distance,” said Panton, whose design garnered huge acclaim when it debuted at the Frankfurt trade fair in 1964. “It is very soothing.”Panton cleverly hid the lightbulb behind multiple semitransparent mother-of-pearl discs — each no more than half a millimeter thick — which were connected to one another with steel rings. Each cluster was affixed to a central ceiling plate. People moving below or the natural airflow of a room would jostle them, causing a jingling sound.


Why is It so Popular? 

Part of the appeal lies in how aspirational this specific design style feels. The uncluttered nature and brightness evokes a sense of calm that so many people are missing from their daily lives. After leaving a stressful day at work, the idea of returning to a home devoid of bulky furniture and clutter feels particularly appealing. A guiding principle of Scandinavian design is to establish harmony with one’s environment and to create things made to last. It seeks to compliment the art of living well by promoting a simple home environment that is filled with quality items and enhances an unencumbered lifestyle devoid of excess consumerism. In this way it’s both important for an individual, as a home environment that encourages a life well lived is an increasingly important counter to the pressures of modern life, and for the planet, as it challenges rampant consumerism and deepens our connection to nature. How do you design for hygge? You can’t, really, it’s an emotional response to a feeling of comfort or happiness. You can, however, create an environment that promotes a life well-lived. Fill your home with things that give you joy and welcome your loved ones in: low-level lighting and candles, a beautiful dining set, thick woolen blankets, even a board game should do it!

Design in Iceland is a relatively young tradition, starting in the 1950s but now growing rapidly. The country’s limited options for manufacturing and its constrained choice of materials have both forced designers to be innovative, though wool remains a staple material, whether felted or knitted. Iceland’s Museum of Design and Applied Art, aiming to record Icelandic design from 1900 onwards, opened in 1998. The Iceland Academy of the Arts was also founded in 1998, soon followed by its Faculty of Architecture and Design, which has promoted a distinctively Icelandic character in the nation’s design. Swedish design is considered minimalist, with an emphasis on functionality and simple clean lines. This has applied especially to furniture. Sweden is known for traditional crafts including glass and Sami handicrafts. Danish Design is a style of functionalistic design and architecture that was developed in mid-20th century. Influenced by the German Bauhaus school, many Danish designers used the new industrial technologies, combined with ideas of simplicity and functionalism to design buildings, furniture and household objects, many of which have become iconic and are still in use and production, such as Arne Jacobsen’s 1958 Egg chair. 

The Scandinavian style is not only about simplicity and function, however. Some of the world’s most iconic designs date back to the golden age of Scandinavian design. The sculptural Egg, Shell, and Panton chairs redefined the concept of furniture and influenced generations of furniture designers. These creatively designed chairs transformed into decorative pieces that easily established focal points in interiors. While designed decades ago, these iconic designs look as gorgeous and innovative today as they did back in the 1930s-1960s. Contemporary designers continue that legacy today with award-winning furniture designs that look as elegantly simple and imaginative as the creations that have preceded them. The classic Swedish emphasis on functionality and reduced form has undergone a change, and today sophisticated colour schemes, a broad range of sustainable materials and conceptual ideas form a new diversity. In recent years collaborations between design producers and small-scale crafts industries has also established itself as an important aspect of contemporary Swedish design.