Every culture reflects its beliefs, values and attitudes in their designs. When asked what adjectives might be assigned to Scandinavian design, over fifty designers from around the world participated in an online study and shared their perceptions. Their comments illustrate how the spirit of a people can shine through the artifacts they choose to live with and how that spirit can help them to create future progress.
The Scandinavian countries differ from the rest of the world in that they all apply a social democratic model to organizing their society. Scandinavia has developed people centric societies, where citizens are considered their most valuable asset. These views were shaped over a thousand years of shared history, harsh weather conditions, limited resources and external threats from large European powers. The Scandinavian government model takes care of people from cradle to grave, providing kindergartens, schools, university education, employment, health care and retirement. Focusing on people and their well-being has resulted in great wealth and some of the highest happiness indexes in the world.
Through a nationwide investment in design, these governments promote common national beliefs, values and attitudes. This helps to create the national unity necessary for a mutually supportive, organizationally flat and consensus driven society. Everything, from the children’s LEGO toys, to the public benches, lampposts, post offices, museums, bridges and airports, is carefully designed to reinforce the national spirit.
Investments are made in Masters and Ph.D. programs in design and design strategy. There are national design museums for educating the general public and design centers to assist industry in integrating design into their business model. Nationally sponsored studies on the value of design offer helpful guidelines, such as the “Design Ladder” and the INDEX Design Award to promote a commitment to design. These investments in process driven design result in a cultural cohesiveness expressed in functions and aesthetics that promote democratic values and social equality, justice, honesty, pragmatism, ingenuity and resourcefulness. To the global design community, this mindset is visible in the region’s products that are perceived as being authentic, calm, restrained, uplifting, practical and yet inviting, playful and whimsical.
Whether holding a Scandinavian product in one’s hand or experiencing a private or public space, we found the participating designers perceived the quality and caring for ergonomics, functionality and sustainability. The minimalistic objects balance rational geometric shapes with gentle soft curves, in keeping with the environmentally responsible, safety oriented and longevity focus of the products. As a consequence, natural high quality materials, such as wool, cotton, wood ceramics, glass and steel permeate Scandinavian design.
Colors are dominated by light warm natural materials, supplemented by the use of bold primary colors of red, blue, yellow and green, as well as gradations of white, over gray-tones to black. Decorations are sparse, applying geometric, floral and other organic motifs as well as striped and checkered patterns. Examples of Scandinavian designs and the designers reasoning behind these can also be seen in Scandinavian movies, products and graphics.
With its rich history and traditions, how will Scandinavian design evolve in the future? The New Nordic Design model proposes a little more playfulness in furniture design. NOMA cuisine celebrates locality and seasonality in the culinary experience. The Scandinavians do not pursue glory, like the French, or world influence, as do the Americans, they focus, instead, on carving out an exclusive, unpretentious niche. When it comes to cultural renewal, despite the long light filled summer, nobody immigrates to Scandinavia because of the weather or the low tax rates. For one to feel at home in the North, one would have to value conformity and collaborative action. That being said, if the past is any indication, the regions’ ability to carefully assimilate new trends from the outside world and creatively mold them to fit the spirit of its people has been shown. One designer captured the essence of Scandinavian Design eloquently by stating: “Scandinavian design shows love for the simple things in life and people.”
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