Scandinavian design was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It came of age, however, in mid-century after World War II, when millions of veterans began building families and fanning out to suburbia. Instead of seeking conventional furnishings, many preferred simple, affordable pieces that, by combining natural materials with traditional craftsmanship, married form with function.
With its flowing forms, pale colors, varied textures, lean lines, and warm, organic materials, Scandinavian design was a natural choice. Moreover, since its interiors offered casual comfort, space, and light, Scandinavian was a lifestyle as well as a look.
Innovative American war time materials and technological strides inspired many mid-century Scandinavian designers. After Charles and Ray Eames created molded plywood leg splints for the U.S. Navy, for example, this design team fashioned sculptural, sleekly curved plywood multi-functional chairs, storage units, tables, and lighting fixtures.
Scandinavian Design: Inspired seating
Arne Jacobsen, an extraordinarily prolific Danish designer influenced by their work, created hundreds of imaginative, minimalistic chairs in a rainbow of shades and materials. His choice of names for these functional, organic designs like Tongue, Ant, Lily, Drop (as in raindrop), and Butterfly, reflect his inspiration. Though once affordable, today these can be quite expensive.
“An early Jacobsen Egg chair with original leather upholstery,” explains Lionel Obadia, co-founder and co-owner, Design Market, based in Paris, France, is one of the most famous – and most costly. Collectors should expect to pay between $4,500 (upholstered) to over $13,000 (leather) for one in good vintage condition. A Jacobsen Swan chair, which is also very famous, currently ranges between $2,300 and $5,700.” Originally, these light, stackable, extremely popular pieces sold by the millions.
A name you should know: Hans Wegner
Hans Wegner, who was highly influenced by Jacobsen, created pieces in a modern style that placed purpose over appearance. His Sawbuck, Wishbone, and Ox chairs (this last available with or without horns), all inspired by down-to-earth shapes, are key examples. Yet many of his tables, cabinets, beds, and other seating solutions are not only functional, but attractive.
Wegner’s fine wood chairs, for instance, often feature pleasing, sculpted backs, arms, seats, seat tilts, along with angled legs. Others, like his expansive, solid wood frame Papa Bear easy chair (which features great paw-like arms), boast comfortable fabric, leather, or wool upholstery.
With all these choices, which mid-century Scandinavian design chair is most comfortable?
“Armchairs by Bruno Mathsson, a Swedish designer, provide ergonomic seating that fits a wide variety of people,” reveals Obadia. “And those by Norwegian designer Ingmar Relling are also very comfy. The proof? He created one called Siesta – a must-have for an after-lunch nap.”
Mid-century Scandinavian lighting solutions are also quite charming. Minimalist desk lamps swivel freely, floor lamps perch precariously on spindly legs, while slatted or bubbled Beehive lamps glow with warmth.
The “PH5” or “Artichoke” lamp, created by Poul Henningsen in 1958, however, is most iconic – and the best known – pendant lamp of all. Like its namesake, this imaginative piece features circular rows of “leaves” that, staggered along steel arches, overlap one upon the next. Though viewed from any angle, the “Artichoke” hides its “heart,” its hidden source of light. Original models, which currently range from about $500 to $10,000 each, are highly collectible. Gigantic “Artichokes” suitable for pavilions and palaces, however, cost many times more.
Dansk Designs, a popular, high-end company based in the United States, retailed simple, durable, affordable Scandinavian design table and kitchenware through the 1950s and ’60s. Jens Quistgaard, its chief creative force, designed most of its inventory, which included sculptural cutlery, stoneware crockery, glassware, saucepans, fine wood serving pieces, and scores of smaller items. Despite their divergence of materials and colors, all combine functionality with beauty. So they work together in harmony.
Multi-generational appeal of Scandinavian design
As Dansk pieces moved seamlessly from kitchen to dining room and back, they delighted an entire generation of homemakers. Since mothers often passed these durable pieces down to their daughters, they also crossed generations. Today too, Dansk Designs’ distinctive, retro-chic home accessories, especially its silver flatware and teak tableware, remain in high demand.
Pieces are often found at antique shops, auction houses, estate sales, flea markets, as well as online. Select Dansk Design creations are also featured in prestigious museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris.
Popular selections to collect
Private collectors usually seek rare, exceptional pieces like Finn Juhl’s lounge chairs or Hans Wegner’s early designs. Those that are documented, signed, in good condition, with original labels intact are most desirable—and most costly. Pieces of this quality are usually found at high-end furniture galleries and exclusive design boutiques.
Most mid-century Scandinavian design clients, however, are following general trends they’ve seen in decorating magazines. Rather than purchase antique pieces, which seems daunting, and rather than purchase newer designs, which seem cold and uninviting, they seek furnishings that embody warmth, history, quality, and character. Thus mid-century Scandinavian design, with its soft curves, smooth lines, clean finishes, mellow patina, and sturdy craftsmanship, is currently very trendy, especially among the younger generation.
Scandinavian design on a budget
Fortunately, even those on a limited budget can bring a bit of Scandinavian soul into their homes. Arne Jacobsen’s steel ice buckets, toast racks, coffee sets, and revolving ashtrays, as well as Dansk Design teak trays, coasters, cutting blocks, pepper mills, and salad bowls, are often available for well under $1,000.
“Mid-century Scandinavian glass is currently selling for bargain prices, observes Richard Wright, founder and president of Wright: Auctions of Art and Design, based in Chicago.
“And Danish silver, the best in the world, often sells for quite low prices too. Moreover, there are many different Swedish ceramics, at reasonable prices. And Scandinavian textiles from this era are a bargain the world over.”
As with all quality designs, there are many mid-century Scandinavian reproductions on the market. Genuine pieces, however, can often be identified by their detail, manufacturers, materials, or mechanisms. In addition, most are well documented.
Of course, consulting with knowledgeable, reputable dealers is very important.
Scandinavian design gallery:
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