Who gave the world Scandinavian design? Arne Jacobsen, Eero Arnio, Alvar Aalto, or Ingvar Kamprad? Okay, sure. But another larger force played a major role in establishing Scandinavian design as well: World War II.
In an excellent piece over at Curbed, author Sarah Hucal outlines the history of Scandinavian design, and shows that before World War II, the concept didn’t really exist. Hucal explains:
How did countries with disparate histories, languages, and even geographical features—Finland is known for its birch forests, while Iceland is largely tree-free—become lumped together in a single design movement? The branding of “Scandinavian design” is the result, according to some scholars, of a major international PR campaign. Solidarity between the Nordic countries grew during and after World War II, writes historian Widar Halén in Scandinavian Design: Beyond the Myth. Conferences held throughout the 1940s in Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen concluded that “Nordic countries could be perceived as an entity when it came to design issues,” according to the historian.
After World War II, the design world was looking for an antidote for the “totalitarian” International Style, which–thanks to the Bauhaus–was famously linked to Germany. While Hitler and the Nazis hated modernism, driving most avant-garde designers out of Germany early on, Hucal says that some of the first proponents of Scandinavian design seemed to see a link between National Socialism and the International Style, thanks to its perceived totalitarian ethos.
House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon, who Hucal describes as a “prominent midcentury tastemaker,” and who ended up popularizing Scandinavian design, described those International Style designers “dictators in matters of taste.” Instead, she presented Scandinavian design as an alternative to Nazi-era design fascism: democratic, natural, minimal, intimate, and focused on the home and family, not the State. With the support of the kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, Gordon brought Scandinavian design on the road with the “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition, which toured 24 American and Canadian cities between 1954 and 1957.
By the end of the 1950s, Scandinavian design was everywhere in America, and although interest waned in the 1960s, the ’90s-era focus on sustainability in design brought the style back, and it remains popular today. So if you love going to Ikea or lounging around in your reproduction Swan Chair, just think: If not for World War II, so-called Scandinavian design may never have left Northern Europe.