The Pioneers of Scandinavian Design

Simple, clean lines, light and pale color palette, minimalist, nature-inspired design, democratic, highly functional and with a high quality — these are all key attributes of what has been known since the mid-20th century as “Scandinavian design”.


In the past, Scandinavia has been defined as the three kingdoms — Denmark, Norway and Sweden — while today most includes Finland and Iceland, rarely Greenland, as parts of the region. The design movement which emerged in the 1950s known as Scandinavian design corresponds to this modern definition of the region. The very term “Scandinavian design” originates from a design exhibition that traveled the USA and Canada under that name from 1954 to 1957.

Chair designs by Arne Jacobsen

The ideological background of Scandinavian design was the emergence of a particular Scandinavian form of social democracy after the WWII. The idea that beautiful and functional products should not be reserved only for the wealthy but accessible and affordable to everyone was born in line with these prevailing democratic social views. That’s way Scandinavian design is often referred to as democratic design. This does not mean that it was deprived of beauty in any way whatsoever. Other important influences responsible for the development of this distinctive design were increased availability of new low-cost materials and methods for mass production. Last but not least, the Lunning Prize, awarded to outstanding Scandinavian designers, two each year, from 1951 to 1970, was instrumental in defining the concept and profile of Scandinavian design as well as promoting it at home and abroad. The concept of good design that prioritizes functionality without eliminating beauty and is intended for everyone lies at the heart of Scandinavian design. This notion has been maintained ever since and has contributed significantly to modern design.

Interior with Panton chairs

Scandinavian design has been perhaps most widely recognized in furniture. Subtle, minimalist and functional forms characterized by clean lines and light colors draw inspiration from the Nordic nature and the way of life that, for centuries, revolved around the home. Through time Scandinavia has had a number of world-renowned furniture and interior designers, but when we talk about the pioneers of Scandinavian design, we mean Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Verner Panton, and Eero Arnio. These Nordic designers have laid the foundations and established criteria of what is known worldwide as “Scandinavian design”. They have produced so many design classics during the fifties, sixties and seventies of the 20th century that stand as reference points in the history of modern design.

Paimio chairs by Alvar Aalto

Finland’s most celebrated architect and one of the key figures of mid-century Modernism Alvar Aalto (1898 –1976) made his international breakthrough as a furniture designer. His furniture designs were a natural extension of his architectural thinking. Alvar Aalto exclusively used wood (mainly Finnish birch) and became the first furniture designer to use the cantilever principle in chair design. In 1935, Aalto founded Artek, a Finish furniture company set up to market and sell Alvar and Aino Aalto’s furniture, lamps and textiles. Aalto’s furniture designs are still popular today.

Aalto’s Tea trolley

Danish architect and furniture designer Arne Jacobson examined the potential of plywood for the mass market using new techniques and achieved to create a design classic in 1955 with his Model 3107 chair. New techniques have enabled him to bend plywood in three dimensions and create a light and compact object that fits perfectly into modern homes to this day. It is one of the most sold chairs in the world and the most copied too.

Model 3107 chair

Towards the end of the 1950s, Jacobson increasingly began to experiment with plastics and foam that would ultimately enabled him to create the famous Swan and Egg armchairs in 1957.

The Swan chair
The Egg chair

Verner Panton also utilized the properties and possibilities of these new materials, especially plastics. During his career, one of Denmark’s most influential 20th century furniture and interior designers created futuristic designs in vibrant colors that are stylistically close to Pop Art. In 1960, Panton designed the world’s first single-form moulded plastic chair — The Panton chair, also called the S chair due to its S shape. It is considered to be one of the masterpieces of Danish design and Panton’s most mass-produced chair.

The Panton chair

Most of Panton’s bold and colorful furniture models are still in production. His designs, along with those of Finnish designer Eero Aarnio, have been used in a number of science-fiction film productions as part of sets due to their futuristic look. Aarnio’s favorite material was fiberglass. The workability of the material enabled him to design geometric and ergonomic forms without restrictions. The Ball chair, the Bubble chair or the Pastil chair are some of the most iconic fiberglass creations made by one of the great Scandinavian innovators of modern furniture design.

The Ball cahir by Eero Aarnio
The Pastil chair

When we talk about Scandinavian design, it would be unfair not to mention contributions to the glass design. It is usually overshadowed by furniture and interior design although this industry gave some of the best craftsmen and designers in the world. One of them is certainly Tapio Wirkkala whose art glass and glassware sets virtually created the look and content of iittala design.

Iceblock bowl by Wirkkala for iittala

The vast oeuvre of Tapio Wirkkala, Finland’s internationally best-known designer stands on the border between the arts and crafts. During a vital period of Scandinavian design, he designed more than 400 different art glass objects and glassware series for iittala.

The Bolle collection by Wirkkala for Venini

Wirkkala’s countryman and fellow, Oiva Toikka, is another great name in Scandinavian glass design. Originally trained in ceramics, Toikka took up glass design later in life and made his name as one of iittala’s highly regarded designers. His iconic collection of iittala Birds began to spread back in 1972 and soon won the hearts of collectors all over the world. Since then, Toikka has created more than 400 truly poetic and imaginative birds, all individually mouth-blown and unique.

Toikka’s Birds
Glass rooster by Toikka

The story of Scandinavian design, of course, doesn’t end here. It never ends same as its influence. Scandinavian design continues to spread its philosophy and aesthetics well into the twenty-first century moving towards environmentally friendly homes and cleverly functional objects which do not lack elegance and beauty. Scandinavians have proved that less is more, making simple but beautiful things that make our life better and more comfortable. As such, they managed to reach out to people all over the world and shape the trends in global design.