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How the 1932 Swedish general election changed design forever

It is not unusual to hear that design can change lives and has frequently done so, but recently I was in conversation with Chrystina Schmidt from Skandium and learnt something that had not occurred to me previously that upon discovering more I realise how the design that is so familiar to us can be traced back to a point in time that changed the way in which we live forever.

In 1932, after World War I and Sweden had begun to pick itself back up from a depression, the Swedish Social Democrats won the general election bringing much change to the country. Aside from the usual political changes, Sweden had to rebuild itself fully and to do so looked for inspiration for how to do so.

Paimio-tuoli, suunnittelija Alvar Aalto
Photo Martti Kapanen, Alvar Aalto Museum

“There was a major change to the structure of society” says Chrystina, “Sweden looked to modernism and the Bauhaus for ways to create an identity… Josef Franck single-handedly invented Swedish modernism”.

Penguin donkey by Isokon Plus
Photo courtesy I Like London

Designers such as Alvar Aalto and companies such as Isokon Plus were all experimenting with their craft, learning ways to manufacture products using simple and inexpensive techniques. Sweden was a poor country at the time and steel was too expensive a material to use in quantity, and one thing that Sweden had in abundance was wood so they turned their ideas towards using wood as a material that they could master.

Alvar Aalto sofa and chair

Learning ways to bend wood in to different shapes but keeping the strength that was expected was the challenge but over time these designers were successful and defined a style that Sweden would become synonymous with.

This “had an impact and changed peoples lives” says Chrystina. This history is what has gone on to define what stores such as Skandium are interested in. It is not about the shapes, or the Scandinavian roots of designers, but a way of thinking that defines what Skandium chooses for their store.

Kartio glass by Kaj Franck
Kartio glass by Kaj Franck

Chrystina talked to me in the store, sipping from iittala Kartio glasses by Kaj Franck that she tells me are “the heart of Skandium”. “We are the farm-bearers of Scandinavian design — it’s not just about any design object from Scandinavia”.

Skandium Marylebone
Photo courtesy Wee Birdy

And now in a recession, companies like Skandium are finding it tough to build their businesses with less money being spent, so it is refreshing to hear Chrystina talk how Skandium is thriving and how we must remember the roots from which design came. A lot of design that we think of as ‘classic’ or ‘innovative’ was borne out of depression, forcing us to think about what really matters and becoming creative with what can be done rather than following what we have done before.

Chrystina adds “people are not stupid — if you make it poorly and sell it for a lot, customers will not buy it”, a point worth remembering as many companies aim to reduce costs and increase profit… sometimes the solution is to rethink from the start with the restrictions that we now find ourselves in and to truly focus on the core values rather than balance of the till.

Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started ateliertally.com as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.