Nordic 2018

Top of the world design fellowship

Paul Epp

In early March of 2018, I flew to Oslo to deliver a paper at a symposium at the Metropolitan University there. The planning had taken a year and a half, which overlapped with my teaching at OCAD University and consequently became the last of my commitments to it, contracted before my retirement but delivered after.

It was a pleasure to return to Oslo. Visiting a city for the first time is extra stimulating, but to return for the fifth time provides a welcome sense of familiarity. I know my way around the airport, the train system and the downtown city streets. When I learn that my hotel is walking distance from the National Theatre train stop, I can picture it and know that I won’t have to resort to maps or GPS. It’s comforting and I almost feel like a local.

The symposium was entitled Nordic design in a global and regional perspective. The use of the term Nordic, which means North, rather than Scandinavian, was to include Finland and also used deliberately to imply a sly inclusion of Canada, also a North(ern) country. The dominant premise was that Nordic design has been very influential and particularly so in my native country. There was a wide variety of academics there, from a variety of countries. I was one of them, although I am kind of a hybrid, part academic and, to my mind at least, mostly a designer.

I’m not a historian or even a proper academic, which made me somewhat of an outlier. So what I talked about was the kind of designer I am, which is predominantly Nordic, according to the visual company I keep and our common values. I feel I’ve come by it honourably.

The community that I grew up in was predominantly Norwegian, so I can speak about them with some familiarity. My father used to say that they made good neighbours: honest, sociable, decent, modest and considerate. They mostly minded their own business and kept their farms in good order.

After my design and cabinetmaking studies in Canada, long ago, I traveled to Sweden, where I was a private student of cabinetmaker Jim Krenov. I also traveled around in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, visiting designers and manufacturers. Those were very formative years for me and I think that the lessons that I learned then have stayed with me and influenced most of what I have subsequently done.

Something that distinguishes Scandinavian (and Finnish) design is a lack of pretention. The desire seems to produce goods that will do their utilitarian job but also provide a bit of extra pleasure to the task at hand, in a mostly understated way.

The factors that influence this are all considered and brought to bear: colour, material choice, finish, ergonomics, and so on. Wood is a common material choice, for its visual and tactile warmth. And I’ve used it a lot myself. It’s very adaptable to the forms that serve us, both in chairs and bowls, for only two examples. It will satisfy our eyes as well as our wandering fingers.

Colours and patterns may be bright, but are usually used carefully to calm us rather than to excite us. Details are important: the joints, seams, fasteners and hardware that comprise them. The size of human bodies and their proportions and distortions are all taken into account so that function will be not only enabled but enhanced.

Nordic design as we know it was mostly developed post- World War I. It was a version of modernism but a variant that was a bit less dogmatic than that of continental Europe. It was welcome for its graciousness and friendliness. And it was very influential.

Mid-century (the 20th) design is usually either Scandinavian or heavily influenced by it. By the 1970s, though, it began to be supplanted by other design leadership, most notably that of Italy and some if its more radical theorists, like the Memphis group. Perhaps that was as it should be. Change was needed.

But there is a current renewal of interest in those designs that were so popular 60 years ago. It’s good to see them again. I’m proud to think of myself as not only a neighbour (circumpolar) to the Nordic countries but to also be accepted as a designer relative.

Paul Epp is a Professor Emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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