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Scandi Crush Saga

How Scandinavian design took over the world.

From her new home in Åre, a Swedish ski village of roughly 1,400 inhabitants, 24-year-old Elise Kubicki hatches her plan to bring contemporary Scandinavian design to the world. Born in Cincinnati, Kubicki traded a hectic career as an investment banker to join her Swedish partner and make a living out of her passion for design.

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In only six months she has seen success as the founder of NorseBox, a quarterly subscription-based design box that brings a curated selection of works by Nordic designers straight to subscribers’ doorsteps in the U.S. and Canada.

"There are really great things happening in design out of this region," says Kubicki, exuding the palpable excitement of a Scandinavian design convert. She hopes the smaller items in curated packages will entice subscribers to dig deeper into the design treasures of a region she has fallen for (hint: you won’t find them in IKEA).

Founded in September, the service has 45 subscribers and also accepts individual monthly orders, which have already doubled with each shipment. Norsebox filled the void left by Scandicrush, a Nordic design box service that folded last spring after it became unable to keep up with demand.

The early success of packaging the region’s aesthetic is yet another indicator of the world’s renewed fascination with design from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, referred to in the design world as ‘Scandinavian’ or, more accurately, ‘Nordic’ design. (Scandinavia includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, but the term "Scandinavian design" is often used to describe design from Finland and Iceland as well.) While familiar works, like the chairs of Arne Jacobsen, Eero Arnio, and Alvar Aalto made popular in 1950s and 1960s, are experiencing a renaissance, a new generation of Nordic design firms are also making their way into the hearts and living rooms of design lovers all over the world.

The term "Scandinavian design" first appeared outside of the region in 1951, in the title of the Scandinavian Design for Living exhibition in Heal’s department store in London. Since then, it has often been accompanied by adjectives such as "democratic," "functional," "natural," and "minimal," in attempts to fuse a diverse potpourri of influences and tastes. In the catalogue for an exhibition of Scandinavian ceramics and glass at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 1989, curator Jan Opie writes that Scandinavian works typically share "craftsmanship, quality, humanity and restraint combined with a sympathetic respect for the natural materials and a concern for their ‘proper’ use by the designer and their consumer." While myriad definitions of the style have surfaced over the years—many more ambiguous than Opie’s—the precise description is likely to vary depending on who is asked.

Adjectives aren’t enough for Kubicki. "When I see a beautiful Arne Jacobsen chair, it represents the culture of Scandinavia and a way of life with its function and raw materials," she says. "It’s another way of thinking."

In early February, the young designer headed south to join the 40,000 attendees of the annual Stockholm Furniture Fair, the world’s premiere showcase for the latest and greatest in Scandinavian interior decor and a forum for discussing the future of design in the region.

How did countries with disparate histories, languages, and even geographical features—Finland is known for its birch forests, while Iceland is largely tree-free—become lumped together in a single design movement? The branding of "Scandinavian design" is the result, according to some scholars, of a major international PR campaign. Solidarity between the Nordic countries grew during and after World War II, writes historian Widar Halén in Scandinavian Design: Beyond the Myth. Conferences held throughout the 1940s in Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen concluded that "Nordic countries could be perceived as an entity when it came to design issues," according to the historian. Strengthening Nordic design language both in the region and abroad became a priority, and by the mid-20th century the plan had seemingly succeeded. Names like Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen were on the tongues of an American public that had fallen for the humanistic functionalism of a design movement referred to as Scandinavian, or Scandinavian Modern. Wegner’s elegant wooden chairs, often described as having an "organic functionality," became popular in the U.S., while Danish architect Arne Jacobsen’s famous Series 7 chair took the world by storm.

A watershed in the movement’s rise was the "Design in Scandinavia" exhibition, which toured 24 locations in the U.S. and Canada between 1954 and 1957. Proposed by House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon, a prominent midcentury tastemaker, and supported by the kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, among other notable patrons, the exhibition secured the region’s place on the North American market.

Scandinavia’s focus on the home and family, assertions of democratic principles, and emphasis on traditional craftsmanship fit in well with consumerist ideals of the postwar period. Gordon, a staunch critic of the radical direction American modernism was taking, published a series of articles lashing out against the International Style—another name for the modernist architecture and design that emerged out of Europe in the 30s—which she referred to as "totalitarian," and those responsible for it as "dictators in matters of taste." Such sentiment played on Cold War era politics of the period.

The international heyday of Scandinavian design in the late 1950s and 1960s was the culmination of a gradual buildup in interest that had begun two decades prior. Already in the 1930s, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Swede Bruno Mathsson were well known across the Atlantic, having exhibited at MoMA. George Nelson, then chief designer of Herman Miller, was a major proponent of all things Scandinavian, having loaned Aalto’s chairs to his initial American exhibit at MoMA in 1938. The museum’s director of design, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., became a major advocate of Scandinavian design after World War II, helping to push the movement forward. The Danish modern look, lauded for its simple elegance and finely crafted wood, received a nod when Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl designed a modern line for Michigan’s Baker Furniture in 1951.

By the end of the 1950s, international imports had increased markedly, with companies including Herman Miller, George Tanier, and Raymor, and local department stores, many in New York City, showing off the streamlined forms of Nordic furniture and decorative arts.

Yet the international popularity of Nordic design was short-lived, petering out by the late 1960s. In the postmodern heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, many classics went out of production as focus shifted to other corners of the globe. But once the 1990s hit, austerity and an interest in sustainable development overtook the decadence of the previous decade, bringing Scandinavian design back into the spotlight. Designers like Jasper Morrison drew on Scandinavian and Danish Modern traditions early in the decade, while Swede Thomas Sandell set high standards for new Nordic design. A flurry of traveling exhibits and academic writing helped to usher in a new era for the region’s design.

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Illustration by Kaye Blegvad.


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