When we talk about Northern European design, there is a tendency to refer indiscriminately to a single style, but if we look in greater detail we find that each geographical area in the Scandinavian peninsula and neighbouring regions has developed its own distinctive features. Although to our eyes they are sometimes imperceptible, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland all have their own specific characteristics in terms of languages, use of materials and approach to creativity and business.
As we will focus mainly on the Swedish mentality, we have chosen to start out from a word that perfectly sums up the temperament of this population: Lagom, a concept that translated into English means “just right”. As for products, Lagom is embodied in objects that are intended to be used frequently by large numbers of people in an easy and simple way, objects that no one can name simply because they are pieces of furniture or accessories that are required solely to perform a specific function.
This helps us understand the principles of a design tradition whose aesthetics consist of simple lines focused on the function of an object, where every aspect contributes to efficiency. The goal is Fluency of use, given that the only effort required of design is that of inclusiveness towards users, simplifying the forms of objects so that the way they are to be used is immediately obvious.
Hans J. Wegner for example argued that a chair cannot be considered complete until someone is sitting on it – and he should know a thing or two about chairs as he designed more than five hundred of them!
Just as for the Japanese, for Northern Europeans wood is the undisputed king of materials for construction and furniture.
The Swedes, for example, are well aware that although it is an age-old resource that is almost taken for granted, it is also a priceless asset for interior design culture. The preferred finish is natural, as cut, combined with fibres, linen, cotton or felt, or whitish or beige stones. The reason is simple: pale tones are essential because they facilitate the diffusion of light in geographical regions where it is a precious resource.
In the Eco-Minimal world, frills are virtually non-existent and decorations barely hinted at. In this style, decorating means adding full and carefully measured colour accents, working in alternation with the surfaces of materials, for example making them rustic or creating distinctive finishes or relief motifs, original cuts or recompositions.
In other cases we find hints of decorative lines, for example subtle crosshatching where the irregularity of the human hand emerges in all its authenticity.
The final component of Nordic decoration is an element we have discussed extensively: light. Light becomes an integral part of products and makes them decorative purely by virtue of its existence. In many cases, lamps and shelves are designed for the specific purpose of dialoguing with light in ever-changing, dynamic interactions.
Although it may seem strange, in Stockholm we discovered that Swedes rarely use the term “design”. Instead they are focused on a sharing philosophy that aims to constantly improve objects and processes with the overarching goal of sustainability.
Sustainability is the key to design: protecting the Earth’s resources is a cornerstone of living and everyone must do their part.
In the In the Anthropocene age, the current geological era in which mankind is causing irreparable damage to every part of the world, we find no end of projects that return to simple, unelaborated materials of the past embodying traditional values.
This was the idea behind the initiative entitled One step backward. Two steps forward presented in February by the School of Industrial Design of Lund University in Stockholm. The underlying concept was an invitation to draw inspiration from age-old knowledge to create a virtuous cycle. Through the use of ethical and green local resources, consumers are able to enter a global movement while adopting in their daily lives only design objects and concepts that respect the environment and the natural world. On the other hand we find experiments such as the house designed by the practice Snøetta that produces energy rather than consuming it. “Architecture must be generous” to the environment from which it draws resources and to the society that uses them, said Craig Dykers, one of the partners in the practice. The mission of its more than a hundred and fifty architects is to seek a constant dialogue between architecture and nature, and consequently a perfect union between the house and the environment that surrounds it.
However, harmony with nature is not just visual. Today, in our work and daily lives we spend much of our time in noisy, chaotic urban spaces which cause us levels of stress that are unparalleled in human history.
With this in mind, many of the exhibitors at the last Stockholm design week were proposing ideas for sound-absorbing partitions. We saw sofas, armchairs, cocoon chairs and freestanding office pods surrounded by felt elements to insulate from noise, ideal for public buildings, offices, restaurants, shops and other spaces. Never as in the current year have we seen such a eulogy to silence. And that says a lot about our culture’s need for healthy moments devoted to concentration. These precious moments allow us to collect our thoughts and transform our tangled web of ideas into something organised. So even if we cannot immerse ourselves in the uncontaminated calm of nature whenever we feel like it, we can at least carve out a small personal space for peace and quiet.