Stuck in the past

Strong national identities and an overbearing respect for their heritage is stifling the creativity of emerging northern European designers. Trish Lorenz talks to leading figures concerned about the future of Scandinavian design

Scandinavian design is putting on a strong showing during this month’s London design festivals with, among others, Norwegian and Danish group exhibitions at 100% Design, a Swedish show at Tent, and TownhouseDK, another Danish event, taking place in SW3.

As always, there are some beautiful pieces on show, with serious craftsmanship and quality materials in use. Yet, it’s difficult to get excited by much of the work. There’s a sense that new designers in the region remain heavily influenced by the Modernist greats of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and the result is glassware paying homage to Kaj Franck, furniture bearing the hallmarks of Arne Jacobsen and touches of Scandinavian Modernism all round.

Chrystina Schmidt, director of Scandinavian design specialist Skandium, says designers from the region are ‘stifled by the past’. ‘There are some exceptions – like Komplot, for example – but in Denmark and Finland, in particular, the leading, influential designers remain very much those of the past,’ says Schmidt.

Speak to younger Scandinavian designers and none deny that they are influenced by their design heritage. Some see this as ‘a gift’. ‘I feel as if I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and I see it as a huge source of inspiration, that some of the best designs are never far away,’ says Thomas Bentzen, a Danish designer who will exhibit his Pinechair as part of the Made in Denmark event at 100% Design. Bentzen acknowledges the weight of such a strong body of national work, but says designers of today are no longer held back by it. ‘I think in Denmark younger designers have finally managed to free themselves of the yoke of the “golden” age,’ he says. ‘The pressure has gone, and instead there is experimentation and a will to create something new. I don’t think my generation sees the big designers as a curse any more.’

Others are less certain. Johannes Torpe, director of the eponymous industrial and furniture design group, believes the past is still encumbering design freedom. ‘I think it’s very important to acknowledge the past; there was a revolution and the work influenced generations. But, saying that, I also think it has hindered future generations from developing. Among some designers, there’s always the thought, “What would Jacobsen have done?”,’ he says.

Torpe believes this conservatism has spread to design schools and manufacturers in the region, and, as a result, the group has chosen to work with clients across the world. Its current projects include a restaurant for Beijing-based company South Beauty Group, designing a series of radios for a Danish producer, and furniture for Italian manufacturers. It is also the lead industrial design team with Skype. ‘We have more or less done the Verner Panton thing, in that less than 10 per cent of our clients are from Denmark,’ says Torpe. ‘A lot of Danish manufacturers haven’t really wanted to work with us because we are too crazy in our approach, I think,’ he says.

Schmidt agrees that manufacturers shoulder some of the responsibility and believes a focus on regular new collections means less innovative design. ‘The malady of the business today is that the industry demands new collections twice a year. In the past, designers had time – Alvar Aalto took four years to work out the process that could create bentwood furniture. That sort of time doesn’t exist today; things are churned out and pushed to market much more quickly,’ she says.

Torbjørn Anderssen, of furniture and interiors group Norway Says, has a different view. ‘When we launched in Milan in 2000, most of the interest came from Swedish manufacturers, and two years later Norwegian manufacturers like LK Hjelle and Gudbrandsdalens Uldvarefabrik initiated long-term working relationships with us and offered us the opportunity to work with a broader part of their collections. That really challenged and developed us professionally,’ he says.

The group is taking part in the 100% Norway exhibition, where the focus is specifically on glass, porcelain and textiles. The organisers are trying to distance themselves from the concept of Scandinavian design, they say, and focusing instead on national values of ‘prioritising nature and the environment along with comfort and longevity, and marrying cutting-edge technology with traditional craftsmanship’. Among those showing at 100% Norway is Wik & Walsøe, an emerging group specialising in ceramics. Linda Walsøe and Ragnhild Wik cite ‘memories, cultural heritage and folklore’ among their influences. ‘We are proud of our cultural heritage, but feel that it still gives us many opportunities and room for new ideas and expression,’ says Walsøe.

This national identity lies at the heart of much Scandinavian design. More so than in countries like Britain, there’s an active desire here to reference cultural origins and traditions, and to stamp a local mark on work. This is obviously no bad thing in itself, but it seems that homage is being paid at the expense of the experimentation and risk-taking that is necessary if new designers are to develop a more contemporary and distinctive visual language. Perhaps the yoke and the curse of the past are not yet entirely lifted.

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