The excellence of Scandinavian design can be explained most appropriately by studying individual and collective trends and approaches to design within both local and international contexts: juxtaposing one against the other. To give one example, in what ways does Alvar Aalto's combined Neo-Classic and National Romantic<1> design ethic deviate from Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School<2> approach?
Certainly the two architects are of comparative ability, yet why are Aalto's designs and, moreover, various other Scandinavian architectural and furnishing trends consistently defined as having an innate sense of purpose and function<3> in their approach and construction of designs which separates them from their overseas contemporaries?
Furthermore, could this persistence to produce designs, which are appropriate to a specific purpose and function, be what characterises the Scandinavian approach as distinctively utilitarian toward its design objectives?
In stylistic terms, this utilitarian approach is often categorised as Functionalism.<4> In Christian Norberg-Sculz's Modern Norwegian Architecture he highlights an excerpt from a 1925 issue of the local design periodical Byggekunst,<5> in which architect Lars Backer asserted his reasoning for wanting to create new stylistic objectives appropriate only to Scandinavian design, and Norberg-Sculz reinforces this as the point in which Functionalism began. So in Backer's article he maintains that it is essential for architects to: '...create an architecture in contact with the times in which [they] build [to] ... abandon...all exterior frippery, [and that] function shall decide the form....'<6> (my emphasis).
Backer insisted that the desire for a new architectural style to eclipse the existing styles - namely Romanticism and Classicism<7> - was because they were conflicting and, as a consequence, the designs produced remained static and antiquated: lacking in any progressive vision or cohesion. He maintained that '... the struggle between the two artistic trends...'<8> was indicative of their failure to coexist peaceably, and the only way to counteract this situation was to introduce a more suitable alternative.
This situation also existed in other design circles, but most significantly in home furnishings and handicrafts. From the seventeenth and up to and including the nineteenth century, Scandinavia imported, '...copied, or revised French, Dutch, German and English developments, such as baroque, rococo, neoclassic, Biedermeier, Hepplewhite, Chippendale [and] Sheraton...'<9> Without a doubt, this plurality of design trends over the years gave consumers an extensive choice of a number of different styles. Yet the problem which remained was that there was only a limited number of designs which were considered uniquely Scandinavian.<10>
However, as the influence of Functionalism began to permeate Scandinavian design principles, it gave designers the opportunity to create works which were recognised both locally and internationally as, for example, distinctively Finnish or unmistakably Danish.
Of course, this would have certainly proved to be an ideal way for Scandinavian designers and architects to project their Nordic traditions<11> and sensibilities onto international design circles. Yet above all, Functionalists have maintained a consistently frugal and practical approach, and it is in this context that their designs have been most effective.
Effective; because Functionalist designers utilise what they have to create what they need. Specifically, Functionalism is a stylistic trend based on the '...consideration[s]...[of] climate and landscape, construction and materials, the demands of the plan, and [additionally], economic considerations.'<12> The emphasis on materials refers to the accessibility of resources, and landscape considerations usually applies to spatial concepts used in city and urban planning.
To expand on the notion of accessible resources, Elieene Harrison Beer, in her book titled Scandinavian Design - Objects of a Lifestyle, reinforces Scandinavia's (former) isolation, '...geographical, social and political...'<13> inclusive, as a factor which would eventually compel designers to utilise local materials:
So, because '...Norway, Sweden and Finland [are] endowed with ample forests ...',<16> designers became proficient in wood uses and techniques. Instead of importing wood, they used what they had - '...native ash, birch, pine, fir and ... oak.'<17> Practicality aside, utilising local woods was - and remains so even presently - an initiative which has been considerably more suitable for Scandinavian designs and design objectives than exotic imported wood.
So in their pursuit for appropriate materials to create (furniture) designs which have a corresponding purpose and function, Scandinavian designers have worked with the natural environment, and not against it.
It is worth mentioning that this notion has often extended itself to architecture. For example Alvar Aalto's design approach, on occasion, reflected an interest in natural elements and became referred to as 'organic architecture'.<18> This shift in the approach to design also reflected changing cultural attitudes and economic trends. Within the parameters of design - and not, for example, literature and film - cultural attitudes are often associated with consumer tastes. People's perception of design can shape its direction and subsequent expansion or demise. For example, the proportion of those who associate design with function compared with those who perceive design as means of decoration; shape, to a certain degree, the stylistic aspects of current design trends.
To give a more comprehensive example of this factor I have chosen to highlight the varying degrees of success and popularity of the Art Deco movement. Art Deco stylistics exercised a considerable influence over design during the late 1920s and the entirety of the thirties.<19> High on aesthetic value and visual-appeal, it became a widespread and very marketable trend in both architecture<20> and home furnishings and accessories.
Yet for the most part, Scandinavian design reinforces the fact that Art Deco had, as far as trends are concerned, a very limited appeal. What this suggests is that if Scandinavian designers followed the minimalist dictum of function plus purpose it is easy to imagine how they would have considered the stylistics of Art Deco as somewhat excessive. This is largely because, aside from decoration, what useful function could Deco inspired objects and design features such as cocktail cabinets and mantle-piece ornaments or coloured hide upholstery and pink marble<21> possibly offer to those concerned with design utility?
This is not to suggest that: 'if they can't use it, they don't want it' is an entirely accurate interpretation of Scandinavian attitudes toward design. Yet it certainly illustrates how the collective cultural attitudes of any consumer society can affect which trends will be popular and which will not.
People buy what appeals to them, and what appeals to them must also suit their tastes. In Scandinavia, then, Functionalist designs have become the most appropriate in reflecting many widespread Nordic attitudes and trends.
To a certain extent, economic trends also control, or at least influence the style and nature of designs. When a country is forced to make financial cutbacks, money toward, for example, the construction or renovation of public buildings, can be severely restricted. Most designers and architects respond accordingly, by either modifying and simplifying their designs, or adapting them to suit more modest budgets.
Economic patterns can (indirectly) cause the demise of design trends altogether. For example, in Norway 'the [first] world war...put a final stop to the buoyant excesses of Art Nouveau...'<22>
In this instance, economic conditions forced designers to create a more suitable approach to design which involved abandoning excess and instead expanding on the basic notions of design utility. Elieene Harrison Beer explains this as '...the utilitarian role... [which emphasises above all, design] ...form...durability... [and] cost.'<23>
The 'utilitarian excellence' that is associated with Scandinavian design perhaps begins with city planning, and the basis of good design should thereby progress from the initial structure of the (Scandinavian) physical environment. Yet urban or city design obviously involves more than just strategic planning. Architects have to be aware of and familiar with topography; the natural features and surfaces of the local district to which they may be planning.
How utilitarian concepts fit into city planning is that Scandinavian designers have, to a certain extent, an obligation to utilise spatial confines appropriately, to provide the most effective and most suitable mode of living.
Utilising space efficiently may, in the case of Tokyo, involve demographic considerations. The 1960 plan for the proposed development of Tokyo City, devised by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange<24> utilised the concept of '...linear expansion'<25> to accommodate for the city's rapidly increasing population density.
Problems in city planning, created by excessively expanding population percentages and population distribution was dealt with similarly in cities like New York. Here, architectural trends maximised available space through a process of 'vertical expansion', in other words, building upward meant that, spatially, extensive numbers of people could live comfortably in a confined area. This design approach produced both high-rise apartment living and in terms of public building, the '...evolution of the skyscraper...'<26>
Alternatively in Scandinavia, spatial considerations are of a different nature. In fact, there actually exist many possibilities for spatial innovation in Scandinavian town planning:
The problems of town planning in Scandinavia have also been exacerbated by a progressive shift in the structure of class divisions, and a corresponding shift in the structure of (urban) housing:
Yet I feel it is also worth mentioning that although design and architectural considerations should reflect specific needs and functions coupled with their eventual suitability, practising only one pure 'all-purpose' style or trend in any given country appears to be somewhat restrictive and moreover, virtually impossible.
Allusions to stylistic trends of either other countries or other eras, are, to a certain degree, unavoidable. This notion is best exemplified in architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Prairie School influence, despite being considered a progressive 'all American'<33> design ethic, was often coupled with an extensive knowledge and interest in Japanese prints<34> and approaches to design.
Alluding to a style which was far removed from Western approaches to design eventually led to a fusion of design stylistics which did not obscure Wright's 'Americana' approach, but rather gave him an international appeal which broadened his [architectural] opportunities. For example, in 1913, a group of Japanese investors approached Wright and offered him the commission to build Tokyo's newest project - The Imperial Hotel.<35>
I feel it is more appropriate to say that architects and designers combine their own stylistic approaches with selected approaches from a variety of different sources - not necessarily architectural - to create a fusion of trends. Furthermore, this merging or overlapping of stylistic influences is best described as eclectic. The possibility of being able to practise and construct eclectic designs has no doubt suited the style of many architects and designers. Feeling that Functionalist ethics were too limited, and that the aesthetic components of design were not only restricted but actually eclipsed by priorities of 'practicality' and 'usefulness', they instead chose a more personal approach.
The Norwegian architect Ove Bang, in a letter written during his degree at the institute of Technology in Trondheim,<36> expresses the struggle involved in having to balance the demands of both aestheticism and utilitarian style designs:
Yet the Australian government criticised Utzon for what he lacked in design practicality, for in his attempt to create a building that was visually innovative, both material costs and construction time exceeded what was considered appropriate:
Utilitarian design concepts on the whole have still proven largely successful in Scandinavia. This particularly applies to the area of furniture design. The objectives here have been in relation to the concept of customer service. What this means is that customers must be more than just consumers if design is to be considered functional at all. Certainly consumers exist, they are most certainly purchasing something, and annual turnovers provide an indication of that. Yet exactly who are these elusive consumers? Furthermore, are the products, goods and services that are available [to them] really what they need? Consumers are actually individual people, each with individual needs and tastes.
So, in the instance of household furnishings, how then does the manufacturer attempt to gain a greater understanding of what people are looking for when they purchase beyond what simply 'sells well' ?
In response to consumer needs, Scandinavian design companies became active in what is termed '...measurement and function studies...'<41> Initiated by Danish designer Kaare Klint<42> measurement and function studies involves '...measurements, [and measurement research] first of the human anatomy and second of storage needs...[it also emphasises] the elimination of waste space and material.'<43>
In rejecting the construction of 'standardised', mass-produced lines of furniture Klint's attitude to design was regarded as '...the beginning of furniture which showed concern for its user.'<44>
To appreciate the effectiveness of this design concept, it needs to be juxtaposed against designs which don't utilise the measurement and function approach, to determine exactly how Scandinavian designers have managed to achieve a utilitarian excellence in their designs which other designers lack:
Ultimately, utilitarian designs depend on use; and people are the ones who utilise design concepts. They are integral to the utilitarian equation and must be catered for appropriately.
Following Klint's example, many Scandinavian designers have risen to the challenge of adapting their design styles to suit the requirements and lifestyles of the Scandinavian people. A definitive example of this is Danish designers Kristian Vedel and Nanna Ditzel<46> '...who have made [a line of] furniture for children according to needs, rather than miniatures of adult furniture.'<47>
In relation to the marketing and advertising of design concepts adopted by Scandinavian designers, the utilitarian attitude deviates considerably from the American approach. I say this because I feel it is worth contrasting the two approaches in order to measure the ways in which Scandinavian design departs from the design trends of other countries.
Scandinavian marketing involves little more than promoting designs which are developed according and appropriate to the needs of the consumer. They aren't intent on 'selling' new design concepts to consumers. Scandinavian designers pride themselves on only creating functional, durable and cost- efficient products and goods. If people need something, they will buy it. If they don't [need it], it doesn't exist on the market to begin with.
On the other hand, the American design ethic '... [has] had little in common with the purist, craft-based ideal of "form following function", which inspired ... [European architects] ... American designers ... were much more ... [interested in] the commercial context of ... [design] than their European counterparts. '<48> Furthermore, their approach to design follows the marketing strategy of persuasion - 'everybody needs this [a particular product]. They just don't know that they need it yet.' The attitude toward design is as a means of fast and efficient, large-scale mass-production.
These advertising strategies have also been projected onto American architecture. To expand on this notion, I would suggest that Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Guggenheim Art Museum in New York<49> provides a definitive example of how a public building can be preceded by its commercial and international reputation, and not necessarily because of functional and cost-effective construction or visual appeal; but more because it is widely recognised and associated with American iconography.
The Guggenheim Museum has been both mentioned and featured in many American TV programs and films, and although this is an indirect form of advertising, it nonetheless illustrates the impact of American 'commercial' design.
Furthermore, this is actually set in opposition to a building like the Historical Museum in Oslo,<50> of which it is probably fair to say, hasn't experienced quite the same commercial success, especially as far as the numbers of, for example, overseas tourists, being able to recognise, or at least having heard of the museum.
Finally, I would like to suggest that the 'utilitarian excellence' of Scandinavian design extends much further than function, use, spatial considerations and eclectic influences.
I feel that it is more appropriate to say that achieving utilitarian excellence in design also corresponds with creative vision. In other words, the vision to be able to utilise technology and new techniques innovatively, and also the vision to foresee the practicalities and impracticalities of design.
By this I mean that designers should have enough vision to determine whether their designs are actually achievable, and if they aren't, to have the capacity to modify them so that they are practical enough to construct. Practicality of construction is essential, and should precede considerations of utility.
Russian Constructivism design ethics are proof of this notion. 'Many [constructivist] projects ... [were so grandiose and elaborate, that] ... they never got beyond the drawing board'.<51>
So, if designs are to aid and shape utilitarian attitudes and expand further than the 'drawing board', their construction and completion must be attainable. From here the 'excellence' of design can develop.
1 Pearson (1982), pp 1
2 Kaufmann (1982), p 435.
3 Beer (1975), p 3.
4 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 47.
5 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 47.
6 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 47.
7 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 47.
8 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 47.
9 Beer (1975), p 12.
10 Beer (1975), p 12.
11 Frampton (1980), p 192.
12 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 51.
13 Beer (1975). p 3.
14 Beer (1975), p 3.
15Beer (1975), p 50.
16 Beer (1975), p 3.
17 Beer (1975), p 50.
18 Frampton (1980), p 202.
19 Tamplin (1991), p 75.
20 Tamplin (1991), p 75.
21 Tamplin (1991), p 75.
22 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 39.
23 Beer (1975), p 4.
24 Alex (1963), p 48.
25 Alex (1963) p 48.
26 Tamplin (1991), p 80.
27 Fleig (1971), p n/a.
28 Fleig (1971), p n/a.
29 Fleig (1971), p n/a.
30 Beer (1975), p 54.
31 Fleig (1971), p n/a
32 Fleig (1971), p n/a
33 Kaufmann (1982), p 436.
34 Kaufmann (1982), p 438.
35 Kaufmann (1982), pp 438 and 439.
36 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 60.
37 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p 60.
38 Duek-Cohen (1967), p 75.
39 Tamplin (1991), p 185.
40 Tamplin (1991), p 185.
41 Beer (1975), p 58.
42 Beer (1975), p 58.
43 Beer (1975), p 55.
44 Beer (1975), p 58.
45 Beer (1975), p 58.
46 Beer (1975), p 55.
47 Beer (1975), p 58.
48 Maltby (1990), p 95.
49 Kaufmann (1987), p 448.
50 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p n/a.
51 Tamplin (1991), p 69.
52 Tamplin (1991), p 80.
53 Tamplin (1991), p 69.
54 Cohen-Duek (1967), p 2.
55 Norberg-Sculz (1986), p n/a.
56 Brookeman (1984), p n/a.
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