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A Brief History of Scandinavian Design

Minimalist, clean lines, well-considered, and unobtrusive, Scandinavian design has become synonymous with functional design and mass production–or what is known as democratic design. A survey  Scandinavian design and its history reveals the thread of functionalism in Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and Danish Design, the four countries that fall under the Scandinavian umbrella. Yet, the relationship between artist and industry, the material considerations, and the craftsmanship remind us of the human value of design in Scandinavian style. Despite the broad terms, each Scandinavian country has made unique contributions to design.

Scandinavian design of a house number plate

The Making of Scandinavian Style

The term Scandinavian design was coined in 1950s, emerging from international exhibitions, notably one that traveled throughout North America from 1954 to 1957. The exhibition, titled “Design in Scandinavia: An Exhibition of Objects for the Home”, showcased arts and crafts and industrial design, bringing Nordic style to audiences in the United States and Canada. The exhibition included the work of designers from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden and featured showcases and tables, screens, single items, furniture, lamps, fabrics and rugs. Through its focus on the domestic environment, it promoted the concept that beautiful, accessible design can improve your life.

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Yet, what propelled Scandinavian style to international prominence was its lineage. Built on movements that could be traced back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, Nordic style was shaped by a shared set of experiences and valued traditions of the region. Relatively isolated, the Nordic countries had to make do with limited resources. A tendency to use the materials at hand–and only what is necessary–was deeply embedded in Nordic cultures. Another factor that would influence Scandinavian style is the fact that industrialization arrived later to Scandinavia than it did to other Northern European countries. As a consequence, handicraft traditions were more preserved.

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1880s: The Home As a Work of Art

In the 19th century, industrialization rapidly changed the manufacturing process–and the lives ordinary people. By the 1860s, a decline in standards was widely acknowledged to be a concern. In response to the effects of industrial manufacture on the decorative arts, architects, designers and artists in began to advocate for design reform and a revival of handicraft. The push towards design reform began in Britain and became the foundation for the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1880s, the Arts and Crafts Movement became an influential force in design, spreading across Europe and the United States. Its adherents placed value on the quality of materials and the joy of craftsmanship. The home became a work of art.

1890-1910: Nature in Design and the Nordic Style

Outgrowths of the Arts and Crafts Movement began to form throughout Europe. In the 1890s, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil and Moderisme styles emerged in France, Germany, and Spain respectively. Inspired by natural forms, curvilinear shapes and winding lines were derived from botanical and nature studies. The designers aspired to unify art and craft, which led to the complete design of environments.


The delicate natural motifs, graceful lines, and attention to craftsmanship fit well with the Nordic sensibility and approach to design. Influenced by climate, light, and materials, Nordic style exhibited a strong relationship with nature.

House numbers the scandinavian way

Early 1900s: Craft and Materials in Danish Design

Skønvirke was a Danish design style that arose around the turn of the 20th century, alongside Art Nouveau and and Jugendstil. Characterized by the resurgence of traditional crafts, the Skønvirke style  fused elements of contemporary international styles with the National Romantic style–a Nordic style of architecture.


According to the ideals of the Skønvirke style, Danish building construction should use Danish materials, namely brick, granite and wood. In textile design, Hebedo stitching, a traditional type of embroidery work, was taken up again. The influence of Japanese art is sometimes seen in ornamentation.

Scandinavian Design and Modernism

Art Nouveau and Jugendstil were precursors to Modernism, which called for the elimination of ornament. By 1910, these styles had fallen out of fashion, with a call to prioritize function over form.

Scandinavian style has always been concerned with function. Because of this, Nordic craft heritage merged well with Modernism. Scandinavian design, or Scandinavian Modern, rose to prominence in the middle of the 20th century, entering international consciousness.

A typical scandinavian interior design setting

Although grouped together under the concept of  Scandinavian design, each Nordic country brought a particular design tradition to the table. Danish design became known for elegance and tradition, with a more organic aesthetic. In contrast, Swedish design was recognized for its simplicity and practicality. Today, Scandinavian style continues to influence the design fields, encouraging architects and designers to consider the role of the human in design. For design enthusiasts, Scandinavian style can be the basis for a serene domestic environment.

 

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About RAMSIGN

Founded Copenhagen in 1991, Ramsign uses traditional hand-stenciling techniques to fabricate durable porcelain enamel signs. The values of  Danish design–functionalism, good use of materials, and accessible design–are built into the soul of the company. Every sign we produce is an individual piece. For an authentic reproduction of a Danish design, see our exclusive Engelhardt collection:

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