This bibliographic article focuses on the design histories of the Nordic region. The five Nordic countries of Europe—namely, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, along with Iceland—are commonly grouped together in English-language histories as “Scandinavia.” In design history, the label “Scandinavian design” also has a particular association with the fame achieved by mid-twentieth-century design from the region.
A comprehensive historiography of Scandinavian design history, of both the region and country by country, is presented in Kjetil Fallan’s Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories (2012: 13–32). I will not attempt to reprise all that information here. It gives an overview of the development of research into the design of the region overall and country by country. This bibliography will focus only on English-language texts, of which there are an expanding number.
The story of the international success of modern Scandinavian design can be traced back to developments in the 1860s and 1870s. The period saw a region-wide reassessment and investment in design education, the formation of the national societies of art and design, and the founding or reformation of museum collections of design objects, including handicraft. This is also the period when national discourses about design, the relationship between art and industry, design and national culture, and concern about international reception of design products at international exhibitions and World’s Fairs grew. Specialist periodicals emerged, tied into institutions, and design societies created the underlying structure for national design reform. This earlier history is not particularly well covered in English-language scholarship, but it does form the foundation for five new general histories of Nordic design that have also emerged in recent years: my own book Modernism in Scandinavia (2017), Fallan’s Designing Modern Norway (2016) Mussari’s Danish Modern (2016), Murphy’s Swedish Design (2015), and Korvenmaa’s Finnish Design (2009). A few other texts focus in particular on this period of formation (Ashby 2008, 2010; Berman 1993; Huovio 1998; Hyams 2014; Wennstam and Hagströmer 1994).
International esteem for Scandinavian design can be seen to have risen steadily from the Paris Exposition Universelle, 1900, through the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, 1925. This development is traced in the general histories mentioned above and a few other sources that cover the Art Nouveau period (Christensen 2008; Wieber 2015). Success through the early twentieth century reflected the fruits of the investment made in design education and various initiatives to bring academy and design-school-trained artists into the manufacturing industries. The classicism of the 1910–1920s is typically under-researched in comparison with earlier Art Nouveau and later Modernism (Ericsson et al. 1996; Naylor 1990; Opie 2003; Selkurt 1987; ). One important exception is the exhibition catalog Nordic Classicism (Paavilainen 1982), though the focus, as a product of the Finnish Museum of Architecture, is on architecture rather than design.
Research into Scandinavian design is based, in part, around museums of design history in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. The collections of these institutions are often intimately connected with the objects displayed at the international exhibitions already mentioned. These museums, and the design objects and documentary archives they preserve, play a key role in introducing Scandinavian design to the public. Museum publications are an important starting point for design history in this region (Aav and Stritzler-Levine 1998; Funder 2002; McFadden 1982; Opie 1989; Svenskberg and Savolainen 2012).
Alongside museological research, architectural histories provide another source of scholarship on the wider culture of which design was a part. Through the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, much design work was undertaken by trained architects. A few key architectural histories have therefore been included (Caldenby et al. 1998; Lane 2000; Lund and Manley 2008; Norri et al. 2000; Ringbom 1987), as well as a few texts that comment on the urban planning developments that transformed the cities of the Nordic region (Lahti 2008; Nikula 2006; Tuomi 2003)
The 1930 Stockholm Exhibition is traditionally cited as the moment that Modernism burst upon the Scandinavian scene. The exhibition has been thoroughly studied by Eva Rudberg (1999) and the seminal text acceptera produced in the aftermath of the exhibition by its designers is translated in full, among the other valuable primary texts presented in Creagh et al (2008). Through the 1930s, appearances at World’s Fairs and at the Milan Triennale garnered praise in particular for the contributions of Alvar and Aino Aalto (Chevallier and Wittman 1999; MacKeith and Smeds 1992). This culminated in a solo exhibition of Aalto’s architecture and design work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1938.
Monographs on key designers form a significant portion of the literature on Scandinavian design. In particular, this relates to architects who produced interiors and furnishing designs, alongside their architectural practice, and most prominent of these by far is Alvar Aalto. The historiography on Aalto is only briefly touched on here and contains the more recent academic monographs and an emphasis on his design practice and collaboration with his wife, designer and architect, Aino Marsio-Aalto (Davies 1998; Finne 1992; Kinnunen 2004; Korvenmaa 1990; McCarter 2014; Nerdinger and Achleitner 1999; Pelkonen 2005, 2009; Reed 1998; Schildt 1994; Suominen-Kokkonen 2007). Some other prominent architect-designers have received monographic coverage over the years, with Arne Jacobsen as the most well covered of these (Holm et al. 2002; Sheridan 2003; Thau and Vindum 2002; Tøjner and Vindum 1994). See also Gunnar Asplund (Jones 2006), Ferdinand Boberg (Walton 1994), Peter Celsing (Wang 1996), P. V. Jensen-Klint (Jensen 2009), Kaare Klint (Harkaer 2010), Bruno Mathsson (Widman, Winter and Stritzler-Levine 2006), and Eliel Saarinen (Hausen 1990).
Designers have also been given their own monographs: Frida Hansen (Ueland 2015), Maija Isola (Aav et al. 2005), Finn Juhl (Hiort 1990), Georg Jensen (Taylor 2005), Carl and Karin Larsson (Snodin and Stavenow-Hidemark 1997), Timo Sarpaneva (Aav et al. 2006), Ilmari Tapiovaara (Korvenmaa 1997), and Tapio Wirkkala (Aav 2000). A number of key manufacturing concerns in the arena of the applied arts have also had monographs produced in English focusing on their histories (Aav 2009, 2012; Aav and Viljanen 2006; Duncan 1995; Jørstian and Nielsen 1994). There is something of a predominance in this list of Finnish designers and firms, in large part due to the commitment of the Helsinki Design Museum to producing monographs in English. There is a corresponding dearth of coverage of Norwegian designers, which is only beginning to be addressed. New monographs on designers from the other Nordic countries are appearing with increasing regularity.
In general, coverage of these heroic designers and manufacturers is closely tied to their role in the triumphal years of Scandinavian design in the 1950s and 1960s. During these decades, the work of Nordic designers received huge acclaim on the world stage. The Milan Triennale design exhibitions provided a vital platform for this. A seminal moment came in 1953 when the decision was taken by the various national craft and design societies to band together to present their displays in a Scandinavian section at the Milan Triennale. In previous exhibitions, presentation had always been in national sections only. This was taken further in the major touring exhibition Design in Scandinavia (1954–57), which was seen by over four million people in North America.
The public presentation of Scandinavian design in such exhibitions and accompanying press and marketing materials cemented an international image that flattened out national differences. It emphasized instead a set of strong associations: a sensitivity to nature and natural materials, and a blending of traditional craft practices and innovative modern forms that was supposedly unique to Scandinavian designers. These qualities are represented, for example, in the exhibition catalog Design in Scandinavia (1954).
The power of this presentation of Scandinavian design continues to capture the imagination and persists in much English-language coverage of the design and designers of the region. At the same time, since the 1990s, scholarship has started to look behind the myth and consider how it was formulated and to look beyond it for a more rigorous understanding of the design cultures and histories of the region. Scandinavian Design beyond the myth (Halén and Wickman 2003) was an exhibition and catalog that attempted to explore this. The myth and marketing of Scandinavian design is explored by Davies (1997, 1998, 2002) and Guldberg (2011), who analyze a range of materials from press images and archive texts to trade records and the structures and networks of the design world to uncover the forces at play behind the success d’esteem of mid-twentieth-century Nordic design. Pelkonen’s work on Aalto has drawn attention to the geopolitical context that underpinned the international reception of his work (2005, 2009), and Petra Ceferin has explored the politics of the images and texts used to promote Finnish architecture in international exhibitions between 1957 and 1967 (2003).
There has been a significant expansion in recent decades of research on Scandinavian design in the academic sector. The, now sadly defunct, Scandinavian Journal of Design History published research articles in English on Scandinavian design history by researchers from across the region between 1991 and 2004. These are not individually listed in the bibliography because every article would be worthy of inclusion and the contents of volumes one to fifteen can be reviewed at
Fallan’s collection of essays, Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories (2012), presents a range of chapters that push the boundaries of scholarship on the region and bring the research of more Nordic scholars into the English-language realm. Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption and the Welfare State is a similarly interdisciplinary volume, focusing just on Sweden (Mattson and Wallenstein 2010). The new wave of scholarship is characterized in general by greater interdisciplinary research, bringing in perspectives from business history (Hansen 2006), trade and manufacturing history (Fallan 2009; Svinhufvud 2012), film studies (Berner 2002), art history (Widenheim et al. 2002), gender (Johansson and Saarikangas 2009; Saarikangas 1993), and discourse analysis (Munch 2017).
The recent histories by Fallan, Mussari, Murphy, Mussari and myself are part of this resurgence of interest in Scandinavian design and a consolidation of the desire to go beyond the hagiography of famous designers established in the mid-twentieth century. Another dimension of the above histories is the emphasis placed on transnational connections, as a counterweight to the traditional emphasis on national histories. This can also be seen in recent works looking at connections with Japanese design (Gelfer-Jørgensen and Davidson 2013; Weisberg and Bonsdorff 2016).
Coverage of Scandinavian Modernism very much peaks in focus around the 1950s and 1960s. The evolution of Scandinavian design up to the contemporary period is an area that needs to be addressed further. The connection between Scandinavian Modernism and contemporary Nordic design culture is tackled in Fallan (2007, 2012, 2015, 2016), Øllgaard (1999), Halén and Wickman (2003), and Hagströmer (2002). Sara Kristoffersson’s study of IKEA and Anna Valtonen’s work in industrial design are among the few detailed scholarly studies in English of Nordic design up to the present day (Kristoffersson 2014; Valtonen 2007).
Iceland’s place in the history of Nordic design is also one that has been subject to comparatively little research. In part, this reflects how small and economically disadvantaged Iceland was through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were no available resources for investment in design education or manufacturing until after the Second World War. It is an area of scholarship that is opening up and the titles in the bibliography below point to this.
2011. “‘Scandinavian Design’ as Discourse: The Exhibition ‘Design in Scandinavia’, 1954–57 .” Design Issues 27, no. 2: 41–58. doi:10.2307/41261932 .
2010. The Agency of Networks: The (In) Visible Consequences of Scandinavian Design . Paper presented at the Networks of Design: Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society (UK).
Danish Vernacular Nationalism and History Shaping Education
, and . 1998. Finnish Modern Design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930–1997 . New Haven, CT and New York: Published by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts and Yale University Press.
, and . 1999. “Finland through French Eyes: Alvar Aalto’s Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937 .” Studies in the Decorative Arts 7, no. 1: 65–105. doi:10.2307/40662723.
1992. “The Workers’ Club of 1924 by Alvar Aalto: The Importance of Beginnings .” Perspecta 27: 53–75. doi:10.2307/1567176 .
1990. “The Finnish Wooden House Transformed: American Prefabrication, War-time Housing and Alvar Aalto .” Construction History 6: 47–61. doi:10.2307/41613677 .
1993. “Norwegian Craft Theory and National Revival in the 1890s .” In Art and the National Dream: The Search for Vernacular Expression in Turn-of-the-century Design , edited by N. G. Bowe, 155–168. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press and Blackrock, Co .
2011. “Nature, Nostalgia, and Narrative: Material Identity in Icelandic Design .” In Iceland and Images of the North , edited by S. Isleifsson and D. Chartier, 351–372. Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec .