Ikea, Volvo, Bang & Olufsen, Louis Poulsen, Iittala, Stokke – rock solid and rather stylish but by no means playful, and this is what makes products from Scandinavian design companies what they are. Regardless of whether they manufacture furniture, cars, hi-fi equipment, luminaires, kitchen utensils or chairs. "Designed in Scandinavia", is a quality guarantee similar to "Made in Germany", a definite reason for a markup in price. "Simplicity, clear lines and functionality combined with the innovative use of materials and construction technology is something that design from northern Europe has in common," explains Clare McCarthy, author of the book "Denmark Limited Global By Design".
At the same time, a large number of designers appear unwilling to consider their designs specifically Scandinavian or, to include Finland as well, Nordic. "That label does not particularly interest me," reports, for example, Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner in the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which also includes the Kibisi design studio, thus expressing what many designers from the region think. And most of them would probably agree with what he then goes on to say: "We aim to create products that contribute to quality of life." Accordingly, what he says more or less describes what people generally believe makes Scandinavian design what it is and distinguishes it from Italian design, for instance, which is frequently more playful. "A bicycle without a chain for people worried about getting their pants dirty is an example of this kind of product," explains Bergmann. The "Biomega" bicycle is leaning against the glass partition in the Copenhagen studio's design section. BIG is probably the architecture firm in Scandinavia that has been the subject of most international attention in recent years, and has thus also helped to revive Denmark's reputation as an architecture nation, with father figures such as Arne Jacobsen and Jørn Utzon. The governments in the Nordic countries Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are doing a great deal to make design one of the things they use for their nation branding. "In this, Finland is the most successful, Helsinki has become the world design capital. Norway, by contrast, has the most catching up to do," judges McCarthy.
In Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden the year 2005 was "designår" (design year) and shortly after the inception of the new millennium the four nations plus Iceland put together an exhibition, "Scandinavian Design Beyond The Myth" and sent it out on tour through Europe. At the time, it stopped off Germany at Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin.
In fact, what we are looking at here is, to a certain extent, the consistent pursuance of an idea first implemented more than 50 years ago. In the 1950s, Nordic designs were sent off on an exhibition tour to the United States and Europe with similar state assistance and this was how they became famous. In his new book "Da danske møbler blev moderne" (When Danish furniture became modern), Per H. Hansen, Professor at the Technical University of Copenhagen CBS, puts forward the thesis that it was basically only this marketing that created the myth of Scandinavian design. Taking this to its logical conclusion would mean that in line with the marketing strategies formulated half a century ago in order to make Scandinavian design popular, today the intention is, by means of similar strategies, to use the good reputation for design created at that time to enhance the countries' status.
Here, local design centers play a particularly important role. Even Iceland, a country plagued by economic crises, now has its own such center. Admittedly, this has not implemented its own nation branding strategy for financial reasons, but it is indirectly helping to publicize the designers from this island nation. One example: in Reykjavík an event entitled "Design March" is staged every year, and has even received a recommendation as a worthwhile travel destination from the New York Times.
In Norway the Norwegian Center of Design and Architecture, DogA, which promotes design and architecture, has been in existence for several years now. Sweden completely lacks this kind of center but on the other hand there is a national prize, the Swedish Design Award. Only Denmark has treated itself to a large design center.
The Dansk Design Center, DDC, holds exhibitions and events to publicize Danish designs. And here the focus is less on viewing the subject as an academic topic, the Danes forego lengthy explanatory texts and fat catalogs, focusing on the presentation and experience aspect. The DDC is a showroom for Danish design. Four small showrooms are associated with the Index Design Award, also a Danish phenomenon. Indeed, the latter award's nominated entries are presented in mini man-size pavilions throughout Copenhagen until the award is presented. And, taking as its motto "Design to Improve Life", every two years, Denmark's Index Foundation rewards those designs that aim at improving living conditions. It offers €500,000 prize-money and is, in its own words, the world's most lucrative design award. The items that have attracted the award's attention have often been basic concrete interventions such as a little tube that directly filters water as it is sucked up, thus contributing to good health in developing countries, or a prosthetic leg that looks nothing like a false leg, and indeed turns out to be a high-tech appliance. In the sector, Index is considered the "Oscar of the design awards". And with this, no doubt Denmark has achieved a second objective as well, namely not only that of being a country offering good design, but also of once again positioning this small north European country as one of the leading design nations.