The challenge of Scandinavian design

Torbjørn Bekken / Rastad & Relling / Dokka-Møbler, Silhouette, 1958
Scandinavian design is more than just a style; it also carries some dubious conceptual baggage.
Grete Prytz Kittelsen: Strek, Cathrineholm, 1956
Grete Prytz Kittelsen: Cathedral, Cathrineholm, 1958

«the term Scandinavian design has suggested ideas such as purity, functionality, closeness to nature, and modernist principles»

Kristina Ketola Bore

Ever since it took root as a concept in the middle of the last century, the term Scandinavian design has suggested ideas such as purity, functionality, closeness to nature, and modernist principles. Often, these same qualities feature prominently in the marketing of products from the Nordic region. They continue to be used in the publicity circulated by furniture and design chains, independent stores, and in the media worldwide. As a vocabulary, it is so well-established that it crops up in design research, in exhibition contexts, and even in the rhetoric of designers themselves.

What exactly is the problem with a concept that unites us as a region – or which helps to promote design from that area? The point I wish to make is not just that, as a label, «Scandinavian design» is now simply bland and cliché-ridden. It can also be problematic and potentially harmful to our self-understanding.

Widar Halén: Scandinavian Design Beyond the Myth: Fifty Years of Scandinavian Design from the Nordic Countries, 2015
Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime, 1998

«It is worth remembering that the concept of Scandinavian design first took shape under the umbrella of modernism, a movement that aspired to universal truths – truths that were formulated almost exclusively by Western, heterosexual men during the early 20th century»

Kristina Ketola Bore

«Scandinavian design» as brand

As a cultural phenomenon, Scandinavian design is not necessarily synonymous with a product category. As the latter, the term covers a range of designer products that originate in the Scandinavian countries. As a phenomenon, however, it denotes ideas about a certain type of design that are also reproduced in other social contexts. Both connotations have their problems, but in this text I shall address them as a single complex, since they exist in a reciprocal relationship with each other.

In his book Scandinavian Design Beyond the Myth: Fifty Years of Scandinavian Design from the Nordic Countries (2005), the director of art and design at the National Museum, Widar Halén, discusses a number of international touring exhibitions of Scandinavian design. In particular, Halén picks out one exhibition that visited Australia in the 1960s. Of this he writes: «Characteristics such as ‘cool, sober elegance’, ‘simplicity of means’ and ‘clean, pragmatic usefulness’ were repeatedly ascribed to the works by critics.»

Adjectives such as these will sound familiar to many of us from interior design magazines and marketing blurb distributed by design firms and furniture manufacturers. They signify values that stand in contrast to ornament, decoration, multiculturalism and diversity. Ornament was condemned by the modernist Adolf Loos in his celebrated text Ornament and Crime (1910). There he describes ornament as an obstacle to development, as “degenerate” (a term the Nazis also used to attack modern art), an indicator of criminal tendencies, something we might associate with the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, whom Loos regarded as mentally underdeveloped.

It is worth remembering that the concept of Scandinavian design first took shape under the umbrella of modernism, a movement that aspired to universal truths – truths that were formulated almost exclusively by Western, heterosexual men during the early 20th century. Later critiques of modernism have highlighted the assumption that all people think the same way. For example, modernism did not take into account the idea that people see the world around them differently depending on their cultural background.

Tone Vigeland: Sløyfe, PLUS, 1970

Representation and reproduction

The way we describe something reflects and reproduces our system of meaning. This is true not just of written and spoken language, it also extends to visual communication. The rhetoric we use here serves either to reinforce or to break down myths and preconceptions. The language we use to articulate our own practices serve as a means to position our work and ourselves as practitioners, both in local contexts and on the global level.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that values such as purity and functionality are also ascribed to people as such. These are concepts that have to do with human dignity. It is extremely important to understand that object design has to do with values that extend beyond what we actually see. If we forget this, we will automatically be inclined to underestimate design’s potential for innovation and social influence.

We should also bear in mind that categorisations on the basis of nationality can be dangerous and pernicious, especially in a period that is witnessing a wave of alt-right populism that spreads ideas such as the «purification» of the nation state from anyone who can be regarded as an outsider. That same alt-right movement has, moreover, shown itself to be canny in its use of visual communication. Today, more than ever before, we must be careful with the kind of rhetoric we use in public debates, whether of the visual or the textual kind.

«Characteristics such as ‘cool, sober elegance’, ‘simplicity of means’ and ‘clean, pragmatic usefulness’ were repeatedly ascribed to the works by critics»

Widar Halén
Arne Korsmo and Grete Prytz’ home in Oslo, 1955

A simplification of design as a field

It is now almost seventy years since the term «Scandinavian design» made one of its earliest appearances at a furniture fair in Italy. The concept of national purity was already controversial even then, whereas today it has become a cultural minefield. Why has the design sector made no attempt to confront these concepts and the values they imply?

One possible explanation is that the study of theory is often relegated to the back seat in the Norwegian design field, which tends to focus more on material practice and commercial production. In consequence, young students and designers find it easy to recycle clichés about clear lines, pure, natural materials, and functionality. This stands in contrast to the use of tools that let one see design as a potential contributor to discourses about gender, politics, identity, power structures and the like. It simplifies design as a field in a way that suggests that it can only ever be self-referrential – which, incidentally, also echoes the modernist mindset

«Scandinavian Design might have started out as a bunch of adjectives selected for marketing purposes, but it also entails values that say something about the people who use them»

Kristina Ketola Bore

National versus nationalistic

«Throughout history, humans have sought to constitute themselves in groups with similar characteristics, in territorially distinct societies bound by a certain sense of kinship,» writes curator Katerina Gregos in her book The State is Not a Work of Art (2018), published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title at Tallinn Art Hall. Nationality can thus be described as a communal experience that presupposes a shared geographical habitat, in other words: being part of the same nation. The modern nation state has a number of beneficial qualities, but history has shown that problems arise when national allegiance becomes linked to a certain faith or cultural ideal. It is here that the danger arises of tipping over into nationalism – an ideology or movement that often appeals to religion or mythology to justify the nation state.

«… nationalism fosters cultural homogeneity, isolationism, suspicion of ‘the other’, exclusion and hate … it advocates superiority of one value system over another», writes Gregos. Just as nationalism presupposes a «we», so too does Scandinavian design. And this can only entail that there must also be a «them» or «others».

To get a better insight into how this works in practice, let us take a look at a magazine like the Nordic publication Bo Bedre. Here one finds articles that discuss the clear, Scandinavian style, and which refer to the «Nordic soul». In one report about the home of the director of a Danish design firm, the magazine describes a hollowed-out log that serves as a wash basin: «Everywhere [in this home] you find such distinctive features, framed in a simple graphic style that uses good materials and Nordic design to create harmony and serenity.»

Myths and suggestions that aim to expose a society’s soul or authenticity are highly disturbing. Especially when they employ adjectives to do with purity, clear lines, functionalism and harmony, and carry the suggestion that these qualities can be acquired through the purchase of products. A so-called «Nordic soul» that can be bought and used in the home as a representative both of itself and of the ideas it stands for is a particularly effective means of entrenching notions of «us» and «them». Such a device serves to build a mythology about the nations that form the Scandinavian constellation. Works that take the «Scandinavian style» as their point of departure are based on generalisations, prejudices and preconceptions, which also serve to perpetuate such myths. As ideas they benefit no one but those who use them as a brand to sell products and who thereby help to cement the idea that there exist both genuine and non-genuine Scandinavians.

Villa Stenersen, 1939
Villa Stenersen, 1939-1945

«If we are to believe the ethos that has grown around Scandinavian design, then we have to credit the inhabitants of this region as fostering a mythical sixth sense – as possessing that genuine and fundamental human essence that the modernists believed in»

Kristina Ketola Bore

Faith, myth and Scandinavian design

Writing in the same volume as Gregos, the British social-historian Anthony D. Smith discusses some of the social processes and cultural mechanisms that create national identity. In his essay «Nations in Decline?» he describes how myths such as that of a nation’s Golden Age provide an idealised image, a picture of the «true soul» of a society, as something to be emulated or even surpassed. This can be seen in the modernist wave that swept across the Nordic countries in the 20th century, and which has subsequently been idealised and reproduced in new furniture products, and the celebration of now-deceased Scandinavian «design heroes».

Smith also describes how, for example, the Dutch picture their society as one built on tolerance, whereas the French tend to view their own nation as an exporter of freedom and equality. Although both ideas can easily be refuted, they persist as cornerstones of their respective national identities. Smith concludes: «… constant repetition, especially in times of crisis, helps to reinforce a sense of unique national identity, if not one of outright nationalism.»

By cultivating the pioneers of so-called Scandinavian design and the principles we ascribe to them, we idealise them to the point where they no longer serve merely as means to promote sales or as a source of inspiration, but also become a contributory factor in the rise of nationalist ideology.

Kåre Blokk Johansen: Unique, Egersund Fayancefabrik, 1970

Dangerous ideas

If we are to believe the ethos that has grown around Scandinavian design, then we have to credit the inhabitants of this region as fostering a mythical sixth sense – as possessing that genuine and fundamental human essence that the modernists believed in.

«There can be no doubt that the idea of the nation needs to be reinvented, or at least re-thought, and that notions of belonging cannot exclusively be related to national identity», writes Katerina Gregos. When we say that some people belong and others do not, we also have to ask: who is it who propagates these views and whom do they benefit?

Scandinavian design has now become an effective means to establish a boundary between «us» and «them». It might have started out as a bunch of adjectives selected for marketing purposes, but it also entails values that say something about the people who use them. Seen from this angle, Scandinavian design is more than just a style; it is an alarming and dangerous mindset. And by associating the acquisition of Scandinavian design with both cultural and economic capital – as so often happens with design objects today – we do more that just define a boundary of exclusion; we also establish a zone to which the privileged elements of society can purchase access.

Today there can be little justification for the continued use of the term «Scandinavian design», except as a profit-making label that has long been a resource for market forces. Existing as we do in a global design community, it is essential that we relate to ideas beyond ourselves – and to see ourselves as actors in an increasingly international dialogue. This involves putting behind us stereotypical, cliché-ridden and potentially dangerous notions of who «we» are and opening our minds to the potential of design to bring people together.

This article is also published in Kunsthåndverk 2/ 18. 

Translated by Peter Cripps.