What Is Scandinavian Design?

  • 01 of 09

    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've heard of Scandinavian style. In fact, you've probably heard the term used so many times that you've started wondering what exactly it refers to. Some of it is pretty easy to pick up - the white walls, wood floors, and modern furniture, but there's got to be more to the story, right? Well as it happens, there is - a lot more. The path that led to Scandinavian design becoming one of the preeminent interior styles in the world in the beginning of the 21st century actually began during the end of the 19th. Along the way, empires rose and fell, worldviews shifted, the world went to war twice and art, philosophy, and furniture all changed the ways in which they viewed themselves and each other. Throw into the mix some of the most talented and notable names in the history of design, names like, Alvar Aalto, Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Eero Arnio and Ingvar Kamprad (the founder of IKEA), and you've got more than a regional style that has impacted nearly every aspect of design since the mid-1950's - you've got a really good story.

    Continue to 2 of 9 below.
  • 02 of 09

    Scandinavia in Focus

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

    Scandinavia isn't just one place, it's several. Just how many can sometimes depend on who you're talking to, or even when. Traditionally, the term refers to three northern European countries - Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Currently,​ however, the definition has been expanded in common usage to include Finland, Iceland, and even, though less often, Greenland. Though there are several historical and cultural similarities between these nations, there are also more than a few notable differences. The story of how they became united under the banner of home decor is one of the more interesting parts of the story, a matter of marketing as much as history, and one that begins with changing social philosophies at the end of the 1800s.

    Continue to 3 of 9 below.
  • 03 of 09

    Romanticism in Decline

    Scandinavian kitchen with mid-century lighting
    Contemporary lighting

    The world was changing rapidly as the 19th century closed and the 20th opened. The industrial revolution was changing life, commerce, and politics rapidly on a global scale and the philosophies that guided the ways in which people engaged in these things were changing as well. Modernism was being born in all of the forms that it would eventually take. But there were notes of hesitation as well, impassioned pleas for nature amid the excitement of rapidly developing machinery. One such admonition came from the Arts & Crafts movement led by designer, William Morris. Arguing for the "diligent study of nature," as well as of earlier generations of artistic tradition, Morris' attempts to reverse the social course set upon by the surging Industrialism of the day can be seen as one of the last gasps of Romanticism even as the Art Nouveau movement was beginning in Europe.

    Continue to 4 of 9 below.
  • 04 of 09

    Art Nouveau, Art Deco & World War I

    Living room area with Scandinavian-style credenza
    Simple Joy Studio

    By the early years of the 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. And like the Arts & Crafts movement, it embraced the decorative arts of interior design as well as the fine arts and architecture. As Europe moved closer to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, social commentary became more and more a part of artistic efforts. 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, and 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 1930 and brought to a complete halt by the outbreak of the Second World War.

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    World War II, Modernism & Democratic Design

    Bedroom with Scandinavian design

    If WWI made apparent the cracks in the aging social structures of European nobility and aristocracy, WWII broke them wide open. More than one empire lay in ruins and though 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, the goals of interior design through textile, furniture and wallpaper design had, in a general sense, been fairly well established. Whether in Art Deco, Art Nouveau, or any of the preceding styles, beauty in the home was the province of those who could afford it. The level of complexity or ostentation in the design was a direct reflection on the social status of the homeowner and so bigger nearly always meant better. However, that began to change in the aftermath of the war and the Modernism which began in part with Art Nouveau began to take on a new form.


    Continue to 6 of 9 below.
  • 06 of 09

    A New Day For European Design

    Arne Jacobson's Egg chair
    Desire to Inspire

    It's not difficult to imagine a widespread view in the late 40s and early 50s that two world wars in the same half of a century was evidence that human beings were, in large part, doing something wrong. Like people in so many other walks of life after World War II, "the design world was looking for an antidote for [totalitarianism, represented in design by the] International Style, which–thanks to the Bauhaus–was famously linked to Germany." New democratic social ideas were sweeping through Europe and in design, they took the form of reversing older conventions around beauty and status. The new conviction became that the beauty once reserved for the wealthy and the functionality required by the masses could be combined and that such products should be affordable for everyone. At the same time, the years following WWII saw the nations of Scandinavia banding closer together. This was particularly true in the realm of design, a decision reached through a series of 1940s conferences held in various Scandinavian cities. 

    Continue to 7 of 9 below.
  • 07 of 09

    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 the demand for functionality. The harsh climates of northern Europe, particularly in the winters, had long influenced Scandinavians to prize utility far above decoration and simplicity would follow naturally as part of that equation. However, functionalism has also been a strong emphasis of the Bauhaus movement which had been influential for some time in Scandinavian architecture

    Though the formulation of a specifically Scandinavian style of modernist design began in the 40s, it wasn't until the beginning of the 1950s that it began to take shape as a recognizable entity. One of the first major steps was the establishment of the Lunning Prize, named for Frederik Lunning, a New York-based importer of Danish designs. The prize, which was regarded as, "the ' Nobel Prize' of Scandinavian Design," was awarded for the first time in 1951 and every year following until 1970. Shortly after the institution of the prize Scandinavian design found one of its strongest early champions in then-editor of House Beautiful magazine, Elizabeth Gordon. A tastemaker with considerable clout, Gordon, "presented Scandinavian design as an alternative to Nazi-era design fascism: 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 before coming to a close in 1957. 

    Continue to 8 of 9 below.
  • 08 of 09

    Scandinavian Design in Interiors

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

    By the time the Design in Scandinavia show concluded its run, Scandinavian design was an internationally recognized commodity, one that had a particularly strong following in the US. Though its popularity declined between the 1960s and 80s, the focus on sustainability that has marked the late 90s and early 2000s has 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. 

    This space is the epitome of a Scandinavian-designed room. The bare wood floors along with the chair legs, table and plants bring in the sense of the outside world that is so important to this style. At the same time, the white painted brick walls add rough texture while maximizing the light streaming in through the large sliding glass door. The chairs and lighting are also of a mid-century modern style that was heavily influenced by the appearance of Scandinavian design on the world stage in the early 50s. Most of all the arrangement, even for smaller spaces, is uncluttered and simple, giving the entire space the cozy feeling known as Hygge ("hoo-gah"), which is the aim of any Scandinavian-style room.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Scandinavian Design in Furniture

    A chart of Danish designer chairs
    Culture Nordic

    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. And the influence of pieces such as Alvar Aalto's armchair and Arne Jacobson's Egg, Drop, and Swan chairs continue to be felt to this day. This image shows the range of shapes and styles that have come from one hundred years of Scandinavian chair designs and gives us plenty of reason to look forward to one hundred more.