Gustavian Chair

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Mid Century Modern Scandinavian chairs are characterized by these important themes: simplicity, minimalism, functionality, nature, observation. The design movement which derived from Scandinavia emerged in the 1930s and became fashionable in the 1960s. The movement experienced a revival in the 1990s. The sleek and streamlined designs of the Scandinavian movement was the predominant style in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland which had a later impact throughout central and southern Europe and North America.

Gustavian Chair

Gustavian chairs are where the interest in mid century modern Scandinavian chairs and design begins. What is a Gustavian chair? Gustavian chairs, and Gustavian furniture in general, is the traditional furniture of the Scandinavian monarchy. Sparked by furniture used by and designed for King Gustav I, born Gustav Eriksson of VASA nobility, Gustavian furniture is simply designed and uses wood materials. King Gustav was known as Gustav Vasa (12 May 1496 – 29 September 1560), who served as King of Sweden from 1523 until his death in 1560.  Furniture in the Gustavian style was based on straight linear designs in wood, painted in white and other neutral colors.

The Big Three Designers

Some of the most famous Scandinavian designers included architects, artists, and designers such as Eero Saarinen, Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto among others. For instance, Eero Saarinen designed the groundbreaking Womb Chair in 1948 at Florence Knoll’s request for “a chair that was like a basket full of pillows – something to really curl up in.” The mid-century classic supports countless positions and gives a comforting sense of security – hence the name. Other Scandinavian design objects were also based on the notion of birth. This was seen in Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair which debuted in 1958. It was designed for the lobby and reception areas of Copenhagen’s Royal Hotel. The commission to design every element of the hotel building as well as the furniture was Jacobsen’s grand opportunity to put his theories of integrated design and architecture into practice. The Egg chair is a triumph of Jacobsen’s concept of total design.

Like Saarinen and Jacobsen, other Scandinavian artists worked within the Scandinavian aesthetic. Alvar Aalto designed the Paimio chair which, like the Womb and Egg chairs, was admired for its sculptural form. The Paimio chair was designed in 1931-32 of bent plywood and bent laminated birchwood. The chair’s framework features two closed loops of laminated wood which served as arms. Aalto chose birchwood, native to Finland, for its natural feel and insulating properties. Aalto’s bentwood furniture had a great influence on American mid-century modern designers Charles and Ray Eames.

The most evident aspects of mid century modern Scandinavian chairs include light-colored native woods with a focus on natural grains and stain colors. Scandinavian design features low cost materials and the use of mass production methods to keep costs low. Many examples of Scandinavian design integrate form-pressed woods, plastics, anodized or enameled aluminum or pressed steel.

Scandinavian design celebrates the Nordic heritage with its clean lines, geometric forms, colorful woven textiles and light woods that evoke the natural world. Natural wood grains show imperfections and give a feeling for organic character. Designers use neutral and brown wood stains, clear polyurethane, matte finishes and subtle accents of teak, slate, and limestone which offer a variety of textures and exude warmth.

The chairs introduced by Saarinen, Jacobsen, and Aalto paved the way for the innovative designs of the artist and designer, Hans Wegner. Wegner introduced modern chairs called Wishbone chairs, also known as the Round chair or Kennedy chair in 1960. Wegner was perhaps the most influential Danish furniture designer of the 20th century. Wegner, after completing his training as an architect, founded his own design firm in 1943 and designed more than 500 different chairs in the mid-century modern style.

Wegner’s chairs were brought into the international design forefront during the Nixon-Kennedy debates of the 1960 US Presidential campaign. The light, sculptural Wishbone Chair was desirable in order to supplement the heavier forms of furniture of the mid 1900s. Wishbone chairs were made of a steam-bent solid wood frame, a hand-woven seat of paper cord which was a substitute for jute during World War II. The Wishbone chairs were modeled after Chinese merchant chairs and these chairs became the mainstay of Scandinavian modern design.

Core Themes of Scandinavian Design

Scandinavian chairs

When it comes to Mid Century Modern Scandinavian chairs and design, there are core themes that are found throughout the design movement such as capturing the beauty in imperfections, use of organic forms and natural elements, ergonomics, comfort, clean lines, integration of handcrafted objects as well as affordability. Scandinavian design chairs were based on the abundance of lumber in the region of northern Europe. Wood was the most common material used in Scandinavian, mid-century modern furniture. And, the abundance of wood also inspired other business ventures in the world of Scandinavian design.

In addition to material use such as wood, light and light colors are important to the design of Scandinavian modern chairs and other pieces of furniture. With more than 60 days of Polar Nights, lighting in Scandinavia is essential. Most Scandinavians deal with very little light every winter based on their location within the Polar Circle. While Scandinavians have so many dark winter days, in summer, the sun remains high in the sky until midnight. They enjoy the summer season to the fullest.

Due to Scandinavia’s long winters, fireplaces are traditional features in Scandinavian homes. They do not take center stage as in some countries and rarely do they have prominent hearths or mantles. Tucked out of the way, fireplaces are necessary and highly functional. Modern Scandinavian homes feature world-leading green technologies that are exported around the globe. Since the mid 20th Century, Scandinavians have led the way in promoting the eco-friendly design movement.

As a result of this location phenomenon, Scandinavian homes allow light to flood into homes via large floor to ceiling windows. Scandinavian designers prefer the use of simple, white wood or white-washed wooden surfaces from floor-to-ceiling. White wood floors make a room feel open, airy, clean. And, this neutral color draws attention to the interior craftsmanship and the use of built-in furniture in Scandinavian design. In the absence of white wood, light colored woods or stones like birch, pine, or grey stone tile is used.

IKEA’s Impact on Scandinavian Design

Another furniture designer who capitalized on the opportunity to use wood native to the region for his business was Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of the multinational group of companies called IKEA. IKEA is one of the largest users of wood in the retail realm, responsible for 1% of commercial product wood consumption worldwide. Kamprad, a Swedish born businessman who founded IKEA at age 17 in 1943, has a net worth of nearly $50 billion. IKEA owns and operates nearly 400 stores worldwide and generates multi-billion dollars in sales annually. IKEA is an acronym for Ingvar Kamprad, Elmtaryd which is the name of the farm where Kamprad was raised and Agunnaryd, Kamprad’s  hometown in southern Sweden, province of Smaland.

Like famed Scandinavian designers, Kamprad’s IKEA brand focuses on eco-friendly products at affordable prices of simple designs. While Kamprad has amassed a sizable fortune, the businessman remains conscientious when it comes to money. He is known to wear secondhand clothes which he buys at thrift shops and flea markets and he flies economy class.

Kamprad’s innovation was a concept called “flat packing.” This concept focused on consumer assembly of the wooden furniture. IKEA was able to slash costs for its customers by allowing consumers to assemble their own furniture at home from the flat packages of furniture pieces. IKEA was responsible in large part for the revival of the mid century modern Scandinavian revival of the 1990s.

Watch videos on my YouTube channel where I talk more about Mid Century Modern Scandinavian design. I can appraise your furniture from photos or you can show me your furniture during a video call.