Uniting Beauty and Function
When asked to define Scandinavian design, Danish-born furniture designer Christian Grosen Rasmussen is initially at a loss for words. “Sometimes I don’t see it so clearly, because I grew up in it,” he says. “I grew up with these pieces in my parents’ home—as an integrated part of my life, and of Danish life in general.” Trained as an architect and industrial designer at Denmark’s Aarhus School of Architecture and the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, Rasmussen is head of design for Fritz Hansen, the company entrusted with preserving and perpetuating the legacies of design masters such as Poul Kjærholm and Hans Wegner while collaborating with contemporary designers to craft new yet timeless forms.
It’s a cross-generational and now international mix that few companies manage to pull off, but Fritz Hansen, headquartered in Allerød, a small town just north of Copenhagen, has history on its side. “Of all the industrialized nations, the Nordic countries have been most successful in moving into the modern world without breaking with the past,” according to design historian Judith Gura, who joined Rasmussen and Glenn Adamson, the director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, to discuss Scandinavian design during a recent evening at The Apartment by The Line.
All three agreed that while Scandinavian design does not refer to a particular style or silhouette, the shared aesthetic approach has distinct characteristics, including a lightness of weight and scale, understatement, simplicity, and respect for handicraft and tradition. “The word ‘democratic’ always springs to mind,” said Adamson. “We think about gentle curves and organic modernism and natural materials, but I think more important than that is the fact that this design is meant to read as exemplifying a kind of ideal society, a gentle utopianism, which continues to exert a strong pull on the imagination.”
Rasmussen traces this “beauty for all” mindset to Denmark’s transition, in the mid-nineteenth century, from a regional superpower to a small country with very little political influence and even fewer natural resources. “For a long time, Danish designers were forced to have a strong argument for every material choice they made,” he said. “And that has stayed with us.”
Operating with limited resources and an understanding of historical forms also nurtured an enduring reverence for craftsmanship and the folk tradition. “What came out of that was furniture that you like to touch, furniture that was comfortable and that people could relate to,” noted Gura. “I think that is what has made Scandinavian design so appealing to the rest of the world.”
“Steel’s constructive potential is not the only thing that interests me; the refraction of light on its surface is an important part of my artistic work. I consider steel a material with the same artistic merit as wood and leather.”– Poul Kjærholm
Among the designers most closely identified with the Scandinavian ideal of uniting beauty and function through timeless designs is Kjærholm (1929-1980), who trained as a carpenter before studying at the Danish School of Arts and Crafts. To the palette of natural materials—notably blond native woods and, in Denmark, imported teak and rosewood—he added steel. “Steel’s constructive potential is not the only thing that interests me; the refraction of light on its surface is an important part of my artistic work,” he once said. “I consider steel a material with the same artistic merit as wood and leather.”
Kjærholm’s furniture, while strikingly modern, is at once engaged with the history of design and concerned with the contemporary user. Rasmussen offered the example of the PK22, which echoes the ancient Greek klismos chair while making it comfortable for lounging, and the PK91, a streamlined folding stool with an Egyptian precursor that dates to 1500 B.C.
“Scandinavian design has very much to do with the idea of the individual being respected within the community. That could be the craftsperson, that could be the designer. It’s not the Bauhaus, where you have technology driven by an argument, like truth to materials or a kind of mathematical precision. It’s also not [Charles and Ray] Eameses’ idea of applying technology to problems. It’s more intuitive. It’s softer, more personal, and more accessible.”– Glenn Adamson, director, Museum of Arts and Design
The Scandinavian designers of today have a tough act to follow, but a new generation is gradually emerging from beneath the shadow of the masters. “Getting inspired by pieces like these is a matter of knowing where you come from,” said Rasmusen, patting Kjærholm’s PK80 daybed. “But the world is different, so it wouldn’t make sense just to replicate this piece. I think that for Danish designers today, it’s a matter of learning how to use these pieces, understand them, but then trying to stand on their own.”