Scandinavian design: marriage and economics wed

Economics in Scandinavia is famous for its looks. The look is simple and sophisticated at the same time, and behind it are some hard economic facts.

The concept that ties the "dismal science" to the design of trucks, tables, tea tins, and cups is a basic one: adding value.

Tor Stolpe leans over his dessert and cups his hands. "In Arabia," he says, referring to a tableware-making subsidiary to the corporation he heads, "we can't produce a cup with the idea just to keep the coffee inside. Then these cups could be produced cheaper in China and Taiwan."

Adding value means taking material as it is bought -- be it wood, sheet metal , or porcelain clay -- and working with it to make it into something more valuable.

A country with low costs or bounteous natural resources can afford to add little value to its products and sell them cheap. The Nordic countries can't.

Economists and businessmen are loath to try to put it in figures, but agree that design -- from artistry to planning paper mill plants -- is at the core of how the Nordic countries add value.

Mr. Stolpe is president of Wartsila, the widely diverse Finnish parent company to Arabia. Know-how, he says, is the key to economic success for Finland, and "it starts with design."

There's another factor in the Nordic look as well: social democracy. The nordic look is most noted in functional things like consumer goods, not fine art. This may be a by-product, at least partly, of egalitarianism.

Bjoern Wiinblad, for example, a well-known Danish decorative artist, refused about eight years ago, he says, to decorate tea tins for a mass-merchandising chain store called Irma. Design work to be made by the hundred thousand, sold at a low price, in a store without prestige, wasn't flattering.

After receiving a letter from Irma's managing director to the effect that everyone, no matter at what income level, should be able to have something beautiful, Mr. Wiinblad relented. Egalitarianism won out. "Now," he says, "it's something of an honor to be asked to design something for them."

Social democracy molds design for more strictly economic reasons, too. An industrial designer with Finland's Sisu trucks claims Nordic design is advanced, compared with Europe generally. Interiors and controls are better organized and more comfortable than their American counterparts, which are more technology-oriented, he adds.

Why? "Truck drivers," is his unhesitating answer. Finnish truck drivers are highly educated and demanding, he says, and as a designer he consults them widely.

The most noted Scandinavian designs are in Swedish glass, where names like Orrefors and Kosta Boda rank high; Danish modern furniture, a major movement in popular furniture since the 1950s; and Finnish textiles, led by Marimekko and Vuokko.

The designs themselves, in an artistic sense, are modernist, yet traditional. If you know enough about Danish furniture, a businessman involved in design fields says, you can find the basis for nearly every style in the Open Air Museum, a group of re-created early Danish houses in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

And Finnish style at its best, explains Juhani Pallasmaa, director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki, "still breathes the same air" as in Finland's peasant past.

This infusion of modernism with a national tradition, in Mr. Pallasmaa's opinion, may account for Finnish design's appeal to American designers and architects "seeking a national, you could almost say nationalistic, style."

In the Nordic countries, design nearly ranks as a major natural resource. "More and more people are beginning to see this," Mr. Pallasmaa says. In the 1950s and '60s, Finnish design was considered a cultural export, public relations for the country. Now, he observes, it is increasingly conside red an economic export.

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