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Nordic Design Now

The cutting-edge cool design coming out of the Nordic nations today is not Scandinavian design as we once knew it...a new generation of designers is fighting against the backlash of bent wood, no-nonsense naturalism, and chilled-out colors.

Swedish company LYX's angular 'Moduluxe' sofa constructed from interlocking angular pieces cushioned in dense foam and upholstered in white leather
Whether regarded as indulgent, edgy, challenging or just downright funny, the cutting-edge cool coming out of the Nordic nations today is not Scandinavian design as we once knew it. Geographically remote and cocooned in chilling winters, designers working in Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Denmark have always had a cool allure. Years of exporting simple, effortless chic once created an image of bland beauty, pale tints and stark surfaces that characterized the style for several decades. These days, a new generation of Nordic designers are fighting against the backlash of bent wood, no-nonsense naturalism and chilled-out colors to create a strident smörgåsbord of spontaneity, self-expression, powerful patterns, and funky forms.

Just like the quivering cry of the angst-ridden screamer in Munch’s iconic painting, young Nordic designers charge their work with emotional intensity, creating products that generate invisible shock waves. New Nordic designs project human values and carry emotional content, but still leave the consumers to decide for themselves what’s being said, or what style the products belong to. As they pioneer new directions with startlingly individualistic works that break free of traditional styles, hip designers are shrugging off the Scandinavian label and putting their own country’s name on the map instead.

Swedish designers, who once languished in the shadow of IKEA while the spotlight shone on Finland and Denmark, are striving to banish the style-conscious simplicity of the 1990's. As they craft forward-thinking forms and exuberant silhouettes, they embellish sleek surfaces with patterns that revive traditional symbols or suggest painterly beauty. While Sweden experiences a renaissance today, Denmark’s design culture is also changing drastically as a young generation of creative talent begins to replace the top designers who have moved abroad or work for foreign manufacturers. Finnish designers, who have consistently maintained a high profile for the past half-century, reinterpret classic designs with elegant twists that create the laid-back, laconic pieces that are popular today. Norway and Iceland, once considered the underdogs of Scandinavian design, are leading the pack in innovation. Characterized by their distrust of design templates, designers in both nations are crafting original pieces that bring the diverse worlds of artistic expression and lived experience ever closer.

The Swedes
For decades, Swedish design had been sharply focused on objects created for practical use; that is, until Stockholm-based designer Michael Malmborg embraced luxury and extravagance as a means of taking furniture forward. Malmborg’s work is inspired by traditional Swedish craftsmanship, which he typically reconfigures in luxurious upholstered silhouettes fitted with burnished metal components. Malmborg founded the design studio and furniture manufacturing company known as Lyx, a word that means luxury in Swedish. Since establishing the company in 2001, Lyx has produced works from a variety of Swedish and international designers, winning several red dot awards for product design as a result. Many of Lyx’s core products have been picked up by nationwide retailers such as Design Within Reach and sold in leading furniture boutiques in Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.

Lyx started with a small portfolio of core designs that quickly developed a cult-like following in the design world. Malmborg’s shining ‘Bongo’ lounge table, a group of eight chrome drums bordered by acrylic strips, has the same resonance in the interior that music has in a concert hall. Malmborg’s ‘Wing Lounge Chair’ is his interpretation of the classic wing chair design, sculpted into indulgent proportions that take flights of luxurious fancy. Constructed from a single piece of bent wood covered with a Lauro Preto veneer, the chair is seductively upholstered in supple white leather. Malmborg padded the chair with visco-elastic foam developed by NASA in the 1970's, cradling the reclining body in cosmic comfort.

Simple cylindrical shapes and cubic forms have long been an inspiration for Malmborg, who launched the ‘Cyluxe’ sofa and lounge chair this year. Cyluxe’s twisting tubes are echoed in the ‘Pipedream’ seating system designed by Robert Öhman, who conceived of a modular seating arrangement that can be configured endlessly into infinite shapes and sections. Contrasting sharply with Pipedream’s curvaceous forms, the angular 'Moduluxe' sofa and armchair are constructed from interlocking angular pieces cushioned in dense foam and upholstered in white leather. Lyx’s seating is complemented by tables and sideboards, such as the newly-launched ‘Addiva’ sideboard. Designed by Paul Sundvik, Addiva’s top and side surfaces are encased in rich wooden veneer while the front is lined with mirrored materials. The unit has six drawers and six cupboards, and the handles to all of them have been ingeniously combined in three cross shapes that comprise the sideboard’s only decorative details.

The Swedish design group Front is known for its extremes. Many of the designs use only simple elements from the natural world. Front has fashioned furniture from tree branches and hollow logs, and has created wallpaper from paper rolls gnawed by mice. Front’s output took a new direction when they created works based on the Motion Capture Technology developed for film animation and computer games. Called ‘Sketch Furniture’, the collection was created by ‘drawing’ designs freehand in the air and using the Motion Capture technology to map the pen strokes and record them on 3D digital files. Once they were transferred into Rapid Prototyping software, the files were ‘printed’ in layers of liquid plastic. As the layers built up and the form hardened, their ephemeral pen strokes manifested as functional objects.
Launched at Design Miami last December, Front’s ‘Magical’ collection featured furniture intended to defy the laws of nature. Front claims to have collaborated with magicians to learn the secret to making objects disappear, lamps levitate, chairs balance precariously on one leg, and a chest of drawers slice into several pieces and then float apart.
Marie-Louise Gustafsson is based in Stockholm but she has also lived and worked in London and Japan. Gustafsson once concluded that furniture articulates the tension between movement and stillness, and produced designs that interact with the human body. ‘Follow Me’, a sinuous, segmented, centipede-like wooded bench designed in 2004, is mounted on tiny wheels and pulled by a fabric lead, following the owner wherever s/he takes it. Follow Me mimics a child’s toy in its naïveté but makes a sophisticated response to the movements of the human form. Gustafsson recently referenced the human form again in a new floor lamp she created for Design House Stockholm. Know as ‘Chill Out’, the lamp is comprised of lacquered steel rods that mimic the silhouette of an individual leaning backward against a wall. Also designed for Design House Stockholm, Gustafsson’s ‘Carry’ bicycle basket detaches from the handlebars to accompany its owner on shopping trips, doubling as a shopping bag as well as a basket.

Gustafsson’s new sustainable desk for Eurobib is known as the ‘Page’ desk. Nicknamed the ‘trash table’, Gustafsson first made the desk from discarded paper, which she recycled into a sleek design that weighs less than eight kilos. The desk is ergonomic and lightweight to ship, making it easy to move and easy on carbon emissions. The desk can also be used as a breakfast table or side table, or arranged in pairs of two and groups of four to create sleek office furniture.


The Danes
World-leaders in cabinet-making and furniture craftsmanship for several centuries, the Danes downshifted in the 1970's to base the industry on factory-produced multiples and flat-packed fabrication. Today, furniture designers are revitalizing the industry by designing pieces that resemble one-off originals and can still be mass-produced. One of these, the international furniture company Innovation, is making furniture for a new generation of young, progressive consumers that like to live simply, yet make bold statements.

Head designer Per Weiss gave leather sofas a contemporary twist when he created his embossed-leather ‘Daytona’ couch covers. Daytona brings motorcycle seats and biker jackets to mind, making them the Hell’s Angels of the modern Danish interior. The surfaces of Weiss’s graphic coffee tables are decorated with bold motifs that resemble painterly abstractions more than they do streamlined side tables. As Innovation prepares to expand into the US market, Weiss’s designs seem destined to bring Danish Modern sensibilities back to the American dream.

Refer + Staer are bringing Danish lighting into the spotlight. For many years, the sun shone on Denmark’s classic lighting producers, but the company formed by Sophie Refer and Jakob Staer has begun lighting the way for smaller manufacturers. Refer + Staer create lighting that update the simplicity of minimalistic Scandinavian design with elements of luxury and lavish style. With a focus on high-quality materials and eye-catching surface designs, they create spectacular light fixtures that remain true to the legacy of Scandinavian simplicity.

The ‘Ice’ design is a series of simple asymmetrical shapes made from transparent hand-blown glass balls arranged in a cluster formation. The glass forms are held together by an anodized aluminum frame colored to match the tints of the glass. Refer + Staer’s ‘Black Fibre’ pendants recall classic fringed lampshades but are constructed from state-of-the-art materials. Constructed from fiber-optic filaments, the pendant’s fringe is a light source in itself. Black Fibre is made in a choice of diameters, available with or without a spotlight in its centre.

Within the Danish design scene, a movement to explore furniture within a non-commercial forum resulted in the establishment of Nonproduction. The group consists of nine designers who joined forces to create a showcase of cutting-edge designs that question the traditional roles of function and form. Nonproduction aims to become a commercial exhibition network and springboard for design graduates and architects that work with a holistic view of the industry. When one of the members achieves his/her own success or becomes active within the established design industry, s/he voluntarily leaves Nonproduction to make room for a new member. Nonproduction’s policy of revolving members is intended to constantly add new energy and originality to the group as a whole.

Current members, such as Anne Henriksen Linde, acclaimed for her one-armed, pedestal-based ‘Read’ chair, and Michael Poulsen, whose award-winning ‘MP’ rocking stool introduced a new type of bent-wood seating, are among the brightest stars of Danish furniture design today. Yuko Mukai, also a Nonproduction member, imbues Danish furniture with Eastern sensibilities. Her striking ‘AKI’ easy chair cantilevers a spectacularly woven leather seat over a pair of metal runners, updating the classic Danish lounge chair for the 21st century.


The Icelandics
Because Iceland’s dramatic landscape is completely deforested, its furniture designers have a tough time manufacturing their work at home. Consequently, several top designers are furthering their careers abroad, designing household accessories as well as furniture. While based in Berlin, Hrafnkell Birgisson grafted fine china teacups onto the stems of crystal wineglasses in a range he called ‘Hoch die Tassen’, creating a surrealistic series of stemware that brings the Mad Hatter’s tea party to mind (although the designer himself thinks the series is better suited to champagne cocktails). Birgisson’s new ‘Hab’ furniture series replaces heavy wooden wardrobes and armoires with lightweight polyurethane silhouettes constructed with fasteners rather than surfaces. Whereas display objects are traditionally poised on a shelf, Hab straps them in place. Birgisson conceived them as furniture for the modern urban dweller, who can simply dismount them and roll them up when moving to a new home.

Born in Reykjavik but based in Copenhagen, Dögg Gudmundsdóttir designs furniture, kitchenware, and lighting. The free-flowing, organic shapes of her ‘Mosquito’ lampshade and ‘Buxur’ table lamp soften and diffuse interior light sources, while ‘Ice Couple’, her crystalline candlesticks, anchor tall candles in frosty forms. New York-based designer Hlynur Vagn Atlason has designed free-standing clocks, bachelor-pad bars, and garden tables resembling giant screws that spiral deep into the ground. With a range of impressive prototypes ready to go into production, Atlason is the Icelandic designer to watch.


The Finns
In many respects, young Finnish designers remain true to the legacy of Alvar Aalto, who introduced a trinity of clean lines, strict functionalism, and simplified forms. But while Finnish design was once regarded as a gesture of simplicity, today’s designers make space for brilliant colors and rich textures. Established in 1993, Valvomo is a group of eight architects and designers who have an impressive portfolio of lighting and furniture. Renowned for their ‘Globlow’ collection of inflatable lighting, Valvomo has also designed modular seating and a series of sound absorbent panels. One of their most popular innovations is the ‘OKA’, a hanging chrome coat rack suspended from the ceiling by a delicate, thread-like wire.

From his base in Helsinki, Harri Koskinen makes fluid exchanges between glass and furniture as he works with a variety of Finnish and Italian manufacturers. Koskinen designed the exquisite two-tone ‘Orbital’ vases for Venini colored in hues of amber and crimson. The seat and backrest of his sleek wooden ‘Muu’ chairs for Montina are a set atop two gliders rather than four conventional legs. Koskinen’s ‘K’ chair for Woodnotes resembles the letter ‘k’ in profile, upholstered with a detachable grid of padded cells. Recent designs include the coolly-contoured ‘OMA’ tablewear for Arabia, and streamlined glassware for Iittala such as the sleek ‘Carafe 125’.

From her base in Helsinki, textile expert Helena Hietanen skyrocketed to worldwide fame when she launched her spectacular ‘Technolace’ wall hangings. Fabricated from strands of optic fibers, Hietanen’s works combine craft tradition and cutting-edge fiber-optic technology to create textiles that transmit light. Hietanen discovered fiber optics at a trade fair and, out of curiosity, decided to see if it would be possible to crochet them like yarn. When it didn’t work, Hietanen found other ways of using the material.

In addition to creating fiber-optic fabrics, Hietanen also became adept at handling the material in other ways. She started combining natural light with artificial lighting and even created architectural structures, such as the light wall at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Working with architects led to a commission for LED lights installed in the facade of a seven-floor apartment building in Helsinki where the LED lighting links to sensors and connects to a computer interface that gauges the movement of the occupants. As people approach the building, LEDs in the walkways and handrails begin to glow, then intensify in the areas where movement is detected. LEDs consume much less energy than conventional lighting, and react chemically to cold temperatures by becoming even brighter without using more electricity. When used in exterior lighting, the cold, dark winter season in Finland means that LEDs will produce brighter lighting yet consume much less energy than conventional bulbs.

[Helena Hietanen does not have a website]

The Norwegians
Generating renewed interest in Norwegian design, the Oslo-based group of designers known as Norway Says has dramatically boosted the profile of Norwegian furniture since they set out a few years ago. Their ‘Ugo’ modular sofa system is a softly contoured landscape of sectional modules that melt away the hard angles of conventional furniture. The system is divided into a three-seater, a two-seater, and a one-person module that can be grouped together into seemingly limitless configurations. Armrests can function as backrests and vice-versa as they divide the seating into individual zones, making the ‘Ugo’ one of the most adaptable seating systems designed in recent years. Norway Says’ ‘Break’ sofa is designed with a dramatic fissure that divides the base in two and positions those seated at different angles. The ‘Break’ offers a new perspective on the traditional three-seater sofa by facilitating a greater sense of personal space within it.

Norwegian-American designer Nina Edwards Anker was born and raised in New York City. After graduating from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2001 and completing two years at the Architectural Association in London, Anker spent several years working at architectural practices in New York and Oslo before establishing her own studio in 2006. Anker calls her practice NEA Studio, and lives and works in both Oslo and New York today.

Ankers came to Norway at a time when the nation’s emerging design scene seemed to be stagnating, and her contributions set a new standard for what Norwegian design can mean. Anker looked at the Norwegian landscape with fresh eyes, and harvested inspiration from natural forms and organic materials. She discovered Norway’s legacy of Modernist furniture and felt a resonance with its streamlined shapes. The collection of furniture she refers to as her ‘Arctic Line’ is a fusion of the two that integrates the dense mass of frozen forms with the streamlined elegance of Functionalist design. Anker’s ‘Crystallised’ table and chairs are designed in fractal planes constructed from components of 8mm plywood coated in glossy white. Her ‘Cape’ chair is designed with a distinctive double-curved backrest that merges the backrest and legs into a single expression. The seat arches forward and folds out into a slim pedestal-like base that tapers to the ground.

Ankers designed a temperature-controlled energy-efficient outdoor bench that maintains a constant temperature in climatic extremes. The bench is made in concrete with an integral plumbing system connected to an underground pipe system that relies on geo-thermal heat to warm it in winter. In summer, the bench can draw cool water from the local urban water system to cool it. The ‘Bird Bed’, another outdoor design, is an aluminum lounge bed built with a narrow spine strong enough to support two people. The lounger is embedded in the ground beneath it, making it virtually impossible to topple. Made from sheets of aluminum only 2.5mm thick, the lounge flexes subtly when sat in, its undulating shape resembling the wings of a bird soaring gracefully in flight.

As today’s Nordic designers outline a fresh vision for twenty-first century living, a dynamic new interior landscape is evolving through the fusion of artistic expression and modern design practice. The breathtaking visual textures that result create surprising shapes and sculptural forms that often provide brain-food for designers in other parts of the world. Whether creating designs so spare that they take minimalism to a higher level or working in a kaleidoscope of colorful textures, works by the new generation of Nordic designers are transforming everyday functional objects into beautiful tools for contemporary life.

Written by Bradley Quinn
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