The weekend trip to IKEA has become one of the more popular past times in American society. The marriage between Scandinavian design and big box stores seemed a match made in heaven. But the appeal of Scandinavian design goes deeper than a flat box. Beautiful, simple, and highly functional designs inspired by nature and accessible to all – Scandinavian mid-century modern furniture continues to attract and please today. Characterized by light colors and natural materials, these designs are a natural reaction to Scandinavia’s short days and long winters where homes need bright and warm interiors.
Evolution of Design
Nordic design evolved through their culture and history. Scandinavians always had a strong craft tradition and were particularly adept at combining handwork with machine production. They considered the integrity of each object more important than the latest trend.
Inspired by continental Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly the German Bauhaus, Nordic designers rejected the more austere look of geometric and metal elements and added curves and wood to soften the look, making it more readily accepted by Europe and the US. In addition, the Scandinavian approach to functionalism including furniture that could expand, stack and fold – a practical solution embraced by buyers of all sized homes. Adapting a social democratic society after World War II, Scandinavians believed that beautiful and functional products should be available and affordable to all.
Of the five Nordic countries that encompass Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland), it is Denmark that is best known for its furniture hence the term “Danish Modern.” The Danish designers and craftsman have a close collaboration. Many famous designers such as Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Morgens Lessen, Peter Hvidt, Grete Jalk and Borge Morgensen started as trained cabinetmakers. This craft understanding enabled them to transform their ideas into objects that could then be mass produced. Makers used imported teak from Thailand and rosewood from Brazil, the rich colors and grains of the wood gave the furniture an elegant look. After WWII, Denmark was able to return rapidly to normal pre-war production and soon “Danish Modern” was widely available and affordable.
Hans Wegner (Danish, 1914-2007) Pair of Wishbone Chairs
circa 1950, Carl Hansen & Son, Oak, cord
Heritage Auctions, May 17, 2016, Sold for $440
In the 1930’s the Functionalist movement (called Funkis in Finland) evolved where traditional designs with much heavier elements were replaced with functionality. The most important designer of modern Finnish furniture from 1930 to 1950 was Alvar Aalto.
Artek and the Aaltos – Furnishing the World
There is currently an interesting exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York City,
Finnish architects, Alvar and Aino Aalto, a husband and wife team, are known for their famous mid-century designed interiors whereby all of the decorative objects – furniture, lighting, glass and textiles -were created within the architectural project. Their Finnish firm, called Artek, is a combination of art and technology, (“Ar-tek”). By the 1930s, Artek began to furnish the world. Among companies that sold modern furniture, Artek had one of the largest international sales networks.
Arkek’s philosophy was to bring “a human perspective to modernism”. By developing a unique process of bending and laminating wood they combined the purity and functionalism to modernism with the warmth of wood. They were also interested in producing furniture with the fewest number of elements for easy manufacture and lower cost.
The cantilever chairs use this process of laminated plywood and later inspired designs by Charles Eames and other important modernists. The frame is made from laminated birch and is manipulated to produce a unique cantilevered shape, an armchair without straight lines.
In his “Paimio” chair, Alvar Aalto redesigned the tubular metal furniture first created by Marcel Brewer at the Bauhaus to an all wooden cantilever design.
Alvar Aalto, Armchair (model no. 41) “paimio”, designed 1931-32,
this example ca. 1943, bent plywood, bent laminated birch and solid birch
Artek became adept at combining mass production processes with the flexibility of individual customization. Design standards were developed whereby individual parts such as legs could be used for different designs. The prototype pictured below was later included in Finmar catalogue (a wholesaler and major importer of Scandinavian furniture to the UK) offering customers standard Aalto models in a variety of color and lacquer finishes.
Chair (model no. 31) Alvar Aalto, prototype
designed ca. 1932, bent laminated birch and
bent plywood; stepped runners.
A similar chair sold at Claude Aguttes auction,
February 21, 2013, for $2,526 including premium.
This chest is a good example of how Aalto’s’ design uses curved legs (“L leg”) to soften the piece and provide a more elegant look. The birch wood is light in color and its natural grains are rich and warm.
Chest of four drawers (model no. 204), birch
1945-50, 39” x 33”
A slightly larger Alvar Aalto birch chest of drawers,
circa 1946-1956, 39” x 43”, sold at Bukowskis Stockholm:
November 11, 2015 for $5,357 including premium
Historically, Finnish art glass was made by hand. Examples of designs made for mass production can be found in the 1930s. The best known designers were Alvar Aalto, Arttu Brummer and Gunnel Nyman.
An Aalto Savoy vase produced today by Iittala is available for sale at finestyle.com for $174. An early Savoy vase from 1937 produced by Karhulan Lasitehdas sold at Christie’s London: Tuesday, November 4, 2014 for $25,983 including premium.
Alvar Aalto, Savoy glass vase, designed 1936, originally by Karhula,
now produced by Iittala, 5 ½” high, current production
Aalto was a master at using light to enhance the mood of interior spaces. Fixtures were made to be glare free so that it is impossible to see the light bulb from any direction. The design actually alters artificial lighting to simulate natural light. In the 1950s Aalto worked with Viljo (“Sparks”) Hirvonen to develop standing, hanging and table lamps. Many of the light fixtures, such as the models in the picture below, provided lighting that was intentionally dim and meant to be hung in groups, which added to the ambiance of the interiors. A set of three Alvar Aalto ceiling lights, model no. A335, designed 1955, painted tubular metal, painted metal, brass, sold at Phillips London April 28, 2016 for £7,500.
Artek textiles were designed with bold contrasts in black and white and color to be used for different purposes. Still manufactured today, the company offers original patterns from the 1950s in a variety of products including decorative pillows, blankets, aprons, oven mittens, napkins, etc. See http://www.artek.fi/products/abc_collection
Artek’s designer, Maija Heikinheimo, created a number of screens for a model apartment at the Interbau exhibition in Berlin in 1957. The adjustable screen is made of wood and fabric which hangs around a central post.
A set of wallpaper samples for the apartment includes an adoption of Elissa Aalto’s “H55” textile design from the exhibition of the same name.
Elissa Aalto, textile length, “h55,” black-white colorway,
designed for h55 exhibition, Helsingborg, Sweden, ca. 1955, printed cotton
You can see from these few examples how the original Swedish concept of rackrare vardagsvara (“more beautiful things for everyday use”) makes Scandinavian furnishings so popular to this day.