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The chic minimalism of Swedish design

The modernist design principle holds the key to the success of Scandinavian interiors

Image Credit: Supplied
Pieces from Malmsten Boutique

For Swedish interior designers, Ikea can be a blessing and a curse. The four-letter name is the first — often only — brand people think of when considering Nordic design. On the upside, the most successful furniture producer in the world, with 315 shops in 27 countries, has proven beyond a doubt that Swedish design is appealing, timeless and universal.

That goes for most interiors from the country, earning the trends, brands and designers behind them a loyal global following. There are hundreds of books, as well as countless style blogs and Pinterest boards dedicated to Swedish interior design. All agree on one thing: the Nordic look is elegant, fuss-free, contemporary perfection.

What comes first

Ask Swedish designers what defines the country’s signature style and they will without fail put function before form. Per Söderberg, the designer behind fledgling Stockholm-based brand No Early Birds, considers his design to be “typically Swedish because it derives in first-hand form functionality and is influenced by the strong functionalistic movement”. Indeed, the movement, introduced to the masses through the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, has had an enduring impact on both emerging and established designers.

Often mistakenly described as a lack of ornamentation, Functionalism advocates design that fulfils its purpose perfectly. There is simply no need for excessive embellishment when an object’s functionality already provides the ultimate measure of aesthetic pleasure.

Take the Lamino easy chair. Its deceptively simple lines, unassuming materials and a sleek overall appearance belie its age. Designed by Yngve Ekström in 1956, it was one of the earliest examples of flat-pack furniture and instantly became a bestseller. It is still produced by classic furniture-maker Swedese — testament to its enduring. In 2000, the chair was also voted the 20th century’s best Swedish item of furniture.

No interior necessity better demonstrates how perfectly form follows function in Swedish design than the humble shelf. From Ikea’s ubiquitous Billy (over 50 million sold) to the modular String shelving system, Swedish shelves do what they were built to do and carry their load without drawing attention to themselves.

To fully comprehend the pervasive success of the functionalist aesthetic in the country, it helps to look at a designer who was squarely opposed to it. Carl Malmsten, the most prominent interior designer within a movement known as Swedish Grace, criticised Functionalism in 1930, calling it “imported, anti-traditional and mechanically dry”.

Compare the pieces still sold by Malmsten Boutique Stockholm, more than 40 years after the designer’s death, and you will find simple lines, reduced forms and ergonomic shapes. The materials used and the handicraft employed may be more traditional, the look and feel of the sorbet-hued Häggbom armchair, the chic Samsas Sofa, or the ingenious Släden nesting tables a little warmer and more homely, but these pieces based on Malmsten’s designs have more in common with what we know as Swedish Functionalism than the designer liked to admit.

Functionalism, Swedish Modern or Nordic Cool — call it what you want, there’s no denying a unifying quality that suggests a tradition from design icons like Malmsten and Ekström to today’s Scandinavian trendsetters. In addition to visual identifiers, it includes an artisanal aspect, as well as a collaborative creative process.

Created with love

“Collaboration is part of our process,” says Caroline Brahme, of design studio Form Us With Love (FUWL). “The Scandinavian landscape has over time been democratic or flat in terms of management, which has advantages when it comes to bringing a diverse range of talents together to solve problems. The focus is to bring forward a great result rather than hierarchy and titles. The result might be more holistic, which makes the products valuable and longer lasting.”

FUWL’s work is produced by dozens of renowned companies. The biggest? Ikea.