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1900 - 1960

Many countries have played a decisive role in the course of modernist design, the lead continously changing hands in a forward march from past to present to future.

The new brash art movements and styles erupting at the turn of the century became increasingly international in scope, enriched by the unique offerings of each nation. Sharing little commonality of purpose, they contributed to the progression of form and function in their own way depending on long-standing traditions, geo-politics, geography, language, natural resources, and the critical, yet often coincidental, availability of creative genius.

As with most of Europe, modernity in Scandinavian design represented a radical shift from provincial isolation to self-assertiveness in an international design setting. A century of intense design activity had commenced about 1880 throughout Europe and no less in the vast and diverse geographic region encompassing Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. From Scandinavia's variegated matrix of politics, cultures, languages and traditions, there emerged a multifaceted design philosophy that became a major international influence.

Each country within Scandinavia played a significant role in the formation of a modern tradition, and each responded to the challenges of the modern world in a distinctive manner. All the countries recognized social equality, industrialization and urbanization as major factors of modern life. Yet, these factors and their impact on the arts and crafts were encountered differently in each country, giving a special identity to the design traditions of each. By the mid-century, however, these designs became known as a style and the history of modern Scandinavian design suggests there are unifying features – humanism, tradition, moderation, hand-crafted perfectionism, modesty, quietude and purposefulness – within the traditions of each country that encourage such a generalization. This exhibition of decorative arts and design attempts to address both these unifying qualities and the distinct differences.

Although many Americans are familiar with the Scandinavian design style of the 1950s (1), few are as aware of developments in Scandinavia prior to that decade. The European countries that were most successful in imparting a modern aesthetic to their traditional craft industries were Scandinavian – particularly Denmark, Sweden and Finland – countries with small, fairly homogeneous populations and natural resources which encouraged strong craft traditions. With the breakdown of the craft guild system in the mid- nineteenth century, they established a number of institutions to protect them from an influx of inferior, foreign mass-produced goods. The Svenska Slšjdfšreningen (Swedish Society of Craft and Industrial Design), for example, was established in 1845 to foster high standards in Swedish craft production.

Prior to 1900, the five countries drew largely on national folklore for their decorative inspiration, especially in Norway, where Viking-revival imagery enjoyed great popularity. The world first became aware of the Nordic arts and crafts movement when many such works were exhibited at the 1897 Stockholm Exhibition of Arts and Industries followed by the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Of particular success were the works of the Swedish Ršrstrand porcelain factory (2), a firm excelling in a painterly repertory of radiant flowers sculpted in shallow relief by such artist-designers as Alf Wallander and Nils Erik Lundstršm who took nationalistic pride in turning native flora and fauna into three-dimensional vessels of exceptional beauty.

Importantly, the Art Nouveau movement reflected a new sense of unity across the visual arts, from architecture through decorative arts and graphics. However, it was primarily allied to craft production and available only in rather expensive, exclusive objects. Danish Art Nouveau metalwork was dominated by Georg Jensen who opened his own workshop in 1904. Devoid of extravagant ornament, his fluid contours and planished surfaces were considered decoration enough and soon reached an eager international market. The two major porcelain manufacturers, Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grøndahl were keenly aware of international technical advances and artistic change, and both played a significant part in imparting a Japonisme taste at the time.

A primary impetus behind Art Nouveau was a dissatisfaction with historicism , a shared feeling that the new century needed a new style to accompany it. The move into modern forms had little effect upon the manufacturing processes at Gustavsberg, which remained essentially craft-based. The introduction of the artist Wilhelm Kåge into the company in 1917 reinforced the Swedish design philosophy of beautifying everyday goods but had more effect on the aesthetic and social front than on technological advances. The Swedish decorative arts managed, even with their craft base, to fulfill a democratic ideal by supplying simple, modern ware for a substantial market.

The first signal of a cohesive direction in Swedish design was expressed by Gregor Paulsson in 1919 in his influential book, Vackrare Vardagsvara (More Beautiful Things for Everyday Use). As director of the Swedish Design Council (1920-23), he pressed the need for making non-elitist objects of high aesthetic quality more widely available. This ambition underpinned most experiments undertaken by the applied arts industries through the '20s and '30s. The Swedes were searching for a design style that combined simplicity with beauty, humanism and democratic ideals. Kåge dedicated the next twenty years to pursuing this end, as did artists Simon Gate and Edward Hald who likewise were introduced to manufacturing companies by the Svenska Slšjdšreningen (3). The Kosta and Orrefors Glasbruks in Smaland sponsored their forays into lyrical decoration on light, simple glass forms. In fact, the Swedes virtually mopped up at the prestigious 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, carrying off no less than 35 Grand Prix, 46 gold medals, 13 bronze medals and 13 honorable mentions. It was a revelation to all that while war raged on, the Swedes had diligently perfected a decorative style which straddled the twin vogues of classicism and a form of languid Art Deco.

While the model of restraint remained common across the spectrum of decorative art production, from ceramics to glassware to textiles, another part of the Swedish manufacturing community leant more heavily toward the American mass-production mode, though not quite on the same scale. Volvo, Saab, Elecrolux, Lego, Ericofon, Luxo and Poulsen all became strong productive companies with an international market. The Scandinavian design movement of the inter-war years did not unreservedly espouse the high-technology mass-production ethic that American manufacturers were so proud of, but exploited instead the link between traditional production methods, aesthetic innovation and wealthy clientele in its decorative arts.

A major infusion of the Scandinavian aesthetic came to America in 1923. Architect Eliel Saarinen left Finland at the age of fifty following a distinguished career in Europe, to settle first in New York then in Bloomfield Hills (4) two years later. In 1932 he became the first director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a complex of buildings he designed (along with a phenomenal range of furnishings) for a fully integrated program given over to the education and training of architects, artists and designers. The interwar period witnessed the growth and maturity of the school with such notable Scandinavian artists as Loja Saarinen, Majlis (Maija) Grotell and Carl Milles contributing to Cranbrook's reputation for progressive design and influencing a generation of students that included some of the leading figures in modern American design and architecture: Eliel's son, Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Harry Bertoia, Ray and Charles Eames, Florence Knoll and Ralph Rapson.

The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition provided an important international showplace for Swedish design. Architecturally, it was dominated by Functionalism (5), but the decorative arts were preoccupied with a much more overtly humanistic aesthetic. There was a significant gap between architecture, which looked to Germany and France for inspiration, and the production of ceramics, glassware and furniture, which drew upon Swedish tradition. A rift between the Funkis and the Tradis (the functionalists and the traditionalists) resulted from the exhibition which tended to favor the former; by the mid-'30s, however, the Swedish commitment to the role of tradition in its decorative arts was clearly undiminished. This schism continued throughout the 1930s (6).

The 1939 New York World's Fair initiated the so-called Swedish and Danish Modern style but it was not until the decade after the Second World War that this style achieved maximum international popularity in the home furnishings area. Nevertheless, it had a pronounced influence on mass-production furniture designed in America and it established a furniture aesthetic which was embraced enthusiastically by the more fashion-conscious consumer. In America, Swedish Modern never achieved the popularity of the Bauhaus-inspired streamline moderne with its penchant for chrome and aerodynamics (metal ultimately won the battle over wood), but it became a widespread style, symbolizing positive ideas about humanism, tradition, moderation and democracy.

The term Swedish Modern, subtitled A Movement Towards Sanity in Design, was actually coined by a critic at the 1939 Fair to describe Sweden's interior display. It became a general description for all furnishings which together constituted the Swedish interior style. It had already been seen at Chicago in 1933 and at the Paris exhibition of 1937, and its history went back to the early years of the century. The term "Swedish grace" was used to describe the products of the Swedish applied art industries in the 1920s and it is precisely this quality – the ability to lend grace to the daily chore of life – in which the Scandinavians have excelled. Thanks to the work of such artists as Kåge (7), Gate and Hald, Swedish ceramics and glasswork emerged with no equivalent elsewhere. They were later joined by Vicke Lindstrand, a gifted and vigorous disciple of the modernist idiom; Edvin Öhrström who developed the Ariel technique in which air bubbles are entrapped in deeply etched grooves or holes beneath the outer layer of crystal; and, later in the late '50s, by Nils Landberg who created a series of sheer extruded tulip (Tulpanglas) vases requiring the utmost skill from the glass-blower. The works were consistently more humanistic than German functionalist decorative arts and lighter than the French and Viennese examples. In addition to the ceramics and glassware produced primarily by Gustavsberg, Kosta and Iittala in these years, a number of Swedish furniture and textile designers emerged who were to be highly influential in formulating the Swedish Modern style.

The story of Nordic design between 1940 and 1955 varies enormously with parallel events in America due mainly to the relatively modest scale of Scandinavian industry and their continued commitment to tradition and the applied arts. Denmark and Finland had been especially careful to institute educational establishments to safeguard their craft traditions and, by mid-century, were aware of the need to integrate the craft process into commercial production in pursuit of what they called the industrial arts.

Generally, the humanistic approach was recognizable by an emphasis on unpretentious form. It expressed the Scandinavian's sentiments towards the environment – the belief that man, not the machine, determined the appearance of everyday objects. Faith in the importance of tradition as a foundation for innovation lay at the root of their attempt to fuse the work of the hand with that of the machine, old with new materials, and the twentieth century with the past.

Perhaps the most consistently and determinedly craft-based Scandinavian industry was Danish furniture-making. Their tradition of high-quality, hand- made furniture became greatly respected internationally in the post-war years. Like Sweden, Denmark had not experienced the violent upheaval that industrialization had brought about in Great Britain; nor had the Great War disrupted a close collaboration between designers and artisans as it had throughout Europe. This craft tradition has continued unbroken through the 20th century.

Denmark was the chief European importer of teak, which appeared on the world market in great quantities after the Indochina War, a rather ironic twist inasmuch as Scandinavia is known for its abundant forests. During the war years wood was virtually their only resource and for many years after they led the world with their ingenious new methods of using it. The taste for teak also caught on in Germany, where light and practical Danish furniture suited the often cramped living quarters better than anything the German market had to offer. Moreover, the Scandinavian style, with its simple, bright, user-friendly atmosphere, conveyed something of the democratic and humane understanding that stood behind it; after 1945 Sweden became the model social state. Scandinavian design was often found in the apartments and houses of the enlightened middle class. A veritable teak wave in the following years led to innumerable cheap imitations of Scandinavian furniture.

Today, the Danish family company of Georg Jensen is universally acclaimed for its elegant tableware. While not a great innovator, Jensen emerged as a major figure in 20th-century silver principally by producing handcrafted modern silver at a reasonable cost making it available to the new bourgeoisie. Joined first by Johan Rohde early on and then by Henning Koppel in the '50s their work reflects an appreciation for the great 20th-century sculptors Jean Hans Arp and Henry Moore whose biomorphic shapes introduced a restrained brand of modernism to Scandinavian silver. Metalwork was not the only medium used to nurture a modern aesthetic. New forms of machine-processed wood, such as bent laminated plywood, also encouraged designers to experiment with new forms. The Finnish architect-designer, Alvar Aalto, and the Swede, Bruno Mathsson, produced some of the most striking experiments in this area.

In Finland, more than 200 private and public buildings by Alvar Aalto established his reputation firmly among the ranks of the great architects of the modern age. He designed his furniture in concert with the building project at hand as an organic component of the architecture. Examples of his interpretations are the stools he designed for the City Library of the former Finnish capital of Lipuri, and the scroll chairs designed for the Paimio Pulmonary Sanatorium near Turko. Aalto translated the principle and elegance of the free-swinging chair into bent layered birchwood, which, unlike steel tubing, has a soothing warmth. Since the mid-30s his furniture has been manufactured by Artek, a firm Aalto founded. Due to its late arrival in the modern international design movement, Finland was less committed to tradition and the craft ideal; it welcomed the arrival of new materials and technology. Finland's comparative lack of craft traditions meant that its designers were not, on the whole, restricted to working within a single medium. Tapio Wirkkala (8) arrived at Iittala in 1946 and Timo Sarpaneva in 1950. During the '50s the two artists created some of the firm's most supremely elegant and sophisticated designs. Sarpaneva in particular made the important leap from functional object to pure art work, just as Louis Comfort Tiffany and ƒmile Gallé had much earlier. The two soon abandoned their preoccupations with glass and moved on to the creation of domestic products in other media (9). Designers Antti and Vuokko Nurmesniemi, two of Finland's leading contemporary designers, set up a studio in 1956; Vuokko began her professional career with the Marimekko company producing the brightly-colored printed cotton Finnish textiles inspired by the Pop and Op art movements of the '60s.

As new industrial production methods and materials were adopted in Denmark after the war, interesting connections arose between tradition and progress. The furniture was at once modern and comfortably homey -- the main reason for the worldwide success of the Scandinavian furnishings -- and it united the International style with a skilled craft tradition under the conditions of industrial production. One such example is the innovative lighting designs of Poul Henningsen (10) which are still produced by Louis Poulsen for distribution worldwide. Like the American, Charles Eames, Arne Jacobsen placed plywood bowl forms on frames of steel tubing. His celebrated Ant chair was the first mass-produced Danish chair (11) and enthusiastically received internationally. Danish designer Verner Panton was something of an outsider among Scandinavian designers, influenced more by what was happening in the United States and Italy; he imaginatively adapted his designs to all media (12), particularly steel wire, fabrics and colorful plastics, and in doing so played a significant role in defining the predominant color schemes of the '60s and '70s.

Remarkably, there are few countries today – if any – which continue to produce as many vintage designs as the Scandinavian countries, testimony to their timelessness, practicality and to the well-deserved argument they transcend the vagaries of fashion (13).

David Ryan
Director, Arts Program, Norwest Corporation
Adjunct Curator of Design, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts


1. Variously called Danish Modern, Swedish Modern or Scandinavian Modern, it is familiar by virtue of the fact so many American newlyweds lived with it in the '50s. (Back)

2. The leading industrial pottery in Finland then, as now, was Arabia. The factory had been founded by the Swedish company Rörstrand in Finland to take advantage of the vast, potentially lucrative Russian market. Production began in 1874 and for 25 years Arabia made table and decorative wares in a generally standard European style with transfer prints supplied by the parent company. The firm became completely independent of Rörstrand by 1916. (Back)

3. It was their engraved glass which won fame both in Stockholm and abroad. Gate designed heavy vessels with exceptionally deep engraving and introduced the graal technique. (Back)

4. Bloomfield Hills is located near Detroit. As did Walter Gropius with the German Bauhaus (1919-33), Eliel Saarinen conceived the Cranbook Academy of Art as both a school of art and design founded on the premise of handicraft training and as a laboratory for industry. The school is still intact and despite uneven moments it remains with us as an enlightened experiment. (Back)

5. Architect Erik Gunnar Asplund was the chief architect of the exhibition and thus presided over the breakthrough of the modern Functionalist style in Sweden, although many doubt that he was personally a whole-hearted adherent of the movement. At the time of the 1930 Exhibition, many Swedish architects were briefly tempted to emulate the strict functionalism they saw emerging in Germany, and the Swedish Social Democratic Government likewise put many of their ideas into practice in communal projects. (Back)

6. Silver design in America was even less receptive to European modernist influence. Interestingly, Gorham, an important American silver manufacturer, hired the Danish silversmith, Erik Magnussen who took inspiration from a wide variety of sources: Georg Jensen's lingering Art Nouveau style, Constructivism, Cubism and the American skyscraper producing a Cubist-inspired coffee set in 1927 entitled The Lights and Shadows of Manhattan. Today, it is fondly regarded as a memorable icon of Art Deco silver. (Back)

7. Kåge introduced his luxurious silver-inlaid Argenta series in 1930 and, in his last years at Gustavsberg, made witty references to Cubism with his Surrea series. Examples of each are represented in the Norwest collection. (Back)

8. Wirkkala made sculptural vessels of clear, colorless glass, a series called Paaderin Jaa' (Paader's ice blocks). As with numerous Finnish designers, Wirkkala skillfully traded on the visual and tactile interplay between ice and glass. Paader is the name of a Lappish lake and is likely a figure in Finnish Lapland mythology. (Back)

9. The arrival of the dishwasher in so many homes meant that traditional material could no longer withstand the heat and detergents. Moreover, changing domestic lifestyles, with working parents having less time for meal preparation meant major adjustments in materials and forms. Jensen met these demands by using stainless steel to create refined sculptural forms for the new generation. Bone and ivory handles were replaced by bright, colored plastic, lending a less formal air. (Back)

10. Two Scandinavian designers are responsible for major innovations in lighting design in the early decades of the 20th century: Jac. Jacobsen in Norway designed the Luxo lamp (adapted from an English prototype) in 1937, and Henningsen of Denmark introduced in the mid-'20s the first of what would become the now-famous hanging "PH" lamps. Several variations on this design, all complying with the principle that lighting fixtures should provide general illumination without glare from the naked bulb, were shown in Paris in 1925. In 1957 a new version was introduced as the "PH 5" lamp. (Back)

11. Jacobsen's well-known Ant chair (No. 3100) introduced in 1952 received its popular epithet from its characteristic curved waistline and three thin legs, what another wag described as a "Calder stabile on legs." In 1955, "No. 3107" emerged, a variation featuring a less segmented outline with four legs. (Back)

12. Scandinavia's trailblazer of the future, Panton designed a cardboard house in 1957 about the same time he introduced his famous Cone chairs, all conveying a highly futuristic air. (Back)

13. Several books recommended for those wishing to pursue a broad historical overview of modern Scandinavian design are: . McFadden, David, ed. Scandinavian Modern Design: 1880-1980. Cooper-Hewitt Museum / Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1982. . Opie, Jennifer Hawkins. Scandinavia Ceramics & Glass in the Twentieth Century. The Collections of the Victoria & Albert Musem (London). Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 1990. . Sieck, Frederik. Contemporary Danish Furniture Design: A Short Illustrated review. Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck, 1990. . Zahle, Erik. A Treasury of Scandinavian Design. Golden Press, New York, 196l. (Back)

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