Since the 1950s Scandinavian design has been to the forefront of the international modern movement. Of all the names the work of Danish trio Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl and Hans J Wegner is probably the most familiar and as a result the most influential.
While expensive to buy, their designs were not just for the elite. In that part of the world schoolchildren spent their days on Jacobsen-designed chairs, thereby picking up on an appreciation for well-formed furniture almost by osmosis, says Dorothea Gundtoft, a stylist and author of New Nordic Design, which celebrates designers of the region deserving of a wider audience.
The region has incubated some favourite furniture pieces, including a plethora of chairs that you know to see and may even know by name and that have been in production since the middle of the last century: Jacobsen’s Egg (1958), Wegner’s wishbone (1949) and Juhl’s Chieftain (1949). So is there something in that part of the world’s topography that makes for appealing and successful furniture, lighting and accessories?
There are a simplicity and a functionality to designs from this region that make them useful and timeless, Gundtoft says.
The common credo the designers she has listed espouse remains a simple one. Part of the principle is that the well-designed furniture and accessories are made using sustainable raw materials and are purchased for life, the stylist and author says.
“The use of wood, from surrounding forests, is one of the keen elements in Nordic design, and the craftsmanship and attention to detail using wood has been refined for a century,” she says.
They may also be inspired by natural visual phenomena such as the Northern Lights but historically, like Ireland, many of the inhabitants of these countries worked as farmers and fishermen making sustainable use of their natural resources.
The difference is these countries are renowned for their design talent, while Ireland, despite having lots of excellent furniture-makers, isn’t quite in the same league. Gundtoft believes it is because of its international design stars that the region’s design heritage goes from strength to strength. “Our history of famous brands, such as Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, Artek and Verner Panton, means we really have to live up to the past. Badly produced design is not in our DNA,” she says.
While her book concentrates on boutique brands, Swedish giant Ikea has also played a lead role in opening the world's eyes to Nordic design. It has also helped commercialise the Nordic lifestyle, she says, and she would like to see the company collaborate more with Nordic designers instead of international collaborations.
“Ikea helps younger designers break through larger markets: a lot of Nordic designers work for Ikea, producing furniture collections, which finance their own mini productions, and gives them a chance to test out the market worldwide.”
Historically Scandinavian design covered four countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. The author has remapped the region, extending Scandi chic outside of its historic borders to include Iceland. Sitting just beneath the Arctic Circle, in one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, it is seen by outsiders as a changeable, challenging country, Gundtoft writes. Because of its severe weather objects have had to be highly functional. As a result of the work of Spark Design Space and Faerid, it is now considered one of the freshest places to find new talent.
Having worked as a fashion and interiors stylist, Gundtoft is used to reading trends and being ahead of the curve in championing what’s new. She feels the companies listed in her book “reflect the time we are in right now”.
As the design giants become victims of their own success, in part as a result of cheap copies flooding the market, trendsetters want something less obvious, something that isn’t so ubiquitous that everyone knows its price and provenance.
So if you’re bored with chairs whose names you know, this book will open your eyes to the lesser-spotted Scandi brands. It will take you on a whistle-stop tour of the region and show you souvenirs that you’ll want to live with.
New Nordic Design by Dorothea Gundtoft is published by Thames Hudson.
Nordic design: Six names to buy
Denmark: Hay sells affordable and functional products that look fresh and modern. Industry Dublin on Drury Street stocks a small selection. Pictured is the Catalogue desk by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Hay.dk, industrydesign.ie
Danish interior designer Tina Seidenfaden Busck transformed an 18th century apartment into a glamorous repository for furniture where you can buy designs by leading Swedish and Finnish designers. Everything in the place is for sale. Theapartment.dk
Studio Fem, founded by Anders Engholm Kristensen, Sarah Cramer and Britt Ramussen, is an award-winning firm. Its work includes a prototype Waffle sideboard, which is accessed from both sides and used as a room divider. studiofem.dk
Sweden: Svensk Tenn is a historic brand from Stockholm that is far more decorative than many of its compatriots – and far less well known outside international circles. Dorothea Gundtoft loves its colours and fabrics. Svenskttenn.se
Finland: Finn Joanna Laajisto worked in the US for a large architectural practice and then moved back to Helsinki to create cool retail and dining spaces, such as Intro restaurant. Joannalaajisto. com
Norway: Everything Elevated is definitely a brand to look out for, Gundtoft says. The company, based in hip Brooklyn, believe that the Scandi tradition of taking breaks to enjoy the outdoors has important benefits. These include getting a fresh perspective to reflect on problem-solving. The Shorebird, Swan and Ducky were all designed for Normann Copenhagen. Everything-elevated.com; normann-copenhagen.com
Vera and Kyte are young designers, based in Bergen, Norway, whose work includes Memphis-inspired bookshelves and blocks. vera-kyte.com
Iceland: Although not part of Scandinavia, Iceland is very much part of the new Nordic design scene. Sitting just below the Arctic Circle and in one of the most active volcanic regions of the world, it gives designers such as Faerid, headed by Thorunn Hannesdottir, a playful perspective. Faerid.com