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Inside the new Nordic design scene

Meet the creatives forging an alternative Scandinavian aesthetic with wild, wonderful works that honour the region’s craft heritage

‘merry go round’ table by hanna anonen for made by choice
Juho Huttunen

When you hear the term ‘Scandinavian design’, it’s likely that pale wood, organic forms and calm neutrals spring to mind. But the Nordic design landscape is changing and, thanks to a handful of imaginative designers and brands, the one-dimensional notion of ‘Scandi style’ may soon be a thing of the past. Crucially, though, this isn’t at the expense of the region’s long-held quality production values or emphasis on sustainability – if anything, these are being embraced more fully as the design scene evolves.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the biggest design event in the Nordics, Stockholm Design Week, held in February. At every turn there was bold, unexpected design that challenged misconceptions and pushed boundaries. ‘Wild at Heart’, an exhibition held at the Finnish Institute and curated by designer Tero Kuitunen, highlighted this by showcasing Finnish artists and designers whose work breaks with stereotypes. ‘Much of our design is rooted in the past, but there’s a lot more than Alvar Aalto, minimalism and nature-driven ideas. Heritage is sometimes a bit of a burden – it can be difficult for new concepts to land. I wanted to show the humour, colour and daring concepts that can be found in contemporary Finnish creativity,’ explains Kuitunen.

milla vaahtera's 'dialogue' sculptures at the wild at heart exhibition at finlands institutet
Milla Vaahtera's 'Dialogue' sculptures. Photo: Janne Riiko

Milla Vaahtera, one of the designers exhibited, embodies the idea of using traditional homegrown skills to create not-so-traditional outcomes. Her jewellery-like ‘Dialogue’ mobiles and sculptures are made in collaboration with glass blowing artisans at a local workshop that was under threat of closure. The glassblowers are encouraged to experiment and even ‘mistakes’ are incorporated into the final works, creating colourful one-off compositions.

‘bouquet’ light by hanna anonen for made by choice
Aino Huhtaniemi
‘merry go round’ table by hanna anonen for made by choice
Juho Huttunen

Harnessing the power of local production facilities has also given fellow Finnish brand Made by Choice the freedom to break with convention. ‘We like to think of ourselves asa creative playground – we try to approach things like children,’ says founding partner Sebastian Jansson. At the heart of this ‘playground’ is the brand-owned factory. In-house manufacturing means that it can act on creative impulses and experiment with techniques and ideas. This year’s eye-catching novelties include ‘Merry-Go-Round’ and ‘Bouquet’ (above) by Hanna Anonen, a series of colourful side tables reminiscent of painted children’s toys, and a light that brings to mind a vibrant bunch of flowers.

‘little darling’ lamp by swedish ninja
Swedish Ninja

Meanwhile, designers such as Maria Gustavsson, founder of homeware brand Swedish Ninja, seek to move away from the aesthetics that have gone before in place of more creative fulfilment: ‘I love colour, materials and expressive design and started Swedish Ninja to challenge perceptions of Scandinavian design,’ she says.

Artist and designer Jenny Nordberg experiments with materials and adapts mass-production methods in a bid to create without constraints. Her limited-edition vessels for Hem, for example, are made from sheet metal and decorated using a special powder-coating process that renders every object unique. ‘Powder coating is normally used to create a perfectly painted surface. I wanted a different, more vivid expression,’ she explains.

‘powder’ vase by jenny nordberg for hem

It’s not just the young guns on a mission to advance. Hästens, theSwedish bed specialist founded in 1852, has been recruiting contemporary designers to reinterpret its products for years. Rather than play it safe for its first foray into bedroom furniture, the brand has collaborated with Swedish design duo Bernadotte & Kylberg, who remixed the iconic Hästens blue check in 2017. A marriage of striking modern design and traditional techniques, the ‘Appaloosa’ and ‘Marwari’ nightstands and benches take cubist-inspired graphics and apply them to furniture using a painstaking intarsia method.

‘marwari’ bench for hästens scandinavian design

So the future looks bright for Scandinavian design. ‘We’re in a very interesting place at the moment,’ says Kuitunen. ‘Because sustainability is a growing consideration, there’s a demand for locally produced items again. Meanwhile, art and design have come closer – people are more fearless and more creative than before.’

This article appeared in ELLE Decoration May 2020 issue

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