When the French designer Inga Sempé made her first product for the Swedish furniture manufacturer Gärsnäs earlier this year, her aim was to make something “simple and light”. The result, the beautiful but strictly minimalistic chair Österlen, was made of Swedish ash and partly manufactured in Denmark, where old Scandinavian bentwood techniques are still used. It ticked all the right boxes for what has become recognised globally as “Scandinavian” design – and has been celebrated for such.
Indeed, it seems that the notion of what constitutes Scandinavian design not only exists in the mind of the consumer, but most probably in the mind of any international designer collaborating with a company from the Nordic region too. The only question is, how relevant is this image today? After all, it has been 60 years since the touring exhibition Design in Scandinavia cemented the view of what Nordic design should be.
Ask some of the younger Scandinavian design brands and the answer is, perhaps not surprisingly, yes. Danish producer Muuto and Design House Stockholm in Sweden have both based their entire brand awareness around this widespread conception of Scandinavian design, the latter even describing itself as a “publishing house of contemporary Scandinavian design”. They are well aware of the reputation Scandinavian design has abroad, and use it as a common denominator and powerful sales tool.
Each Nordic country increasingly works on its own national branding, which design naturally is a key part of
But if you look at the governmental initiatives, it is a very different picture. According to Ewa Kumlin, managing director of the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, each Nordic country increasingly works on its own national branding, which design naturally is a key part of.
“We experienced more of a natural collaboration in the previous decades,” she explains, noting the exhibition HEMMA: Swedish design Goes London, which she co-curated during the London Design Festival this year. Alongside other partly government-funded initiatives from the neighbouring countries, such as 100% Norway and Mindcraft, organised by Danish Craft, it is clear that each country wants to put itself, rather than Scandinavia, on the international design map.
Perhaps this is only natural? After all, we live in a time when the interest in the locally-produced is increasing, and brands are realising that they need to promote the values of their own heritage. The last decade has seen designers in the Nordic countries exploring their own roots, especially since new technologies have made a return to local and smallscale production more viable.
The result is a new scene somewhat counter to that which has traditionally been recognised as Scandinavian design, one that has been in the ascendant for the last half decade. It was already apparent when the British Crafts Council staged the exhibition Beauty and the Beast – New Swedish Design in London in 2005, showing 25 of the most influential designers working in furniture, lighting and glass in Sweden. Instead of the almost stereotypical notion of cool, cleanlined Scandinavian design, there was revealed a side to it that is rarely promoted: design with an inclination towards introspection, melancholia and, yes, even a touch of humour.
This trend towards underscoring individual national identities, and highlighting work that does not fit comfortably with expectations looks set only to grow. Next year, for example, the ISCID congress has chosen Helsinki as the World Design Capital, which no doubt will strengthen the awareness of Finnish design abroad. And when A Bright, a new Chinese furniture producer aiming to furnish the middle class Chinese home, launches next year, it will bypass the notion of Scandinavian design altogether, instead using ten top Swedish designers to sell contemporary Swedish design to its huge domestic market. With moves like these, in a few years maybe the notion of Scandinavian design may be just a footnote in design history.