A Brief History of Nordic Furniture

To the average person, furniture is purely utilitarian and “interior design” is either thought of as a silly trend or some obscure passion. Not many people have a real understanding of design. With that in mind, you may (or may not) be surprised to find out that interior design trends follow the trends of art. Furniture, architecture, and décor are all heavily inspired by the art and design that are prominent in a given culture at a given time. So while the heavily popular contemporary furniture trends – think Swedish giant Ikea – might be too weird or boring for you to understand, it might be worth reading up on how exactly the Nordic furniture design trends came to be.

Almost by nature, art is often a direct or indirect response to the current political and social climates. You might be familiar with “modern art.” This Modernism is a cultural movement that began at the end of the 19th century. Modernism was a response to Realism, which used careful lighting and scaling to produce work that appeared as realistic as possible, inspired by the invention of the photograph. Modernism – and, about the same time, Romanticism, which reveled in exaggeration – sought to break free from the rigid accuracy that was indicative of Realism.

Modernism had its roots in nature. Fun decorations used in domestic, residential settings became a symbol of the individual retaining their uniqueness in the social monotone. Clean, fluid shapes began emerging in all kinds of crafts of the time: furniture, architecture, textile, paintings, even print. The new smooth shapes also incorporated materials from foreign countries. Denmark began publishing magazines celebrating the new international influence on design, inspired in part by the First World War and the general disillusionment with the usual social order. The artist, at the time, became an agent of change, calling for a break away from the old ways of the past.

            This break was heralded by a new emphasis on simplicity and functionality, with some subtle decorative elements from early-20th century art movements. This new style was as functional as always, yet more simple and elegant than the heavy furniture of the past. Nordic design appeals to a wide audience, with accessible, affordable, and simple objects. The general public could be united in a way it never had been before: the essential and simple nature of the home, balanced with bold colors and some flair to keep each home unique in its own way.

            While this form of design had its roots in Northern Europe, it’s no secrete that the Nordic aesthetic has travelled across the world. Today, this is largely thanks to the Internet; however, in the early-to-mid 20th century, their reputation was the result of travelling design shows. Well-known designers would visit America and Canada with samples of their wares: not only furniture designers but painters, sculptors, and other artists as well. These exhibitions were integral to the spread of Nordic design, which by this time had already been evolving for a few decades. Americans and Canadians were drawn to the simplicity and functionality of the design, which made the living space feel more spacious, open, and comfortable for all inhabitants. As a result, Nordic-esque designs began to crop up in more furniture shops in North America, as local designers had a brand-new source of inspiration to work with.

            Interestingly, that is not to say that the new Nordic design was not met with criticism. Some people believed it was an inherently bourgeois aesthetic, dealing only in the intellectual and moral crisis of the upper class while seeking to make residential homes appear cleaner, neater, and larger. As popular as Nordic design and architecture is today, it is a thought-provoking phenomenon that material things are so common, broken into classes, and often quite expensive.

            In any case, one cannot deny that Nordic furniture has nearly a monopoly on the entire furniture market worldwide. Even though manufacturers from different countries can and often do put their own spin on these designs, the clean lines and quiet elegance of Nordic-inspired furniture has its roots in the early Modernist art movements that took place in Northern Europe. So the next time you go to your local Ikea or All Modern for a new chair, coffee table, or shelving unit, it might be a cause for more introspection than you think.