Looking at it, I’m finding it hard to see where the light is emanating from. As far as I can tell, the ceiling lamp is made up of three tiered shades, and so only emits reflected light. Each of the shades is moulded at a different angle or contour, and each is of a different size and shape. Although clearly made out of the same material—steel—they each glow a different colour in the light emenating somewhere mysteriously from the inside of the object.
The lamp I was describing is the now (in)famous Poul Henningsen lamp, or PH-lamp, as it’s affectionately referred to by Danes and design enthusiasts alike. First produced in 1923, it neatly sums up all the ideals of what is now commonly known as ‘the Scandinavian Style’: functionality, simplicity and beauty. Still in production after ninety years, recent estimates suggest that one in three Danes have either this lamp or one of its sister-versions hanging in their front room.
Scandinavian design, however, is not just popular at home, but also reigns supreme abroad. The blue-and-yellow word ‘IKEA’ comes distinctly to mind, but shops such as Habitat, John Lewis and even Sainsbury’s derive many of their homeware designs from Scandinavian models. Does the popularity of Scandinavian design tell us anything about the cultures of the five Nordic countries?
The term itself originates in the 1950s, from the name of a travelling exhibition—‘Scandinavian Design’—that toured the United States and Canada over five years in order to show off the latest in Northern European chic. Indeed, the idea itself is part cultural myth: particularly in the case of Finland, promotion of a distinct design aesthetic abroad was a form of ‘soft politics’ in the tense era of the Cold War. Sparse, stripped back designs represented both the bleak post-war era faced by the Scandinavian countries, as well as mythologizing cultural stereotypes of hardiness and resilience. Ilmari Tapiovaara, a key player in post-war Finnish design, claimed that ‘scarcity will create its own style’, and definine new cultural identities for the countries on the periphery of the Soviet Union.
Domestic politics also played a role in the success of Scandinavian design. The dominance of social democracy in the five countries—in Sweden, the Social Democrats governed for forty years non-stop—promoted the idea that cheap, well-designed and stylish household goods should be available to all. Design became political, representing the concrete expression of an ideology of social transformation. Perhaps the apex of this trend was the so-called ‘Million Programme’ in Sweden which, between 1965-1974, built over a million new homes for a booming population. A key feature of the program was the integration of public services into the apartment blocks—something that pre-dated European-wide adoption of similar features. The homes are so cherished that many have been restored to cope with the demands of the 21st century. Here, ‘design’ meant more than just good-looking consumer goods: it meant the active improvement of peoples’ lives.
The Scandie effect
But do the sharp, anaethetised designs emanating from Europe’s cold northern rim say something deeper about Scandinavian cultural identity? It’s certainly tempting to read something of a Puritan aesthetic into the muted, clean lines of, say, the PH lamp. Critics have also noted the impact of geography within Scandinavian design, particularly on its glassware, and many Scandinavian craftsmen have acknowledged the influence of the distinctive, stark landscape on their work.
For whatever reason, there is definitely something about the Scandinavian design ethic which appeals. One author of a 1952 article on design notes that ‘one is struck by the large proportion of the population that makes designing a profession.’ Small workshops, and a tradition of factory-floor participation in management decisions—for example, in the making of Saab cars—perhaps translate into a design that is not only elegant, but also better adapted for everyday use. Perhaps it’s this spirit of democracy and cooperation that is in fact the hidden light behind the success of Scandinavian design.