A Brief History of Scandinavian Design | Incorporating More Hygge into your Space

Scandinavian Furniture Design

Hygge-Mania may have swept across the globe a few years ago, but there is so much more to Scandinavian design than cosy fireplaces and scented candles

What Is Scandinavian Design? 

Scandinavian Design embodies a philosophy that is recognised for clean lines, functionality and longevity. Bringing one closer to his/her environment is what lies at the core of this design movement. Designed with comfort in mind, Scandinavian design appeals to the homebody in us all and adds light to our living spaces, even in the depth of winter. Although it has been around for over a century, this movement is nothing old. A modernist's dream, the Scandinavian design movement is here to stay and it is clear to see why.


The term ‘Scandinavian Design’ was coined from the ‘Design in Scandinavia’ exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum in 1954. This formed a pivotal moment for the designers and artists involved in putting Nordic art on the map as it was the first time that their work was viewed as a collective, by an outside source. 


An Artistic Revolution

However, little known to the world, the Scandinavian design movement began bubbling decades before its grand American debut. At the end of the 19th Century, Europe was experiencing a backlash from ‘Realism’ and the artist’s desire to recreate the hyper-realism of photography within their paintings. Modernism was the result of this rebellion powered by the advances brought on by the industrial revolution. In the UK, William Morris created the ‘Arts and Crafts’ Movement which then grew into ‘Art Nouveau’, the forerunner of Modernism. 


This marked a new style for a new decade. A fresh start for a newly industrialised Europe which allowed fluid shapes and romanticism to be the driving force behind the designs. Scandinavian Design first began to flourish in 1915 when The Society for Decorative Arts launched their Skønvirke (Graceful Crafts) magazine and began showcasing the work of local craftsmen. This Nordic art movement provided a more accessible and day to day option to the Art Nouveau movement which was reserved for the upper classes and elite. 


The Golden Age of Scandinavian Design

For decades, Nordic design blended seamlessly with the Art deco movement until the 1930s. The designers Arne Jacobsen (architecture and furniture), Alvar Aalto (textiles and furniture), Børge Mogensen (furniture), Hans. J. Wegner (furniture) and Poul Henningsen (lamps, architecture) were the real trailblazers during Scandinavian design’s golden age. The aim of the design movement was to always improve daily life while creating a harmony between man and nature. 


During the golden age of Scandinavian design from the 1930s-1970s, the designers began to be recognised on the world stage for their beautifully simplistic designs. Perhaps drawing on their bleak and cool winters, Nordic designers were able to take neutral colour palettes and warm soft furnishings to create welcoming and inviting living spaces that soon became iconic of the region. 


Scandinavian Furniture Design

Across Denmark, Sweden and Norway, furniture became a staple part of Scandinavian design with designers choosing to focus on clean lines and practicality. Nature and the long harsh winters that drove people into their homes for months on end heavily influenced how furniture was designed. Scandinavian furniture suffered heavy usage and had to be very durable while being chic and fuss-free all at once. 


Arne Jacobsen - A Scandinavian Design Trailblazer

Designers like Arne Jacobsen saw the beauty in everyday objects and revolutionised our daily lives with their wild and wacky creations. The 1950s was a peak era for Jacobsen whose famous designs the ‘Ant’ ‘Swan and the ‘Egg’ chairs took the design world by storm. 


According to R. Craig Miller, author of the famous book ‘Design 1935-1989’, “One might, in fact, argue that much of what the modern movement stands for, would have been lost or simply forgotten if Scandinavian designers and architects like Arne Jacobsen would not have added that humane element to it.”


The concepts behind Jacobsen’s work always relate back to comfort. The ‘Egg’ chair, for example, was inspired by Finnish designer Eero Saarinen’s ‘Womb’ chair. Cocooning the user in a semi-enclosed design with a continuous form gave the user a feeling of sanctuary and safety during the socially turbulent post-war era. The ‘Egg’ was designed for the Radisson SAS hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark to make guests feel sheltered and at home at the hotel. The chair consists of a steel frame with a fabric-covered, curved, high backed chair with wing-like arms. Ultra-modern and ergonomic in design, this chair became a smash hit and since the 50s, multinational companies such as the American fast-food chain, McDonald's, have decided to incorporate this chair design into their retail design concepts. 


Børge Mogensen - A Design Revolutionary 

Børge Mogensen also revolutionised Scandinavian furniture design with his classic take on modernism. It was his ambition to create simple, hard-working furniture that would enrich the daily lives of people. He was a regular on the furniture design scene, presenting his work every year in the Cabinetmaker’s Guild Exhibitions as well as being the head of the Danish Cooperative Wholesale Society during the 1940s. His work was more traditional than the work of Jacobsen with Mogensen opting for a focus on craftsmanship dipped in modernism, which appealed to people’s still traditional tastes during the era. 


Mogensen caught the attention of international art critics with the 1948 MoMa competition ‘Low-Cost Furniture’ which put his name on the global stage. The success of the competition inspired him to build on his love of ethnic arts and crafts and Japanese wood carvings and he began to experiment with plywood, creating new and inventive shapes for furniture design. 


Perhaps Mogensen’s most famous collection is ‘A Hunting Lodge’’. This collection is inspired by Spanish medieval furniture construction and it provided Mogensen with the opportunity to work with solid wood framework and saddle leather for the very first time. This was a revolutionary move for Mogensen who by creating this collection, reimagined the way in which people used their lounge areas. The wide, hardwood arms of the chairs were perfect for resting an ashtray or a glass which made side tables and coffee tables redundant. The strong, eye-catching leather seats measured a meagre 30 cm off the floor creating an overwhelmingly casual, relaxed vibe, a world away from the stuffy, upright furniture styles of the time. Mogensen had a strong appreciation for the materials used in his designs and the combination of the hardwood and saddle leather allowed for the collection to age gracefully with its surroundings, collecting an elegant patina over the years. 

Scandinavian Architecture  

With the outburst of new and exciting art movements brewing across Europe, traditional design concepts were being shaken to their core. While none of the movements promoted the same message, they all contributed to establishing new forms and functions that celebrated the modern age. 


Due to geographical isolation, Scandinavian designers were used to being resourceful with the limited amount of supplies available to them. Due to films becoming available of European designers working on new design concepts, Scandinavian designers of the 20s and 30s were able to build a new style, one that would have a global effect. 


 A Green Future for Scandinavian Design

One key overarching factor of Scandinavian design is the desire to raise the standards of living for the everyday man. Inspired by the ‘Garden City’ movement born in the UK, architects such as Edvin Engström in Sweden decided to provide an idyllic suburban enclave for the influx of people moving from the countryside to the city. 

 A Swedish Garden City - A Suburban Utopia 

Södra Ängby’ is a residential neighbourhood in Stockholm, Sweden, curated in 1938 by Engström. All the houses, inspired by the design of cruise liners, are uniformly built to be the same using functionalist ideas and methods. Cubic forms, whitewashed exteriors, flat sheet metal roofs and curved balconies with fine metal detailing are just some of the iconic features that form part of this architectural design. Today, they are considered to be a symbol of national cultural heritage and with over 500 villas, the neighbourhood is thought to be the largest example of functionalist villas in the world.


The strive for functionalism and design that ‘just works’ has been ingrained into the Scandanavian psyche for decades. However, thanks to the advances that the machine age brought along at the beginning of the 20th century, a more decorative and emotional element began to emerge in Scandinavian architecture


Bellevue Theatre - Danish Functionalist Design at its Prime

Arne Jacobsen, the celebrated Danish product designer, was a famous architect before creating his iconic chair designs. In the 1930s, Jacobsen opened his own office and shortly after he won the contract to regenerate the seafront area of Bellevue in the northern part of Copenhagen. His design for the Bellevue Theatre is considered by many to be the most important of his architectural works and a prime example of Danish functionalist design


The theatre building itself boasts a beautifully curved white exterior that is decorated with canvas and bamboo. Inside the walls of the building are mosaiced and the roof is retractable - a real feat of engineering back in the day and conjured up a ‘dream of the modern lifestyle’ for the Danes of the day. 


Scandinavian Home Furnishings


With the two world wars overshadowing daily life in the 20th century, opportunities for career expansion for many Scandinavian designers were altered. Many architects like Arne Jacobsen had to flee the occupation of their countries and leave behind their careers. This led to a huge burst of creativity with people finding new ways to express their ideas in smaller formats such as textiles and other home furnishings. 

Poul Henningsen - PH Lamps and Engieneered Design  

One designer, Poul Henningsen, who in Denmark is simply referred to as PH, created his ultra-modern PH Lamp to create a warm and glare-free lighting solution for living spaces. The first PH lamps were designed in 1926 and new models continued to be designed well into the later part of the 20th century. 


In 1926, Henningsen applied for the patent under Danish law to be able to produce the PH lamps, with the patent title being ‘Reflector for Incandescent Lamp’. He describes his design as "A reflector for diffusing the light of incandescent lamps comprising a plurality of concentric downwardly concave shades disposed above and below the plane of the source of light, the inner surfaces of said shades being directed toward the source of light, the surfaces of said shades making at all points angles less than 45 with a line to the source of light, the inner surfaces of the shades being dulled."


A series of lamps were produced by Henningsen before the launch of his iconic PH lamps, each one refining his ideas of spirals and light bulb reflectors. In 1958, he launched perhaps his most iconic models, the PH5 and the PH Artichoke Lamp. The PH Artichoke Lamp was commissioned for the Langelinie Pavilion and manufactured by Louis Poulsen & Company. Available in three colours and sizes, this lamp is made from laser-cut steel leaves held together by aircraft cables to form the shape of an artichoke. The layout of the leaves is carefully thought out to eliminate glare and provide an even cast of light across the room. This is a classically modern design that is still attempted to this day by other homeware retailers across the world. 


Henningsen’s other iconic design of the same year, the PH5 lamp is also still in production today. This simple, sleek design is composed of various concentric shapes to ensure that glare is reduced and only reflected light is emitted. 

Scandinavian Design Materials


The Scandinavian aesthetic can be defined as being fresh and functional. Clean lines and simplistic style reinforced by the use of natural materials help to make this a practical design trend. Wood, like teak, oak or beech was a popular material of choice, adding warmth to interiors. Metals such as stainless steel or copper were also a modern and practical choice for designers as it not only provided strength but it added to the contemporary design aesthetic. Many materials were combined with textiles or glass to add a soft sophistication.


Enamel In Scandinavian Design

Enamel was often used to decorate metalwork and add a splash of colour to furnishings such as lampshades. It was used extensively up until WW2 and continued to be used up until the 60s when plastics flooded the market. Enamel allowed Scandinavian designers to stay true to their sustainable design principles by providing them with a natural alternative to paint which would chip and patinate over time. 


 Knud V. Engelhardt - Designing a New Denmark


Denmark’s first industrial designer, Knud V. Engelhardt is a good example of a designer favouring enamel. From the 1930s, he used enamel for house numbers and street signs and designed with organic shapes and typographies, again a reference to nature. Enamels were widely used for signs, stoves and ovens, cookware, bathtubs, street furniture and many other things. After WW2 enamel declined in popularity due to cheaper alternatives becoming available, not by better aesthetics or durability.


Today, the principles of Scandinavian design still hold strong and its influence has permeated into all aspects of culture from graphic design, fashion and music. It appeals to people’s desire for a human connection with household objects, something that only carefully designed goods can achieve. 


 RAMSIGN - Authentic Danish Design


At RAMSIGN, we build upon Danish design principles to create customisable, hand stencilled enamel signs. Using classic materials and traditional manufacturing processes each sign is designed to be both functional and beautiful - key elements of Scandinavian design. 


With the growing concern for eco-design solutions, brands are putting the user first to offer them functionality with a conscience. From web design to interior design the essence of the Scandinavian movement still lives on and continues to influence our daily lives today. 

Meta Title: A History of Scandinavian Design 


Meta Description: Discover the great masters of Scandinavian design and see the evolution of the Nordic aesthetic in homeware over the last century and more.