What Scandinavian design means to those who design it

At the Copenhagen head office of Danish fashion brand Bruuns Bazaar, Creative Director Rebekka Bay gives us her definition of what Scandinavian design means. To her it’s about functionalism and minimalism, and taking away what isn’t needed.

When you go to design school in Denmark they teach you to take things away, rather than adding embellishments and decorations, they try to teach you how to do with very little.

The point, she adds, “is not to be borderline boring, but to focus on what’s really, really important.”

Bay speaks with the accent of a Dane who’s spent a defining number of years in London, and the mix is as captivating as her open and valuable responses to questions about trends, or sustainability, or the Scandinavian way of life (“everyone is beautiful… and the bread is so damn good”). For her, being abroad has served as a stark reminder of how easy it is to take that lifestyle for granted. But it’s also a reminder that sticking to that heritage is more crucial now than ever.

Everywhere you go, every museum you visit, every furniture store you go to, every magazine you open, there is this Danish or this Scandinavian heritage throughout everything. It’s very much based around modernism and functionalism. And now, when we are at a point in fashion where minimalism is returning, one would be really, really silly not to look back to that very strong heritage which is the early minimalism.

Erik Hansen, the third-generation owner of furniture maker Carl Hansen & Son, offers a similar sentiment. “What we are trying to do is keep everything simple,” he says. But it’s also about quality. The furniture, he says, “looks so simple to make; but it is very difficult to make. The quality is very high, our labour costs are very high. Therefore its important to us to make only the best quality.”

Across all the brands we spoke to, it transpires that the key principles of Scandinavian design are the same as they have been for the past 60 years: function comes first. Less is more. Quality and craftsmanship are key. There’s also a strong drive to produce timeless products that last, not just because they’re well made but because the design doesn’t date. Essentially, these iconic Scandinavian brands have survived the test of time by creating products that are beautiful and elegantly simple, but most importantly functional. Even the aforementioned Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair was purpose built for the lobby of the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, it’s curved design offering guests a cosy pod that was both relaxing and sheltered for privacy.

Jacobsen Egg Chair
Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair. Photo by Red Square Visual Arts.

At the headquarters of Danish shoe brand ECCO, the third largest producer of casual footwear in the world, I asked Head of Design Jakob Møller what Scandinavian design means to him. Møller is notably passionate; the kind for person for whom design isn’t just a career choice but a lifestyle. When asked about Scandinavian design his thoughts are strong, extensive and considered. Though it’s ECCO we’re discussing Jakob draws reference to brands from Apple to Ikea and many in between; his thoughts plotting a map of the Scandinavian design landscape that he has no trouble navigating.

That understanding of the wider picture is key in a role like Jakob’s. In the world of Scandinavian design, brands are aware of eachother – but it’s an awareness underpinned by respect for eachother’s spaces. These brands often work together, as in a recent collaboration between ECCO and the Jacob Jensen design studio; or between iconic jewellery brand Georg Jensen and Carl Hansen & Sons, who recognised that some segments of their market want their furniture legs finished in solid gold. Each brand does what they do best, and evolves not just alone but by building strong relationships.

ecco spring 2011 campaign
From ECCO shoes spring 2011 collection.

For all of these brands it’s about understanding design, understanding as opposed to simply copying what other brands are doing. There’s a common thread of being simultaneously innovative and classic. And there’s a common challenge of balancing tradition with trends, a challenge of creating something that’s timeless, that’s built from the brand’s DNA, but that evolves with the times.

So if the successful brands are the ones that balance tradition with market trends, how do they do it?