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New Scandinavian design for the 21st century

Scandinavia’s latest crop of furniture designers is seeking to forge a new identity beyond mid-century modernism. Its output includes, clockwise from top left: Swedish-based Markus Johansson’s Sapphire Cabinet in red; the same designer’s Solstice light; Norwegian duo Vera & Kyte’s Apparel screen; the Kvelden lamp by Siren Elise Wilhelmsen of Bergen; Johansson’s Fortress side tables; the designer’s Sunrise chair in red; Copenhagen-based FurnID’s Frost chair for Stouby; Johansson’s padded Harlequin chair.

At the Danish manufacturer Fritz Hansen's London flagship, the 21st-century shopping experience has pretty much reached its zenith, at least for Yuppie parents: It's a sunlit, open-concept space with parquet floors uncluttered enough to push a double stroller through. The fact that most of the stock was designed before 1960, in the heyday of Danish modernism, is somewhat ironic, akin to displaying Victoriana in, well, a mid-century-modern setting. Similarly, boutiques such as Aram and Skandium sit at the vanguard of European design retail, even if the window dressing has barely changed in decades: There's your Louis Poulsen floor lamp, your Hans Wegner Wishbone chairs, your Arne Jacobsen Eggs. You would think the entire industry had been frozen at the height of the Cold War.

In reality, there are masses of new grads coming out of Denmark's design academies every year. Yet competing with the greats of the mid-20th century is like emerging from the shadow of a famous parent. On one hand, the success of the previous generations made (and continues to foster) Denmark's reputation as a design nation. On the other, the pressure to conform to the mid-century look and ethos is palpable. (In 2010, the furniture and interior design industries were worth $4.5-billion to the country; the big companies with an annual turnover of $20-million or more accounted for nearly 80 per cent.)

"In some ways, it's difficult to run away from," Morten Kjær Stovegaard says of his homeland's design heritage. He's one half, with partner Bo Strange, of the Danish design studio FurnID, which aims to express the finest characteristics of modernist design while pioneering a new identity. "But we're not really trying to. The strong background we have from the fifties and sixties is part of our history. We have an eye for detailing and the joints between materials. But we try to do it in different ways. Every time we approach a design, we start over."

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To give just one example, FurnID's Frost chair, for the Danish manufacturer Stouby, combines swooping upholstery and a light wood frame in the manner of Finn Juhl's upholstered chairs of the 1950s. But its exaggerated form is a boldly futuristic take on a wind-blown snow bank.

"We follow two tracks at the same time," Kjær Stovegaard says of the duo's approach. "Eighty per cent of consumers are into the older, classical design. They're not very forward-looking. To survive, you have to please these customers, though I would much rather go in the direction of the other 20 per cent."

The challenges facing new Danish designers come from all sides, including the manufacturers, who can be resistant to rocking the mid-century-modern boat. "I'm not saying the old timers aren't good, but they've been going on for so long and [the manufacturers] are making tools for the old designs, so it's easy for them," Kjær Stovegaard says, citing the example of Hans Wegner's Wishbone chair, for which machines have been developed and refined over the years. "If you were going to make a similar chair today, it would cost five times as much. That's a little difficult to compete with. And that's why some manufacturers are going back to relaunching [old designs], because the risk is a little less."

In Sweden, where designers such as Bruno Mathsson achieved teak perfection in the mid-20th century, mavericks have slowly crept onto the scene, sharing a passion for unusual form over pure function. The Stockholmbased architects Claesson Koivisto Rune, for instance, have impressed design bloggers with their Concord chairs, which buyers can customize with interchangeable panels in zany colour combinations. A few years back, the Swedish fashion brand Acne launched a denim-covered sofa and chair that subvert the classic Nordic silhouette with a surreal slant to the frame, making them more sculpture than seating.

One of the newest faces in the industry, Markus Johansson, is intimately aware of the firm grip of Swedish heritage. His father runs their family furniture firm, Albin i Hyssna, in his hometown of Hyssna. After moving to Gothenburg to study design for five years, Johansson developed a more organic look for his own work (his family's furniture is overwhelmingly practical). "For me," he says, "design is about conveying an emotion that affects human life. Environmental awareness is obviously important, but it cannot prevent creativity."

Johnansson's chairs and cabinetry are characterized by their deep, saturated colours and unpredictable lines; much of it has been picked up by small Swedish manufacturers looking to capture a younger demographic, although he still struggles, he says, to reach a wide audience. (His new Coquille sofa, an experimental venus-flytrap of a piece, has yet to find a distributor.) "There are not so many companies that are working conceptually," says Johansson, "which would interest me more."

Attitudes seem less rigid in neighbouring Norway, where mid-century greats such as Sven Ivar Dysthe and Ingmar Relling were somewhat less exalted by their countrymen than their Swedish and Danish brethren. Until recently, Norway seems to have been more interested in nurturing North Sea oil than designer talent; the industry, which is worth almost $2-billion, is just now catching up.

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In the port city of Bergen, Vera Kleppe and Ashild Kyte of the design practice Vera & Kyte benefitted from the strong foundation in joinery they got at design school, which was steeped in classic Scandinavian tradition. But in the spirit of a challenge, they pushed into other materials such as glass and metal, creating boldly coloured, anthropomorphic designs – their electric-blue metal room divider debuted last spring in Milan – notable for their non-conformity.

"Norway is reaping the benefits of Scandinavian design being popular now," says Kleppe. "That interest leads to recognition for us. [Norwegians are] not so much in the shadow anymore. We have our own voice."

Siren Elise Wilhelmsen, another Bergenbased designer, is enjoying some of that newfound attention – even if, like Johansson, it is for a darker, more brooding style than the standard Scandi fare. Her Kvelden lamp (named after the Norwegian word for "evening") and black-wool Blane space dividers, for instance, evoke the region's midwinter darkness more than its summer light.

In part, these pieces reflect Wilhelmsen's education in Berlin, which, she says, "gave me a healthy distance from my Scandinavian design heritage and the possibility to angle my work from a different perspective." Her singular style, however, has been difficult to parlay into a mass-produced collection, with development money hard to come by. "At the end of the day," she says, "very few manufacturers take risks. They calculate."

Nonetheless, the designer adds, she is hopeful that, some day, a major distributor will call, giving her a stab at "something universal without losing the poetry."

"As a designer, it's hard to escape the strong commercial forces. The shops and magazines keep up the hype around mid-century-modern Scandinavian design, so why would anyone quit the winning team?"

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