design and cultures 2 home

Postwar Reconstruction in Scandinavia

Scandinavia consists of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

All of these countries have a strong craft tradition. They also have political and social similarities - they are all democratic (despite the fact that some of them still have Royal Families) and socially liberal. These humanistic characteristics have had an influence on design, for example through the desire to make good, functional objects that are inexpensive and accessible rather than exclusive.

From scandesign.org:

"Scandinavian design has been the topic of scholarly debate, aesthetic merit, and popular appeal for the last 50 years. The designation Scandinavian design was first used in the title of an exhibition at Heal's Department store in London in 1951. It was called Scandinavian Design for Living and was the commercial counterpart of the exhibition Scandinavia at Table organised by the British Council of Design the same year. This was the first time the Nordic countries held a collaborative exhibition of design and decorative arts outside the Nordic world. Scandinavian design became a worldwide term when the exhibition Design in Scandinavia travelled in North America during 1954-57. The exhibition was a tremendous success and was highly influential in the development of a type of modernism in the USA and in Europe.

The exhibition Formes Scandinaves, held in Paris in 1958, was equally important, and the Triennal exhibitions in Milan during the 1950s contributed to the consolidation of the concept Scandinavian design as the style of the modern Nordic democracies; light, modest and functional."

Eero Arnio (Finland, 1932-still living)

"A Ball Chair is a "room within a room" with a cozy and calm athmosphere, protecting outside noises and giving a private space for relaxing or having a phonecall. Turning around its own axis on the base the view to the outer space is variable for the user and thus he is not completely excluded from world outside". eero-aarnio.com/index.cfm/page/8/title/Ball_Chair.htm


Alvar Aalto (Finland, 1898-1976)

Finnish architect and designer. His early work was influenced by neoclassism, but then he later adapted the symbolism and functionalism of European Modernism. Some of his chair designs have become classics, and are still produced today.


Aino Aalto (Finland, 1894-1949)

Although during her lifetime Aino Aalto downplayed her design role in the business she ran together with husband Alvar for over 20 years, Aino Aalto was also a qualified architect, and in fact beat him in a design competition they both entered in 1932. They collaborated for many years, and a number of her own individual designs are still produced today. davidmellordesign.com/acatalog/Aino_Aalto__1932_.html

Arne Jacobsen (Denmark, 1902-1971)

"Arne Jacobsen, architect and professor of architecture, was a functionalist at heart, one could almost say a romantic functionalist. He was unusually productive, both as an architect and as a designer. He introduced the idea of total design, the principle that everything in a building, its concept and floor plan, proportions, colour and texture as well as its fittings, lightings, textiles and furnishings should somehow be expressions of the same idea. Many of Jacobsen’s custom made lightings, fittings, faucets and chairs for a specific building later came into serial production. In fact, many Danish fittings, lightings and furniture systems were originally designed as custom made goods". ddc.dk/UK/Danish_Design_Access/historie/JBdanish_design.html

arne-jacobsen.com - includes Quicktime movie of the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen in the 1950's
vam.ac.uk/collections/photography/past_exhns/seeing/chair - Was the Keeler pic on a Jacobsen chair?

Lego (1950's, Denmark)

Perhaps one of the most influential industrial designs to come out of Denmark (if you count our earliest influences) - Lego! The system was developed by Ole Kirk Christiansen from the 1940's to 1950's in Denmark, but it was several decades before a susutained marketing and expansion campaign finally made Lego into an almost universal western childhood experience.
horst-lehner.mausnet.de/lego/katalog/katalog1.htm - VERY kewl - original 1958 product sheet scans!

Ingvar Kamprad (1926-living)

International Style has taken over the whole world. Ingvar Kamprad opened his company Ikea in Sweden in 1958 and now has over 150 branches (in most western industrialised countries) and employs over 40,000 people. According to one recent source, he's now the richest person in the world, overtaking Bill Gates after the slide of the US Dollar in 2004. eg:

Verner Panton (Denmark, 1926-1998)


See inside this book at Amazon

Postwar Reconstruction in the United Kingdom
(Great Britain)

We covered the Utility Scheme a little last semester - the British government-sponsored scheme that ran 1941-1951 where wartime scrap and few available resources were used to make bare, utilitarian furniture. It didn't go down too well with the population at first, but after a determined campaign to educate the public about design (and the fact that it was illegal to produce anything else), gradually public tastes were changed. brighton.ac.uk/designingbritain/html/crd_desref.html

Ernest Race (1913-1964)

The chair to the right was made from aluminium, a new material at the time. The chair to the left is his most famous piece, the Antelope Chair, produced for the 1951 Festival of Britain and inspired by the stacking chairs of Charles Eames.

"Seeking a compromise between English traditional and Swedish modern, Race's furniture was characteristically light and easy to handle, with clean lines and thin splayed legs". makingthemodernworld.org.uk/people/BG.0056/


Most Utility Scheme furniture, however, was not as progressive and modernist as Race's work. A lot of it was very bland, largely due to the requirement for it to have no unnecessary details and no decoration, rather than because of the aesthetics of Modernism. The aim was for functional, inexpensive furniture that used as few resources as possible and that was easily made by relatively unskilled workers in factories with only the most basic fittings.

The Utility Scheme commenced in 1942 as a strategy to prevent wastage of timber. The UK was by no means self-sufficient in it's timber supply and the success of the German U-Boat campaigns on British shipping had been devastating. The govenrment felt drastic action was needed, in particular once the bombing raids of London commenced and all available resources had to be used for reconstruction as efficiently as possible.

Rationing lasted many years after WWII in the United Kingom, and in some ways the Utility Scheme can be seen as an expression of the culture of "doing without" that had become a defining point of Britain's national identity.

At first, only general specifications for manufacture were made by the government design committee, but then there was concern that the quality of the end products might be poor, and so the degree of control was increased. Furniture makers had to produce exact designs to plans developed by the government committee and had to be licenced to produce the items. To deviate from these designs, or to produce furniture without a permit, could actually lead to imprisonment (although I have no idea if anyone really went to gaol for treasonous cabinetmaking).

This strategy was criticised as being a totalitarian crushing of artistry and craftsmanship, in particular after the end of the war when there was no imminent threat of invasion by the Nazis if a decorative moulding was added to a cupboard.

Table pictured to right:

Coffee table. Designed and produced under the Utility scheme operated by the British government's Board of Trade to control scarce materials and the quality of goods manufactured in wartime. The scheme operated from 1941 until 1952 and, although originally intended to ensure the provision of basic reasonably priced items, the CC41 Utility mark came to represent quality of design and construction because of the tight controls over both. Table top of plywood with an undercut bevel and exposed laminates with a tripod base having splayed, tapered legs. Although the design is unattributed it is typical of furniture produced by, amongst others, Gordon Russell Ltd and Morris of Glasgow. Dimensions: 73cm diameter x 46cm high. The top would benefit from refinishing. P.O.A. mancha.demon.co.uk/europe.html

Part of the proscriptive way in which the government tried to educate the masses into supporting the Scheme was with surprisingly popular design shows such as the 1946 "Britain Can Make It" exhibition, where "good" and "bad" rooms were displayed, to which the public's responses were meticulously recorded. My favourite visitor comment was: "I would probably shoot myself in either room, but would definitely prefer to do it in the left-hand room".

Sir (Sydney) Gordon Russell (1892-1980)

An interesting point to consider is the impact of one particular individual on the Utility Scheme. Gordon Russell founded his own furniture business in the 1920's, favouring simple, basic, inexpensive utilitarian styles (see right). He was an avid proponent of "good design" and the Utility Scheme offered he and his fellow reformers an excellent opportunity to promote their ideas, to do away with all embellishment and the like. He became the first Director of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) and there is much speculation as to just how influential he was:

"The exact extent of Gordon Russell's influence within the Utility Advisory Committee is now very difficult to determine and it is dangerous to ascribe too much to one individual, particularly in retrospect. However, all the evidence suggests that he did exert a considerable influence over the style of the furniture that the committee sanctioned. Certainly, the designs finally decided upon exhibit the kind of no-nonsense, straightforward approach to furniture so dear to Rissell's heart. And utility furniture in its simplicity of appearance is quite simialr to the furniture that Russell had been producing in the 1920's and 1930's". From "Home Front Furniture, British Utility Design 1941-1951" by Harriet Dover, Scolar Press 1991.

Gordon Russell wrote an interesting article for the first edition of "Design" magazine in 1949 entitled "What is Good Design?"

Gordon Russell's furniture factory is still in business today: gordon-russell.com

The Design and Industries Association (DIA) was established in London in 1915 to persuade manufacturers and designers to adhere to principles of ‘good design’, and is still in existence today. They were very influential in the designs adopted by the Utility Scheme. www.dia.org.uk

If you're interested in reading more about the Utility Scheme, I have a few old books on the subject - just ask me to lug 'em along to class. There are some very functionalist designs.


retrokat.com quite nice sites

all graphics, text and design: copyright retrokat.com 2001-4

Note: If you personally hold copyright to any images or other content herein and wish it to be removed or credited, please email me on kat@retrokat.com and I'm more than happy to do so.