What Is Scandinavian Design?

The Wide World of Scandinavian Design

Scandinavian style room with blue pops of color

Whether design is a passion, a hobby, or even just a passing fancy, chances are you have heard of the Scandinavian style of design. You might even have an idea about what it looks like—white walls, wood floors, and modern furniture. Scandinavian style is more than just a regional style, and it has impacted nearly every aspect of design since the mid-1950s. It is one of the preeminent interior styles in the world. 

This style began during the end of the 19th century. And, in the time since, art, philosophy, and furniture have all changed and brought with it talented and notable Scandinavian contributors to design: Alvar Aalto, Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Eero Arnio, and Ingvar Kamprad (the founder of IKEA). 

Scandinavia in Focus

Scandinavian style living room with white walls and furniture
I Want That

Scandinavia is a collection of countries that traditionally refers to three northern European countries—Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Sometimes, it includes Finland, Iceland, and Greenland. Though there are several historical and cultural similarities between these nations, there are also more than a few notable differences. How they became united under the banner of home decor is a matter of marketing as much as history. And, it begins with changing social philosophies at the end of the 1800s.

Romanticism in Decline

Scandinavian kitchen with mid-century lighting
Contemporary lighting

The world was changing rapidly at the end of the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was changing life, commerce, and politics rapidly on a global scale. The philosophies that guided the ways in which people engaged in these things were changing as well. Modernism was sprouting everywhere. But, there were notes of hesitation, including impassioned pleas for nature amid the excitement of rapidly developing machinery.

One such admonition came from the Arts and Crafts Movement led by designer William Morris. Arguing for the "diligent study of nature," Morris attempted to reverse the social course set upon by the surging industrialism of the day. This was one of the last gasps of the Romantic Movement as the Art Nouveau Movement was taking hold in Europe.

Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and World War I

Living room area with Scandinavian-style credenza
Simple Joy Studio

By the early 20th century, Art Nouveau was being hailed as a “new style for a new century.” Like most new artistic movements, Art Nouveau was in many ways a rejection of the forms that had preceded it.

Like the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau embraced the decorative arts of interior design as well as fine arts and architecture. As Europe moved closer to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the social commentary became more and more part of art and architecture. The revolutionary tone of European art through movements like the German Bauhaus, Russian Constructivists,​ and Swiss Dadaists mirrored a growing rejection of traditional notions of social class and aristocracy.

By the time the war ended in 1918, those structures were showing signs of weakening as were the nature-inspired designs of Art Nouveau. Despite the devastation of a world war, only two short years separated the end of the conflict from the start of the Roaring 20s. By 1925, the naturalist designs of Art Nouveau had been largely supplanted by the industrially-driven, visually-dazzling designs of Art Deco.

And though it had been intended to celebrate a time of unheralded prosperity, Art Deco's reign as the preeminent design style of the new aristocracy of the nouveau riche was slowed by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. And, it was brought to a complete halt by the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

World War II and Modernism

Bedroom with Scandinavian design

If World War I made apparent the cracks in the aging social structures of European nobility and the aristocracy, World War II broke them wide open. More than one empire lay in ruins. European powers would struggle for decades to hold on to the ill-gotten gains of colonization in Africa, South America, and Asia, those days were numbered as well. The philosophical outlook of Europe with regards to art and society was also shifting, and that change was made evident in home decor as well.

To this point, whether it was Art Deco, Art Nouveau, or any of the preceding styles, beauty in the home was the providence of those who could afford it. The level of complexity or ostentation in the design was a direct reflection of the social status of the homeowner; bigger nearly always meant better. However, that feeling began to change in the aftermath of the war. Modernism, which began in part with Art Nouveau, began to take on a new form.

A New Day For European Design

Arne Jacobson's "Egg" chair
Desire to Inspire

In light of two world wars in the same half-century, it was a popular view in the mid-20th century that humans were doing something wrong. The design world was looking for an antidote for totalitarianism, which had been represented in design by the German-based Bauhaus style.

New democratic social ideas were sweeping through Europe. In design, they took the form of reversing older conventions around beauty and status. Beauty, which had once been reserved for the wealthy, and functionality, required by all, were combined. And those products were made affordable for everyone.

At the same time, the years following World War II saw the nations of Scandinavia banding together. This was particularly true in the realm of design. Through a series of conferences in Scandinavian cities the 1940s, a design movement was forming. 

Design in Scandinavia

Scandinavian style living room
Loving It

This new approach to design, combining beauty, simplicity, and functionality were uniquely suited to emphasize a number of longstanding Scandinavian design features.

First among these was functionality, which had been influential for some time in Scandinavian architecture with the Bauhaus Movement. The harsh climates of northern Europe, particularly in the winters, had long influenced Scandinavians to prize utility and simplicity far above decoration. 

The formulation of a specifically Scandinavian style of modernist design may have begun in the 40s, but it was not until the beginning of the 1950s that it began to take shape as a recognizable entity.  The midcentury modern style was heavily influenced by the appearance of Scandinavian design on the world stage in the early 50s. Most furniture arrangement, even for smaller spaces, is uncluttered and simple, giving the entire space a cozy, content feeling called hygge in Danish. 

One of the first major steps for widespread recognition occurred with the establishment of the Lunning Prize, otherwise known as the Nobel Prize of Scandinavian design. The prize was named for Frederik Lunning, a New York-based importer of Danish designs. The prize was awarded for the first time in 1951 and every year until 1970. Shortly after the institution of the prize, Scandinavian design gained a champion, a tastemaker with considerable clout in then-editor of House Beautiful magazine, Elizabeth Gordon.

Gordon said that Scandinavian design was as an alternative to Nazi-era design fascism. She called it "democratic, natural, minimal, intimate, and focused on the home and family, not the State." In 1954, Gordon arranged "Design in Scandinavia," a traveling exhibition of the best designs the collective nations had to offer. For three years, the show visited cities in the United States and Canada. 

Scandinavian Design in Interiors

Kitchen with Scandinavian lighting, chairs and design style
The Little Design Corner

By the time Gordon's exhibition concluded its run, Scandinavian design was an internationally recognized commodity, one that had a particularly strong following in the U.S. Though its popularity declined between the 1960s and 80s, the focus on sustainability of the 1990s and early 2000s breathed new life into the trend.

Rooms designed in the Scandinavian style, as we recognize it today, tend to boast white walls to emphasize light, a neutral-heavy color palette with pops of color, natural textures such as wood and stone, a lack of window treatments and carpets, and simple, no-fuss layouts that emphasize an elegantly minimalist aesthetic

In a Scandinavian-designed room, you can expect bare wood floors and white painted brick walls that add a rough texture while maximizing the light streaming in through large windows. 

Scandinavian Design in Furniture

In addition to shaping the ways in which we create our rooms, Scandinavian design is known for its many contributions to furniture design, which may turn out to be its most enduring legacy. After all, few American homes are complete without a trip to IKEA. The influence of Finnish designer Alvar Aalto's famous curved wood armchairs and Arne Jacobson's Egg, Drop, or Swan chairs continue to be felt to this day.