Nordic Furniture Design - Less is More: Sustainability, Innovation and Experimentation

Nordic Furniture Design - Less is More: Sustainability, Innovation and Experimentation

Nordic design also referred to as Scandinavian design encompasses the countries of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. In the colder region of Northern Europe, Scandinavia has the type of cold, rainy climate and mountainous terrain that requires its inhabitants to think about usefulness and durability first when considering product design. These characteristics are the basis for many of the nordic designs we see in the iconic and modern scandinavian furnishings and decor. 


Each country that falls under the term nordic design, truly has its own history and style when it comes to furniture design. However, the prime commonality between all the countries is based on practicality and quality craftsmanship. As practicality as a top priority, these designs focus on making the most of the natural world and its surrounding resources and materials. The agricultural background in Scandinavia, where high quality tools were readily available, also play a role in the well-crafted and well-produced designs.


Nordic design in furniture and decor, as a whole and in terms of aesthetics have some very distinct characteristics. An emphasis on using wood as a primary material in the design, often times wood in conjunction with another material like metal or moulded plastic sometimes upholstered in fabric. They often have a geometric, sculptural appearance with the space around them taken into account just as much as the design itself and they highlight the legs and base of the designs, creating them in a unique shape such as tapered or biomorphic but always with a hint of rigidness about them. As nordic designs evolved, the rigidity became less apparent but many traditional nordic designs still follow this style.


The important comparisons between the different countries designs at their roots,  as with most subtle and distinct differences in design, is based on a combination but with a specific focus on either the cultural climate, resources available and / or the need of the time period and region. For example, Denmark, being a flat region with few raw materials to work with, largely based their designs on perfecting making affordable yet well-crafted, long-lasting furniture utilizing local materials. Whereas, Norway, with its mountains and dense forests, had an abundance of materials to work with but largely based the origin of their designs on the spark of national romanticism in art and architecture after gaining independence from Sweden in the early 1900s.


Although nordic design was developing since the 1700s, it really made its presence known in the 1950s, post world war II. After the industrial age, with the focus off of the war and an explosive boom in technology, people all around the world were able to more easily connect with other cultures integrating them into their lifestyle while also ready to focus their attention on beauty, design, home life and making their own personal identity and style known. This era sparked the mid-century modern design craze and nordic style was at the forefront of this design movement.



We see that what is now considered to be modern day nordic design are furnishings and decor that last the span of time based on functionality, good quality yet accessible materials and a simple, minimalist appearance keeping the comfort of the individual in mind.  Some of the most influential nordic designers that have produced the most iconic mid century modern designs had backgrounds and experience in architecture, sculpture, art and craft from an early age.


Danish designer, Finn Juhl is considered to be one of the first in bringing Modern Danish design to the US. He was a leading architect with a background in art history. One of his most iconic designs, known as the Chieftain’s Chair or the Finn Juhl Chieftains Chair, was created in 1949 and featured a fabric upholstered seat and backrest with a wooden frame. The legs of the chair were tapered, appearing like reversed, tiny tree trunks. The wooden frame had highly expressive lines and a structured yet abstract form due to its slanted appearance. This allowed for its presence to be known within a particular environment without being intrusive. It had a cubic style about it, where the frames construction added space within the space. The slanted and overall structure of the frame contributes to its high level of comfort while providing superior support for a person’s body and removing tension on the legs of the chair.


Another leading architect and Danish designer in the forefront of contemporary nordic design was Arne Jacobsen. He placed functionality as the most fundamental purpose behind his designs which can be seen with his creation of the Ant Chair or the variation of this design known as the Series 7 Plywood Chair. The Ant Chair was the first completely industrialized furniture design made in Denmark. It was also the first chair to have a double-curvature seat shell constructed using only one laminated wood piece.  It was made to be stackable, affordable, comfortable and durable enough for everyday use. Using the technology of the time of steam bending laminated wood, he developed a chair that was made of laminated wood in a single three dimensional form. The comfort of the chair wasn’t based on padding or cushions but was completely bare and would adapt to the form of the human body.


Hans Wegner was a trained cabinetmaker, a master craftsman with a strong interest in furniture design. His famous designs including the Wishbone Chair and the Round Chair feature curved backrests and tapered legs with a sculptural, minimalist and organic appearance. As a skilled wood craftsman, the chairs are made of beautifully crafted wood. Wegner took into account the comfort of the individual by using a horizontal back board which increased lumbar support and the stability of the design by slightly splaying the tapered legs. The splaying of tapered legs is a design feature often recognized in nordic design.


Poul Kjaerholm was a Danish Designer and architect, who was one of the first to experiment with steel in his furnishings. His most well-known design, the PK22 chair or PK22 lounger, featured a steel frame that was lightweight, sturdy and still had that nordic style with legs that splayed outwards for stability and elegance. Although designs created before the Pk22 featured steel in the design, like on the legs for example, his goal was to experiment with steel so that it could become a sought after material in the design of affordable, well-made and well-designed furniture.


Finnish Designer and architect, Aalvar Aalto came up what is known as the L-leg system. This system is found in many modern furniture today because it offers incredible stability and support. The system features a solid wood leg, laminated at one part and bent in a 90 degree angle at the top. Designs like the Aalvar Aalto K65 Counter Stool and the Aalvar Aalto 66 High Back Chair are excellent examples of the l-leg system design. While his interest in bent wood as a material for furnishings and decor helped spark the inspiration behind this widely used system, it demonstrates the passion and purpose in nordic design to always take things to the next level. To improve upon and to advance design in one way, shape or form without disregarding what came before it but simply evolving it through observation and experimentation.


Grete Jalk, was a danish designer who did not receive as much acclaim at the time of her designs. As most designers are, she was inspired by Aalvar Aalto and other designers of the time. Her GJ chair was made using two pieces of plywood cut and bent in a single two dimensional movement. The design resembled folded fabric or paper but with sharper edges, elegantly sculpted. The two pieces were discreetly bolted together at the very back near the base. This sharp-edged supporting frame was an innovative design but was seen as unfavorable for market conditions at the time. Thus, her GJ chair was not mass produced and there were only 300 copies of this design made, which is why the GJ chair is sought after by many collectors today.It is hard to say absolutely whether or not gender was the defining reason for the lack of acclaim she received at the time of her design. However, her reputation as the ‘lady of danish design” is rising today and in 2008, her stunning GJ chair was relaunched in industrial production.


While we see progress in terms of innovation and style in nordic design, we can also note that if gender did play a role in Jalks lack of acclaim, that society still had leaps and bounds it needed to make in terms of cultural respect for women and their contribution to certain industries. The rise in demand for her designs today may be in part due to the rarity of their existence, the history behind them but it would be a fallacy to say these are the only reasons, even the main reasons, being that her designs are exquisite in form, style and functionality.


The folded fabric, ribbon like appearance seen in the GJ chair, is seen in later nordic designs like the folding paper lamp shades by Poul Christiansen and the mono-structural chair or Panton S Chair by Verner Panton. Panton was another danish designer with a strong background in architectural design, he was a part of the wave of nordic designs that featured bright, vibrant colors, biomorphic shapes and made of fiberglass and / or moulded plastic. The Panton Chair was the world’s first cantilevered plastic chair moulded in one single piece. These futuristic designs were largely influenced by the pop-art and psychedelic movement of the era. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Panton worked closely with Egg Chair and Swan Chair designer Arne Jacobsen.


As mentioned before, Jacobsen was the designer behind the Ant Chair or Series 7 Plywood Chair. Interestingly, however, some of Jacobsen’s most popular designs today, such as the Jacobsen Egg Chair and the Jacobsen Swan Lounge Chair, actually emphasis organic shapes and curved lines. These chairs feature a body-cradling shape with thick foam cushioning and an aluminum base. The Egg Chair is actually considered to be the most photographed chair of all time. Its sculptural appearance and its name were so perfectly linked it was easy to remember and even easier to look good in photographs and advertisements. Although created by the same designer, the distinct differences in the style of these designs (The Egg Chair versus The Ant Chair), give a clearer and broader picture of what modern nordic and scandinavian design is, as we know it today.


Finnish Designer, Eero Aarnio, was another leading figure in this wave of nordic innovation meets futuristic design. His iconic chairs, the Bubble Chair and The Ball Chair are spherical and made of moulded fiberglass. They are shining examples of the interplay between the culture of the time and the experimentation of materials that are comfortable, durable and resourceful.


Tutti Lutken, was one of Denmarks first female architects and a danish designer and developer of children’s preschool buildings and furniture. She designed a variety of children’s furniture in solid beechwood but her most recognizable was the Nursery Chair which was an angular chair with stretchers between the legs and a fabric strap between the two posts of the back. This chair was sturdy and offered a more flexible and comfortable backrest. Her concept behind her Nursery Chair and her other furnishings for children were designing them in the same way one would design furniture for adults only smaller in scale. The philosophy was that work for children was playing and once children were adults, the difference in furniture did not have to change  the same creative force of experimentation, building and constructing. This was a fascinating concept because as adult furnishings became more toy-like and playful, the Nursery Chair design was taking the opposite approach to create the same goal.


While our focus is primarily on nordic and scandinavian design in furnishings and decor, nordic design and its concentration on sustainability, functionality, innovation and design can be seen in the logos, advertisements, fashion, cookware, toys, bicycles, watches, architecture and energy conservation devices produced from this region for decades. The designs have been so efficient, functional and aesthetically appealing, we see how the influence of nordic design is still finding its way into american production, engineering and design. This connection to humanity and nature without overshadowing urban qualities has become a crucial and delicate balance especially when introducing these designs to the US market.


Some of the most highly-profitable and incredibly innovative businesses in the world furnish design and decorate their offices using the nordic and scandinavian designs that were created in the 50s’ and 60’s. Both Google and Microsoft furnish their offices with nordic inspired reproductions of some of the originals we discussed. This showcases the importance of how the external symbols that surround us can affect our mentality. Does it come as a surprise that designs made with innovation, sustainability and creativity in mind would not produce the same? While we may not have much say over the big billboards staring us in the face on our daily commute or the way another person in front of us may dress themselves that we feel uncomfortable with or offends our beliefs, the beauty of furnishings and decor especially when it comes to our interior space at home or where we choose to work is that we can decide what gives us the most inspiration and creates the most joy for us.


It is crucial to note that sustainability, experimentation and innovation was the driving force in many of these designers minds. Of course, a touch of their own personal style and background makes up the distinction between the designs, this forward thinking mentality is the reason many of these designs have lasted and are still highly sought after for both personal and commercial use. Nordic design is truly intelligent design. Scandinavian furnishings and decor showcases on a microcosmic level the ability to create something that is minimal, highly functional and beautiful and / or interesting to look at.


The desire to evolve nordic design by reshaping and reinventing techniques and forms with an admiration for nature, humanity and culture can be seen in its minimalist and organic style. Nordic design continues to play an active role on a global level producing new systems, technologies and designs built on sustainability. If more countries focused on creating systems, products and structures with the preservation of natural resources, the conservation of space and valued the continued expansion of the human mind, body and soul as a key factor in its development, the world may find itself in a place of steady and comfortable growth. Nordic designs demonstrate to us that it does not require destruction and demolition to create a change, it is taking the best things that served the most good from the past and then building upon that, reinventing and recreating for the present and for the future.