Design School

The History of Scandinavian Modern

By Meaghan O’Neill
October 11, 2017

Spare but not cold, the style has modernist roots and a timeless appeal

Clean lines, functional furnishings, and a neutral palette are the hallmarks of Scandinavian Modern design. Emerging in the 1950s alongside the Modernist movement in Europe and America, the style prioritized democratic, affordable, and sleek furnishings and interiors. But it was also heavily influenced by the Nordic region’s cold, short winter days, and a desire for interiors to be cozy yet bright.

These practical considerations led to a new level of spare elegance and a fondness for lighter colors, simple forms, and open-plan spaces. Designed to maximize light at every turn, Nordic interiors also began to favor pale-colored walls and flooring and spaces free of clutter and ornamentation.

Today, the style—which has influenced interiors across the globe—is as much about an aesthetic as it is about a lifestyle. Then as now, these clean, multi-use spaces tout little adornment, but come off as inviting, not stark, and elegant yet accessible. To achieve this, these interiors incorporate natural elements, such as wood and natural fibers with lots of texture. Notable designers of the era—such as Finn Juhl, Hans Wegner, and Arne Jacobsen—frequently used teak, rosewood, birch, and ash in their furnishings, which lent warmth without being overly rustic. Many of their works remain in high demand today.

Toso, Italy (Murano)

In the 1950s, Scandinavian interiors relied on the quality and craftsmanship of furnishings, not ornamentation, to anchor a space; as a result, pieces from the era are often in impeccable shape. Furthermore, their simple forms pair seamlessly with a wide variety of other styles. “They fit nicely in eclectic interiors,” says Matt Singer, owner of eBay Collective dealer Open Air Modern, an antiques showroom in Brooklyn specializing in 20th-century Scandinavian and American furnishings. “From Persian and Iranian rugs to Chinese and decorative arts, Scandinavian pieces fit well with things that are much older.”

Scandinavian design is timeless because it is simple, beautiful, finely crafted, and made with natural materials that appeal on a fundamentally human level.

Today, as people increasingly turn their homes into retreats from everyday stress, it’s no wonder that Scandinavian Modern style is once again dominating design headlines. For Cambridge, Massachusetts, architecture firm Aamodt/Plumb, the style heavily influences the founders’ overall philosophy. “Scandinavian design is timeless because it is simple, beautiful, finely crafted, and made with natural materials that appeal on a fundamentally human level,” says Mette Aamodt, co-founder of the firm, who spent her childhood in Norway and is the daughter of a Norwegian architect. “Function combined with inspiration from nature creates a very warm strain of modernism that is very easy to relate to and continues to appeal to many people.” While Aamodt/Plumb’s designs are unmistakably 21st-century, they have an undercurrent that is inherently Scandinavian.

For those beginning to explore the style, chairs make excellent introduction. Dining chairs in particular are widely available, and are a practical purchase, says Singer, who advises buyers to invest in well-known designers and manufacturers, which tend to keep or increase in value. Scandinavian Modern pieces are sometimes lacquered or sealed in a unique way, so understanding how to care for them is important, adds Singer. “Buy from a reputable dealer who can inform you and help you maintain a piece over the years,” he says. After that, “Let your own personal taste dictate your choice.”

A live-in kitchen by Aamodt/ Plumb. Photograph by Jane Messinger