New Nordic Design by Dorothea Gundtoft


New Nordic Design
Dorothea Gundtoft
Thames & Hudson 2015

Dorothea Gundtoft is a writer but also an editor and owner of the fashion and style magazine and she was Stylist of the Year at the Elle Style Awards in 2013.

The format of her book is interesting, ostensibly a general design book but adopting features of on-line magazines so entries are short, self-contained and, in the main section of the book, take the form of question and answer dialogues with designers, architects and others - a format popular now on blogs. There is even a tag cloud inside the front cover and the Directory at the end does not have postal addresses but lists web sites - although, of course that makes more sense on a digital site where you can click through with a link. None of this is criticism because the book adopts and adapts that online style well. If anything, the attempt at a sort of cross-over format highlights clear reasons why it is difficult, even for a book set out like this, to make that next step to digital publishing and it’s reassuring to see that printed books still have some advantages over online competition. I sat down and read through the whole book and gained a lot from doing that but online there would always be a temptation to jump and skip, just because you can, and there are some features with a printed book that are difficult to copy across to online publishing so you can flick through a book to back-track quickly to a reference or to make comparisons between images in different sections - both still awkward in a digital format.

The book begins with ten short pieces on Influential Figures looking at major people or design companies from the classic period of Scandinavian design - so including Artek, Finn Juhl, Svenskt Tenn - to provide some context and give space for general observations about Nordic design in the 20th century.

Then, at the core of the book, there are 50 interviews with each preceded by a very short introduction - a pen portrait - giving basic biographies or basic outlines of their history if it is a company. Included here are designers with Cecilie Manz and Caroline Olsson, design studios such as Frama in Copenhagen and Futudesign in Helsinki, architects including Norm, established design stores such as Hay and Normann that are not simple retailers but commission designs but there are also several hotels and restaurants with SP34 and Oaxen Krog and design galleries with The Apartment in Copenhagen and Spark Design Space in Rejkjavik. There was clearly an effort to be fair in selecting people and companies from each country, - from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - and the selection even manages to include designers now based outside the region with Everything Elevated with two Norwegian designers based in Brooklyn and Hunting & Narud established in London.

In a relatively compact volume, that might be seen as cramming in too much and allowing too little space for each but actually what it does show very well is just how positive and dynamic young designers are right now in these countries and by presenting generally the same questions to all these people, some interesting threads and common themes come across very strongly.

For a start, what the book shows is that there really is a strong regional style. Including Iceland does stretch the definition of ‘region’ but it really is all about northern light, proximity to the sea, an appreciation of natural materials and the search for ways of coping with long, cold and dark winter nights while taking as much as possible from long clear bright summer days. It also tries hard and does succeed in dispelling the myth that Nordic design is simply living off a strong back catalogue. Many of the designers talk about their respect for work from the 1950s and 1960s but none of them seem hidebound by that. 

Looking through so many images of works from young designers one thing really is striking and explains, in part, the ongoing success of Nordic design: Nordic design from the 20th century is broadly recognisable by place of origin but so often is not time specific. Perhaps that is one definition, if not the definition, of a work being a classic design. By focusing on clear strong shapes and by reducing pattern, specific period becomes less clear. So, the Acorn pendant light by Atle Tveit is stunningly beautiful and the bottom line is that that is enough in itself but you do a double take when you see it. Is it a re-release of an earlier design classic? Look carefully at the shape and the use of oak for the stem to take the flex and it begins to reveal subtle contemporary elements. Maybe this explains another strength of Nordic design:  if the aim is to design works that are timeless, that makes it much easier to combine furniture and objects from different periods in a room. Designs have a common aesthetic and not a sell-by date stamp.

That is not to say that there are no current trends: it is possible to see here that recently there has been a move back to much stronger and bolder colours and also an interest in thin metal frames - now often square in section rather than tubes - forming cubes or frames for shelving, a mirror from John Astbury, table supports and even chairs giving pieces an elegant geometric clarity - powder-coated steel alternatives to all that pale wood.

There is still a strong emphasis on quality and on craftsmanship and skill so Snickeriet in Stockholm are a group of cabinetmakers and the Norwegian designer Martin Solem, now based in Copenhagen, worked at the traditional carpentry company of Rud Rasmussen.

Many of the designers talk about the importance of being close physically to the sea or to countryside. Lars Beller Fjetland living in Bergen actually goes as far as to explain that “there is less visual noise that tends to clutter my mind.” The inspiration of the natural world is very much an immediate and direct inspiration for many. Lith Lith Lundin seem to farm and they go as far as to say that “It’s the mixture between city life and the serenity of the countryside” that inspires them the most. One huge benefit from the new digital technologies is that designers can work where they feel happiest without being isolated from fellow designers or from clients and customers.

Many emphasise the importance of discussing and sharing work with ‘colleagues’ suggesting a strong sense of a design community and many of the designers share studios or work in partnerships. For some they bring together different skills or different experiences from education and formal training. Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen of Norm Architects goes as far as to define different but complimentary directions of approach where he focuses on “aesthetics, material and theory” while his partner Kasper Rønn “is more interested in shape, technology, inventions and new production methods.” His explanation of the importance of light and of white walls for Nordic interiors are some of the most articulate I have read and he gives a compelling explanation of the process of reducing a form or shape … striving “to cut down to the bone … finding the simplest shape for a given task without forgetting the beauty of the shape and the details, in order to reach a point where there is nothing to add or take away to make the product better.”

In the third and final section, the same format, with short introduction and then questions and answers, is retained for discussions with twelve ‘International Commentators’ with editors and writers Amanda Dameron, Dominique Browning and Susanna Vento, the director of Skandium in London and a number of bloggers who post about Nordic design. The designers Ilse Crawford and Samantha Denisdóttir are also included in this section.

My only real criticism of the book is that the photographs are either from the companies themselves or from magazines and journals so markedly styled rather than showing items in genuine or realistic settings. Again, that is not a problem specific to this book but is generally a problem across the whole design sector. And it will become more and more of a problem as people order even big-ticket items on line and have to rely on photographs to decide what they will or will not buy. It was interesting that for 3daysofdesign - the design open days in Copenhagen last summer - Fritz Hansen set up in their main show room an apartment that had been assembled for the Milan Furniture Fair with a bedroom, sitting room, study and dining room. More than anything it reinforced in an interesting and positive way the existence of an obvious company design aesthetic that is not always clear when you see a single piece of their furniture in someones home or a display with the competing visual distractions you have in a store or at a design fair. It is ironic that one photograph in the book that looks like an apartment, be it a rather large and dramatic apartment with an ornate open metalwork staircase at the centre, is actually the main show room of Hay in the centre of Copenhagen.