Phaidon Wrote the Book (Literally) on Humble, Irresistible Nordic Design

Phaidon Wrote the Book (Literally) on Humble, Irresistible Nordic Design

Julia Brenner
Sep 1, 2017
(Image credit: Phaidon)

The Red Thread: Nordic Design is a gorgeous and comprehensive book exploring the Nordic approach to design for everyday life—from furniture to kitchen utensils to textiles. Exquisite photographs illustrate how Nordic designers have mastered the art of simple beauty and functional accessibility. Spoiler alert: You're going to see a lot of Apartment Therapy favorites featured in these pages. Take a look.

What is The Red Thread?

(Image credit: Phaidon)

The title, The Red Thread, refers to a common Swedish expression, den röda tråden, which is used to describe "the heart of the matter"—commonalities or threads that unite people in shared experiences. In the context of this book, the red thread describes the ways in which Nordic design is built upon the philosophy that good design should be accessible to everyone and that beautiful and useful objects should be part of everyday life—part of our shared experiences of home and work life, time with family, and relationship building. The book is broken up into three sections, each filled with fascinating facts and beautiful photographs.

Section 1: Design to Improve Spaces

The sleek, minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic that became popular in the mid-20th century has its roots in the thrifty, austere domestic traditions of Scandinavian culture. This is a culture that evolved from generations of working-class people setting up home in vast, rural landscapes using only local resources, "a simple palette of wood, clay, glass, leather, wool and textiles...whatever they could find." Scandinavia's separation from the rest of central Europe brought about "a culture of craftsmanship" that remains a hallmark of Scandinavian design.

(Image credit: Phaidon)

The working-class, craftsman culture evolved into a wider philosophy that "good design is a basic right" for everyone. Objects for the home were—and still are—sensibly designed, not for show but for usefulness and accessibility, their beauty is derived from simplicity and they are crafted to last, to be passed down and shared. The first section of the book is filled with stunning photographs illustrating examples of influential Nordic home design. Here is a sample...

(Image credit: Artek via Phaidon)

Alvar Aalto's plywood armchairs (1932): Finnish designer Alvar Aalto's laminated plywood armchair (1932) represents the unification of traditional Nordic design principles—simplicity, sturdiness, accessibility—with 20th-century technical advancements, as manufacturing advancements allowed designers to play around with new types of wood and techniques, such as the bent plywood method illustrated in Aalto's work.

(Image credit: Fritz Hansen A/S (page 21) via Phaidon)

Arne Jacobsen's Swan Chair (1958): The post-Art Nouveau era of the 20th century ushered in a minor "Swedish Modern" movement, which gained a wider global audience post-World War II via traveling exhibitions such as Design in Scandinavia and Arts of Denmark (both popular in the 1950s). During the post-war era of rebuilding, people were drawn to Nordic design for its blending of traditional, trusted craftsmanship that had a "functional but not too futuristic" modernity—with the continual threads of simplicity and comfort woven throughout, as evidenced in a piece like Arne Jacobsen's Swan Chair.

(Image credit: &Tradition)
(Image credit: © ARTEK / Artek 2nd cycle)
(Image credit: Svenskt Tenn via Phaidon)

Print collection, Josef Frank, Svenskt Tenn (2015): The concept of coziness that we've come to know as hygge (Denmark), mys (Sweden), and kose (Norway) is a cornerstone of Scandinavian home life. I learned that hygge is achieved through a well-considered approach to setting up home: candles and tea lights are grouped in abundance on windowsills, while vibrant textiles and stackable furniture (like the print collection and group of Aalto stools pictured above) create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, and animal hide or sheepskin rugs offer lush, tactile warmth. Pendant lamps (see Verner Panton & Louis Poulsen" Flower Pot Pendant, 1968, above) are also a preferred source of light for their ability to cast an intimate, cozy glow, and are intended to be placed exactly eye level (60 cm) above dining tables.

Section 2: Design to Improve Life

Timeless principles—functionality, simplicity, and accessibility are key components of Nordic design, as designers strive to find solutions to improve daily life. Designs for home goods are unfussy, stripped down to remove superfluous decoration and ornamentation, allowing an object to be accessed by many and used fully. The beauty of an object is derived from its usefulness, as "a reflection of its fitness for purpose might also be seen as beautiful."

(Image credit: Phaidon)

The pages of The Red Thread are a visual journey of well-designed objects that have shaped Nordic home life in the 20th century and are now familiar staples in many of our homes. Section 2, in particular, details objects that reflect the Nordic belief that daily life should include small treasures, "even if it's just a small tin opener in the kitchen drawer." Here is a sampling of the everyday treasures featured in The Red Thread...

(Image credit: Georg Jensen via Phaidon)

AJ Cutlery, Arne Jacobsen & Georg Jensen (1957)

(Image credit: © ARTEK)

Useful and beautiful objects for everyday life: (Umbrella stand, wall shelf, coat rack, pendant light, mirror, wall drawer, and bench by Alvar Aalto, Artek, (1936–52); clothes tree by Anna-Maija Jaatinen (1964); Kanto magazine/firewood rack by Pancho Nikander (2004)).

(Image credit: Normann Copenhagen )

Krenit bowls, Herbert Krenchel, Torben Ørskov (1953)

(Image credit: Marimekko)

Unikko print, Maija Isola, Marimekko (1964)

(Image credit: © Royal Copenhagen/Fiskars Group)

Section 3: Design to Improve Relations

Nordic designers have evolved from a tradition of crafting objects that are designed not for the elite, but for all. There remains a commitment to producing high-quality furniture and home decor that is widely affordable and adaptable to a variety of living situations, the idea being that good design can help improve society on a macro, as well as a micro, level.

(Image credit: Phaidon)

A focus on collaboration and community building begins in childhood in Nordic countries, as children's furniture is designed to include children in the "egalitarian family space," while toys are designed to encourage imaginative exploration and to open up discussions. The egalitarian approach to community extends into adulthood, and is evident in both home and office furniture design, as tables are round with "no clear head of the table" and office desks are outfitted with engaging tools designed to encourage collaboration and problem solving.

(Image credit: 1stdibs)

Drop-leaf dining table, Niels Kofoed, Kofoed Møbelfabrik, (1964): Example of the rounded "egalitarian" style dining tables that do not lend themselves to a "head of the table" but rather encourage an open flow of discussion and a sense of equality.

(Image credit: Kay Bojesen Denmark/Rosendahl Design Group A/S)

Wooden toy collection, Kay Bojesen, Kay Bojesen Denmark (1930–57): Wooden toys are a staple of Nordic design, as they encourage open-ended play and imaginative exploration.

(Image credit: © Peter Opsvik)

Tripp Trapp high chair, Peter Opsvik, Stokke (1972)

Read More: With over 250 pages of beautiful photography and historical context, The Red Thread is a comprehensive look into the far-reaching legacy of Nordic design. It's the type of book you can read cover-to-cover or page through leisurely. Not to mention the fact that the intricate, hardbound cover (complete with actual red threads!) makes for a lovely coffee table book.

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