Memphis geometry and American high tech: Scandinavia goes international

SCANDINAVIAN Modern furniture is becoming less Scandinavian and more international. Some people find that fact regrettable, others inevitable. The change was apparent at the annual Scandinavian Furniture Fair here, at which over 500 manufacturers from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland presented their latest designs to buyers from all over the world.

Suddenly we come upon the somewhat jarring geometrics of the Italian Memphis movement, painted in strong reds, blacks, whites, and grays, and hear it explained by young Nordics wearing punk hairdos and clothes in ultra fashion.

We see influences from Japan and China, Germany, and France, and note that the American high-tech look with its steel wire construction and industrial origin is now flourishing in Scandinavia. As is the leather-covered Eurostyle seating that is currently waning in the United States.

The vocabulary has changed, too. Adjectives such as stylish, far-out, trendy, and fashionable have now been added to those formerly more popular down-to-earth descriptive words such as spare, simple, functional, practical, and crafted.

Pale blond woods -- beech, pine, oak and ash -- are in greater evidence, too, not replacing the teak and rosewood so long associated with tried-and-true Scandinavian designs, but taking over a larger share of total production. Natural wood finishes still predominate, but colored lacquer finishes are newly important, as they are in Europe and the US as well.

Those all-white paint and laminate finishes that looked so fresh and all-purpose a few years ago are still in demand, but have now been joined by all-black finishes. Black upholstery fabrics have also emerged from the international furniture scene, particularly black leather. Two surprising new colors that repeated themselves in many eye-stopping displays were shocking pink and cool aqua.

Yes, times have changed. Young new designers express a creative vitality of their own. They are eager to break out of traditional molds and to be more experimental and daring. But they also all read the same magazines, travel to the same places, and go to many of the same trade fairs, especially important ones such as Milan and Cologne. Through the media, they pick up design news almost instantly.

After such extensive exposure, they want to be able to react quickly to new international fashion trends. This, they say, could help them capture a larger share of the global market.

In the process, would the special national identity and character of furniture made by the Scandinavian countries be diluted beyond recognition?

``The Scandinavian countries,'' wrote Charles Talley in Craft International a few years ago, ``have achieved something rare and beautiful. They have become societies whose basic frame of reference is the human being. The scale of life is personal, understated; never grandiose or overwhelming. Life there is influenced by a certain sense of restraint and proportion, which implies organization and order.''

Mr. Talley and other observers insist that many things remain the same, such as a very basic connection with nature, a cherishing of forests, lakes, fjords, mountains, pastures, and surrounding seas.

Scandinavians maintain a love for the small cottages and plots of ground in the countryside to which they regularly retreat for their own rest and contemplation. They retain a deep respect for fine cabinetmaking and nurture their indigenous craft traditions. They exhibit an innate sensitivity to the woods they work and continue to train students in the art of cabinetmaking.

Over the years, they have striven to make even the most mundane household objects not only more useful but more beautiful. Although their dedication to functionalism has persisted for over 50 years, their approach has remained warmly humanistic.

Their present contemporary design has grown out of their own internal historic, creative, and natural forces, and these forces will remain, say the optimists, who don't fear the invasion of outside influences.

``We are evolving and changing,'' one of the younger designers declared, ``but we will still be true to, or come back to, our roots. We will interpret international styles, but in our own unique way. Our sense of order and humanity is still intact.''

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