When we were commissioned to design a Swedish-inspired modern interior in as part of a renovation of a Queen Anne cottage for “This Old House,” I was asked by the show to discuss what Scandinavian Modernism was and what it meant to me as an architect. What began as a simple production task for a TV show became an experience of self-awareness about my work.
Growing up, I spent most of my childhood in Moscow, Paris, and Stockholm. As a family we followed my father, a Foreign Service Officer, to postings in Russia and France. Being half Swedish on my mother’s side, I spent summers in Sweden when we were not back in the States.
From a young age I have always been amazed by the contrast between the gritty, diesel fume shrouded streets of Moscow, or the somber grey nineteenth century buildings of Paris (a lot has changed since the 1960s) and the clean, crisp, sun drenched clarity of Stockholm. The effect was electrifying. The difference between what is traditional, commonplace, and static and what is fresh, renewed, and innovative has stayed with me ever since.
As a student, I was torn between the accomplished beauty of classical art and architecture and the dazzling freedom of modernism then heavily favored by my professors. Over the years I have searched for a greater common ground, and have produced many projects that are simultaneously attentive to both. What I have since found, to my delight and subsequent inspiration, is that Scandinavian design has not evolved in opposition to historic and timeless principles, but in concert with them. It has a foundation in tradition while addressing contemporary challenges, building on what continues to be of value from the past while taking advantage of the opportunities that the present makes possible. For me, it provides a dynamic and living example of how to make order out of what appears to be a random and chaotic array of sometimes contradictory stimuli.
I've also found that the early architecture of New England shares many characteristics with rural Scandinavia. This comes as no surprise when one considers that climate and geography are primary determinants of vernacular form and both areas depend on wood as an essential building material.
In both territories, where structures are subject to extremes of temperature and moisture, wood working skills have become very highly developed. Furthermore, traditions of ship building and furniture making have added an additional layer of technical evolution and mastery. Even with the proliferation of industrialized production and construction, care and craft have not been compromised.
Despite these correlations, Scandinavian Design has evolved into Scandinavian Modern, while New England design has mostly remained steadfast and traditional.
Scandinavian Modernism developed in concert with culture, history, and a dynamic society. It results from discerning problems and developing solutions while making objects of great beauty. Its products, from salad bowls to buildings, are purposeful, simple, and artistic.
I now realize that I have been channeling, quite unconsciously, many of its principles. I have since been back to Finland and Denmark, studying the houses of Alvar Aalto and the home product design so abundant in Copenhagen. After spending a lot of time thinking about (and looking at) examples of Scandinavian Modernism, I have learned to recognize and appreciate the clear influences that my heritage and experiences have had on me throughout my career. (I can't help but smile when I see the echoes of my Aunt’s summer house in Sweden in our own home in New England.)
In our work, Scandinavian Modernism has provided a parallel universe of ideas, strategies, and forms that can be advantageously utilized as a source of possibilities and solutions. It should be noted that we at MGa are not an office of exiled Scandinavian Modernists. We are, however, continuously searching for new design solutions that build on the past, engage the present, and anticipate the future.