Scandinavian design: not a style but a philosophy

It is always hard going back to work after the Christmas break, the one holiday where ‘switching off’ is positively required. (How else to once again sit through the same films you watch every year, and suppress all thoughts of binge-related guilt?) Switching the brain back on again is a struggle. However in my case – as someone whose day-job involves thinking about and explaining what ‘design’ means and why it matters – a New Year’s break in Sweden left me with (apart from some skiing and horse-riding-acquired bruises) a good reminder of why this is an interesting, if tricky, task.

The word Scandinavian is synonymous with good design, with well-crafted and simple products. Whether it is in the elegant urban environments of Gothenburg or Stockholm, or the rural settings that make up most of the rest, it only takes a little attentiveness to note the care taken over the creation of environments. Consistent attention to detail makes all the difference between, for example, a cosy glow and a harsh glare in an interior, a shopping mall that feels civilised rather than manic, chairs in an airport lounge designed for comfort rather than convenience, a sturdy wooden sledge that lasts a lifetime rather than a molded plastic tray that splits after three runs.

Why is this? What produces that elusive but undeniable quality of thoughtfulness? The only way I know how to think about this is to compare it with the situation at home.

In Britain, it seems to me that industrialisation and conspicuous consumption have made a necessity of the separation between man and the provenance of his material stuff. We no longer know how to make and fix things ourselves: almost without exception, we pay someone else to do it. This is a highly evolved state of affairs; mass consumption has been a norm and an economic driver for a very long time now. That fact coincides nicely with the profit motives of manufacturers and, dare I say it, designers, who convince us we need new things simply by making them and parading them in front of our acquisitive eyes. ‘Feckless neophilia’, as Stephen Bayley has termed it.

As I understand it, the Scandinavian countries made the switch from pre- to post-industrial societies much more swiftly. Thus they are culturally, and chronologically, much closer to their pre-industrial craft traditions. The practice of making things is not so distant in history and memories, and neither is it mutually exclusive of living in a high-tech world. This seems to translate to a habit of, even if no longer directly making things personally, valuing good design quality in the made thing, and concern for the texture of environments they create. Understanding the effort it takes to make something instils a reverence for the preciousness of the thing once made. (On the other side of the coin, the invisibility of ‘Made in China’ and wastefulness go hand in hand.) There is also an unparalleled sense of reward associated with making something by hand. Perhaps we have forgotten this over here? Is our national drive to buy simply a compensation technique (retail therapy?) that never quite delivers?

This is, of course, a very simplistic explanation and generalised argument, and there are no doubt other elements at play. Most significantly, the relative classlessness of these countries, unlike Britain, is a powerful contributing factor, and means the comparison of social phenomena is flawed from the start.

But it is surely no coincidence that Scandinavian countries have among the best sustainability credentials. In a very democratic way, there is an assumption that everyone takes an interest in and responsibility for their own personal interaction with the environment. It is also no coincidence that these countries are noted internationally for their quality of design.

Things are made to last rather than be replaced, to complement the art of living well rather than be a slave to the art of consuming. Man ought to be in harmony with his environment, not simply the owner of it. Scandinavian design is a national philosophy, not a surface style.

This is an enviable state of affairs, something similar to the idea of ‘prosperity without growth’ that has recently surfaced following the tumult of recession. But how could we, in Britain, get there? With the increasing mediating presence of screens in our lives, it is entirely possible that attention to the richness of the material world may drift even further. To reverse the situation, I think, education must be the place to start. Learning through doing (which currently doesn’t occupy the highest priority slot on the curriculum) not only engenders creativity, but an entirely different relationship with the material world. Improving that connection – for all people at all ages – would surely solve an awful lot of problems.

2 thoughts on “Scandinavian design: not a style but a philosophy”

    Enjoyable piece, you clearly managed to get back into routine – skiing and horse riding not withstanding!

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