History of Architecture, Interiors and Furniture

Scandinavian Modern


Scandinavian Modern describes a specific architecture, interiors, and furnishing from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway in the early 20th century. Although adopting elements of Bauhaus and International Style modernism, examples are simple, functional, often minimal, yet incorporate a concern for the individual and an emphasis upon natural materials. This shared aesthetic comes from nationalism, folk or vernacular and craft traditions, nature, excellent craftsmanship, and a desire to provide well-designed buildings and objects for all members of Scandinavian society.

Characteristics. Common to Scandinavian design are simplicity, human scale, modesty, practicality, elegance, and excellent craftsmanship. Also evident are such shared Scandinavian traditions as the environment or landscape, respect for materials, and natural materials. Characteristics drawn from the landscape include movement, textures, complex compositions, and/or curvilinear forms. Expressions in architecture, interiors, and furniture are often a reworking of traditional forms in a simplified or refined manner to suit modern aesthetics and lifestyles. Whether purely functional, modernist, or organic, important design characteristics are unity, texture, and light. Designs may be eclectic, adapting elements from other architects, styles, and cultures.

Motifs. Purely modern expressions often have no or minimal applied ornament or decoration, so there are few motifs, except stylized foliage and plants. National Romanticism adapts and stylizes Scandinavian plants and foliage for decoration.

Textiles: Cottons and linens, c. 1950s–1960s; Sweden and Finland; manufactured by Marimekko and Nordika.

Architecture. Scandinavian architecture ranges from rugged stone compositions with steeply pitched roofs and bay windows to plain brick façades composed of geometric forms and rectangular windows, to purely International Style buildings with flat roofs, glass curtain walls or large windows, pilotis, and white concrete walls. These come from various national and international influences.National Romanticism and Neoclassicism dominate architecture during the first decades of the 20th century in Scandinavia. Dating from the late 19th century, National Romanticism draws on folk or vernacular traditions to establish a national identity. Believing that folk traditions are unspoiled by modern life and industry, architects incorporate wood for material and construction methods, handicrafts, and local traditions into building types and forms to devise what they hope is an indigenous design language. Important precursors to National Romanticism include Scandinavian log cabins and other wooden architecture, the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the architecture of H. H. Richardson in the United States, and Art Nouveau. In Finland, the leading practitioner of National Romanticism, and later Modernism, Eliel Saarinen, is influenced by the Middle Ages, Art Nouveau, and Richardsonian Romanesque.Dominating architecture through the 1920s, Scandinavian Neoclassicism, like that in the rest of Europe, is made more relevant for the 20th century by simplification and elimination. A spare and stripped-down appearance defines the style, although classical ordering and some classical elements, such as columns, may be used. Geometric forms create the composition, and rules and order are balanced or enhanced by individual creativity. Often eclectic, Scandinavian Neoclassicism borrows from the Renaissance, Baroque, early-19th-century Neoclassicism, and vernacular traditions.Modernism, or Functionalism as it is called there, makes its appearance in Scandinavia about 1930. There is some awareness of Modernism in the late 1920s evident in Scandinavian publications, especially after the 1927 Weissenhofsiedlung housing exhibit in Stuttgart, Germany. Public housing during this period, especially in Sweden and Denmark, begins to follow modernist principles for site and layout. Exterior design may still incorporate traditional forms and materials. Finland leads the way toward Modernism in the work of a group of progressive young architects, including Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggman. Aalto’s Turku Sonomat Building (1927–1929) is considered the first Modern or International Style building in Finland.

The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition is the seminal event in the adoption of Modernism in architecture and interiors, less so in decorative arts and furniture, in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Designed by Erik Gunnar Asplund, the buildings exemplify German and French principles of modern architecture and bring together many examples of the International Style in one location. Leaders of Modernism in Scandinavia include Asplund of Sweden, Eliel Saarinen and Aalto of Finland, and Arne Jacobsen of Denmark. Although some buildings are purely International Style, some architects, like Aalto, soon move beyond the cubic, flat-roofed forms of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier to incorporate Scandinavian forms and materials, thereby creating individuality and uniqueness of expression. Aalto’s work lays important foundations for postwar Organic and Sculptural Modern architecture in the United States.

Main Railway Terminus, 1904–1914; Helsinki, Finland; Eliel Saarinen, Herman Gesellius, and Armas Lindgren.

Through the middle of the 20th century, Scandinavian architects continue to refine their understanding of the Modern or International Style, adapting concepts, techniques, and material usage from both inside and outside the region. Some, such as Aalto and Jacobsen, are recognized for their creative solutions to design projects in other parts of the world, including North America. Common building types include railway terminals, churches, libraries, town halls, houses, and public housing developments in which standardization, prefabrication, and mass production enable numerous dwellings to be built quickly.

Stockholm City Library, 1920–1928; Stockholm, Sweden; Gunnar Asplund.

Site Orientation. Harmony with the landscape is a governing principle of design. Architects carefully position buildings on the site to capture views and sunlight and to create windbreaks where needed. Urban buildings usually relate to public transportation routes or dominate city centers. Public housing blocks generally are arranged in parallel rows perpendicular to streets and to permit the maximum light and air for each unit. Some developments contain schools, day care centers, community centers, and green spaces. A few are picturesque groups of individual buildings, reflecting a vernacular heritage.

Säynätsalo Town Hall, 1949–1952; Jyväskylä, Finland; Alvar Aalto.

Floor Plans. Plans may be simple or interlocking rectangles. Some have circular or curvilinear spaces or walls. Open planning permits flexibility in arrangements in both public and private buildings. In public buildings, important entries and circulation spaces are carefully situated for easy access to other spaces. Some public buildings and large residences center on semi-enclosed courtyards. Function and practicality are important planning concepts, so multifunctional rooms with activity zones characterize residences, which are usually small.

Villa Mairea, floor plans, and stair hall, 1937–1938; Noormarkku, Finland; Alvar Aalto.

Materials. Materials include stone, brick, wood, reinforced concrete, steel, and glass. Buildings are often white stucco, concrete, or marble that may be mixed with wood planks or logs. Houses in brick and wood are common.

S.A.S. Royal Hotel and lobby, 1959; Copenhagen, Denmark; Arne Jacobsen.

Façades. National Romantic façades often are asymmetrical with rough stone bases and upper stories of stone or brick. Contrasting colors of stone may define fenestration. Wooden details, such as roof rafters or logs, are important. Geometric forms, symmetry, and simplified details define Neoclassical façades. Modernist façades are plain and clean lined with few applied moldings or stringcourses. Horizontality is emphasized especially through bands of windows. Façades with environmental or traditional elements mix concrete or stucco with brick, stone, or wood but still have few moldings or other articulation. The harsh Scandinavian climate limits expressions of structure typical of Modernist architecture, and naturalism appears in complex forms that suggest growth and movement. Balconies, stairs, entire or parts of floors, and other elements may project in rectangular or curvilinear forms. Some structures or parts of them are raised on piers, and balconies or porches may have plain metal or wooden railings. Pergolas, found on large residences, act as transition spaces to the exterior.

Tuberculosis Sanatorium and Paimio armchair, 1929–1933; Paimio, Finland; Alvar Aalto.

Windows and Doors. Neoclassical buildings often have rectangular windows with no moldings surrounding them, whereas National Romantic ones have a variety of windows from bays to arched to rectangular with various surrounds. Window walls or horizontal bands of windows define modern buildings. Entrances, often covered to protect from the weather, may be either prominent or somewhat hidden. Doors are usually wood with glazing.

Roofs. Flat roofs dominate modernist or Bauhaus-influenced buildings, although some question their suitability to the Scandinavian climate. Other types of roofs on Scandinavian buildings include single- and double-pitched gables and, later, curved or free-form roofs.

Interiors. Most interiors are simple and modest with minimal furnishings. Function, lightness, natural light, and an appreciation for natural materials and textures are more important than applied decoration and/or just filling a space. Interiors designed by architects have the most variety and show greater concern for pleasant sensory experiences through spatial changes, color, light, and texture. Where possible, architects use large windows to maximize light and air and to unite the interior with the landscape. This, together with the long winters, results in interior environments that contrast large glazed openings with more intimate, often fireplace- and hearth-centered alcoves. Wood is an important element whether through its use as a major building component, an interior finish, or in furniture or accessories.

For complete unity, architects often design both the interiors and furnishings. Interiors, like architecture, reveal a strong sense of nationalism in traditional materials and forms, wood construction, and craftsmanship. To make small spaces seem larger, windows borrow space from outside, colors are light, and high ceilings add volumetric space. Because of the climate, many living areas have fireplaces, and designers, such as Aalto, frequently enhance the Scandinavian hearth with modern, sculptural elements. Furniture arrangements are planned to give the greatest freedom of activity within the usually limited amounts of space. Storage or seating may be built in.

Discussion and lecture hall, Municipal Library, 1927–1935; Viipuri, Finland; Alvar Aalto.

Color. Most often colors are muted. Reflecting nature and the landscape, hues include shades of brown, green, blue, and yellow, accented with white and black. Occasional spots of bright colors, such as orange or red, add dynamism, variety, and interest.

Floors. Floors are of wood, tile, marble, stone, and concrete. For color and warmth, designers incorporate white rugs with deep piles and soft patterns, sisal matting, or flat woven or piled rugs with geometric designs in strong colors similar to other modern rooms in other countries. Used extensively, rya rugs originate in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. These hand-knotted rugs with a long pile have colorful geometric or floral patterns.

Walls. Walls are plainly treated often with plaster and paint of a single hue or with wood planks or large panels. Rooms often combine several wall treatments, most commonly wood or brick and plaster. Brick walls may be whitewashed. Wallpapers are not common, but fabrics sometimes cover walls. Shelves or other storage may be attached to walls to free the floor space below. Structural supports or pillars of metal or concrete may be covered in wood, rattan, or leather.

Interior, Finnish Pavilion, World’s Fair Exhibition, 1939; New York City, New York; Alvar Aalto.

Windows and Doors. Simple metal or wood moldings frame windows. Curtain panels hang straight so that they can open or close easily. Fabrics may be plain, woven solids, open weaves, or heavily textured solids, and usually are in light colors. Alternative treatments include blinds and shades. Where possible, windows are left bare to enhance the view or allow in the most natural light. Interior doors are plain or have panels and are surrounded by simple wooden moldings. Some have glazing or transoms.

Ceilings. Ceilings may be flat, curved, or sloped with a variety of treatments. Wood and plaster are most typical. Some have unique architectural light wells that flood the interiors with natural lighting.

Textiles. Natural fibers, such as wool or linen, and handwoven textiles are characteristic. Fabrics may be plain or have Scandinavian patterns and bright colors. Patterns include naturalistic or stylized designs, stripes, or geometric shapes. Texture is important in plain fabrics. Upholstery consists of plain, woven fabrics, often of wool or linen, in muted colors, white, or black, and vinyl, leather, or animal skin. Designers prefer woven textiles over printed. Although this in part derives from their hand-weaving tradition and is similar to the Bauhaus aesthetic, Scandinavian designers admire the simple honesty of woven textiles. Some furniture designers use webbing of jute or hemp in place of upholstery.

Blue chair, 1929; Finland; Eliel Saarinen.

Lighting. Natural lighting pervades all types of interiors. A variety of artificial lighting sources, most of which are incandescent, is characteristic. Fixtures, which may be designed by the architect, can be a combination of recessed, surface-mounted, or hanging pendants; floor lamps; and table lamps. Made of metal, wood, and ceramic, forms harmonize with the rest of the interior.

Lighting: Chandeliers, c. 1950s; Finland and Denmark; Alvar Aalto and Paul Henningsen.

Furnishings. Scandinavian furniture ranges from totally handmade to completely mass-produced, with varying increments between the two. As the countries industrialize, especially after World War II, furniture design becomes a collaborative effort among designers, artisans, and manufacturers, a concept that arises from strong craft and cabinetmaker organizations. Furniture designers view themselves as artists to industry, similar to the Deustche Werkbund, the Bauhaus, and Le Corbusier. But they do not feel compelled to incorporate machine or industrial imagery into their work. Instead, they emulate the Vienna Secession model of craftsmanship and individuality. As a result, their furniture reflects their crafts heritage in wood through simple but often beautifully detailed forms; contours that fit the human body; and a warm, timeless quality. Often designed for small spaces, furnishings are also economical and practical. Scandinavian designers create all types of furniture but become particularly well known for their lounge and dining chairs and storage units. Designers around the world adapt Scandinavian ideas for commercial and residential applications.

Peacock chair, armchair, and storage cabinet in teak, 1944–1949; Denmark; Hans Wegner.

Scandinavian furniture can be categorized into three types: designs inspired by or based upon traditional forms that are simplified for the 20th century and adapted to mass production, furniture designed by architects for their projects to achieve total unity, and experiments with new materials and techniques of construction. Preferring the warmth and humanness of wood to steel, designers use such modern techniques as prefabrication, laminated wood, and new materials such as plywood. They also consider the needs of the user, particularly in areas where space is limited and functional requirements are important. Like other modernists, they usually believe that all people have the same basic needs. After World War II, Scandinavian governments, many designers, and architects see furniture as a tool to improve the lives and tastes of the public. They promote simplicity and excellence in design through publications and exhibits.

In the postwar period, Scandinavian furniture becomes extremely popular in modern or contemporary houses, particularly in the United States, and one of several alternatives for furnishings. Sleek and unadorned, the furniture appears up-to-date, and its form is appealing from any angle. The lightness, warmth, and handcrafted appearance appeal to consumers, and it mixes well with traditional furnishings to easily achieve a more contemporary look. Scandinavian furniture is marketed as Danish or Swedish Modern and the Teak Style.

One feature contributing to the worldwide popularity of Scandinavian furniture is flat packaging or knock-down (KD) fittings used by many manufacturers. Both practical and economical, KD allows individual pieces, large or complex storage systems, or entire room furnishings, such as a kitchen, to be shipped in flat cartons and assembled on site with simple tools. The joinings are so uncomplicated that they become almost universal in the manufacturing and shipping of furniture from one part of the world to another. A pioneer in marketing KD furniture is Sweden’s IKEA, whose first store opens in 1953. In 1965, the firm opens its first outlet where customers choose furnishings from displays and take the cartons of unassembled furniture with them.

Materials. Early on, a few designers use tubular metal for furniture, but most use common woods native to their individual countries, including oak, fir, birch, beech, and ash. For more expensive pieces, designers choose teak; rosewood; mahogany; or wenge, a black wood from Africa. Pieces are lightly stained or left unfinished and simply waxed or polished. A linseed oil finish is the most popular on open-grained woods. Designers sometimes choose light-colored stains in reaction to public tastes for dark, imitation mahogany ones.

Eva armchair in laminated beech, 1934; Sweden; Bruno Mathsson.

Plywood becomes a more common furniture material in Scandinavia after World War I, partly because it can be easily bent and shaped. Although it was previously considered a cheap substitute for solid wood, its use in the construction of airplanes and boats substantially improves the quality. And newly invented glues make it even stronger than before. Designers, such as Aalto, experiment with laminated wood for furniture frames. Laminated wood is stronger than solid wood, may be easily shaped, and is flexible.

After World War II, Scandinavian designers turn to new or industrial materials. Some, such as Poul Kjaerholm, use metal either entirely or for important elements in their pieces. Beginning in the 1960s, Arne Jacobsen and Eero Aarnio create seating from molded, continuous plastic forms, sometimes covered with padding and upholstery.

Chaise, Model PK24, 1965; Denmark; Poul Kjaerholm.

Seating. Seating includes chairs, lounges, stools, and sofas. In search of forms that fit the human body, many designs grow out of the study of anthropometics and ergonomics. Thus, seating often has a sculptural appearance and is very comfortable. Much seating is of wood with simplified traditional forms or adaptations from other cultures. Legs, arms, and supports may be solid or laminated wood. Solid wood legs are usually straight, rounded, and tapered, while laminated ones are curved for flexibility. Some seating is cantilevered or has continuous, closed curvilinear frames instead of legs. Backs and seats may be lightly upholstered, have fabric webbing, or be of shaped plywood. Seats may be solid wood, cane, rush, rattan, or upholstered. Designs may be distinctive as in Finn Juhl’s chairs and settees in which the back and seat appear to float above the frame instead of being attached to it. Lounge chairs and sofas may have exposed wooden frames that match chairs or may be fully upholstered with or without arms. Sometimes seating consists of a low, built-in platform with a cushion and backrest separated or attached to the wall. Hans Wegner designs a sofa that can easily become a sleep unit and therefore offers great flexibility.

Armchair, 1945; Denmark; Finn Juhl.
Ant chair/Model 3107–Series 7 chair, 1955; Egg chair, 1956–1957; and Swan Chair, 1956–1957; Denmark; Arne Jacobsen.

Tables. Tables, which vary in size and shape, are usually of wood, wood with glass tops, or marble. Aalto’s tables have curving laminated wooden legs and wooden or glass tops. Dining tables usually extend for greater flexibility, such as one by Bruno Mathsson that extends from only a few inches wide to over 100″ wide.

Coffee table in teak, 1960s; Denmark; Grete Jalk.
Dining table and chairs, Ørensend Series, 1955; Denmark; Børge Mogensen.

Storage. Storage may be free-standing, built-in, or hang on the wall to save floor space. Most storage pieces are rectangular in form with no applied decoration or moldings. Beauty lies in the combination of shapes and the grain of the wood. Pulls may be wood or metal, but they are always simple in design. An innovation is unit furniture in which the user chooses individual modules or units to meet particular storage needs. Unit furniture adapts to any room through a combination of shelves and cabinets with doors and drawers. Designers develop sizes and shapes of individual modules by studying the requirements of the users and the dimensions of the objects to be stored.

Beds. Beds are low with simple headboards and, sometimes, footboards, relying on proportions and the wood itself for beauty. Headboards are usually rectangular panels or are composed of vertical uprights within a frame. Some unit furniture includes a pullout bed. Aalto designs a bed resembling a greatly simplified Empire boat bed.

Decorative Arts. Designers create beauty in everyday objects in ceramics, glass, metal, and wood. Architects, such as Aalto and Jacobsen, design lighting, glass, and other decorative objects either for specific interiors or for mass production.

Decorative Arts: Savoy vase, c. 1930s; Finland; Alvar Aalto.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s