The global love affair with Scandinavia shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Although it’s apparent worldwide, we British seem to have a particular affinity with our North European brothers and sisters that has more to it than shared Viking roots and the delights of Abba and Nordic Noir.
We exhibit a marked fondness for Scandinavian design, the extent of which goes beyond Sundays spent assembling Billy book cases from Ikea. We crave its simplicity and functionality, order and attractiveness. We also associate it with a certain lifestyle, rooted in wellbeing and defined by the classical forms of Modernism, which holds such an enduring grip on our imaginations.
For the British at least, a devotion to Modernism can be traced back to the post-war years. The touchstone for this new era was the Festival of Britain in 1951, which showcased modernism to the nation at large for the first time. So pervasive was the influence of Nordic Modernist design in this exhibition that the architecture critic Jonathan Meades later suggested in a BBC documentary that it should have been named the Festival of Scandinavia.
As a result of this and their newly discovered optimistic outlook after years of war, the British began to reject the highly polished dark and tropical woods of traditional furniture and embrace new forms and materials. At the spearhead of this new generation of furniture design were figures such as Arne Jacobsen whose Egg and Ant chairs remain iconic to this day, as are the light fittings of Louis Poulsen.
The influence of this generation of Nordic designers was not restricted to these shores. The Finnish born Eero Saarinen was popularising the same principles in architecture and industrial design in the US. Most people will recognise his iconic Tulip Chair.
As a result, this approach to design and its most iconic products are now woven into the fabric of our lives to such an extent that a great number of people recognise the work of designers they may not be able to name, but whose associations they understand perfectly well.
This is perhaps the secret of the enduring longevity of these products. We associate them with humanistic ideas, and perceive – perhaps unconsciously - that our own approach to wellness, ergonomics and inclusivity owes much to the way Scandinavians view the world. The Nordic focus on lifestyle and health issues is not only defined by ideas such as hygge, but also informs their most sophisticated product designs and their championing of work related principles such as active sitting and sit-stand workstations.
In Scandinavia, The Netherlands, some other parts of Northern and Western Europe height adjustable desking is seen as the norm rather than as something to specify for medical reasons as it has been until recently in the UK. There are signs that is changing but the Scandinavians undeniably got there first.
It is not only culture that drives the development of such ideas. As well as local legislation and culture, one of the key drivers is the make-up of the working population. This can be particularly important because regulations tend to work on the basis of some middle 95 per cent of the user population, which can exclude some users but conversely can also prompt innovation in the way we design products and workplaces to accommodate them.
In addition, the anthropometric, demographic and sociological data that legislation is based on can be outdated within a generation. For example, history shows us that anthropometrics can vary wildly from country to country and over time. Europeans in North America were far taller than those in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, several nations, indeed many nations in Europe, have now surpassed the US in terms of average stature, particularly the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries. Such changes inevitably drive innovation first at a local level, which can then be propagated for the benefit of the rest of the world.
The same forces can be seen across a range of metrics. Although there is a great deal of talk about the influence of millennials on office design, the data shows us that people are now working longer before retiring in many countries, meaning that there is now a more age diverse workforce than at any time in history in places like the US, UK, mainland Europe and Australia.
This diversity is reflected in every characteristic, across ages, genders, body types, abilities, personalities and more. It is to cater for this diversity that we can turn again to the instinctively inclusive mindset of Scandinavia.
Inclusive design is something we should all aim for. It is not about complying with regulations, because as we have seen they tend to focus on the majority, with the minority catered for at the periphery and with special conditions. Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for as many people as possible, which is the regulatory mindset, but instead is about creating a number of ways in which everybody can participate in a space and culture.
This marks a move away from prescribing solutions and instead allows people greater autonomy over how they work. This has driven some of the key developments in workplace design in recent years, including both agile working and more adaptable office interior elements.