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Standing the test of time

from Ulrich Texter

Ever since the successful expansion of one particular furniture retailer, the world has been clamouring for simplicity and functionality. But Scandinavian design is a “global powerhouse” in more than just the field of interiors. Danish bricks have revolutionised how our children build and the Norwegian Tripp Trapp highchair how they sit at the table, while the oxblood-red play kitchen from Sweden has brought nouvelle cuisine to their rooms. More than sixty years after the world was introduced to Egg, Swan and Tulip chairs, Scandinavian design is more popular than ever – including in toys.

If you want to change the world, you have to start with children

Stove, shop and workbench made of wood for children
Stove, shop and workbench made of wood by FLEXA

Any artist that gets featured in New York’s MoMA can’t be sure of having really “made it”, but will have certainly shaped public discourse for a while. Such as with the “Century of the Child”, a 2012 MoMA exhibition which presented 20th century design for children – including toys. Part of the exhibition also went on display in the Nordic Embassies in Berlin in 2017 for anyone who wanted to take a look at the history of Nordic design for children. Just a few months prior to that, the same building complex hosted: “Much More Than One Good Chair”. Both exhibitions showed that Scandinavian design involves a great deal more than just iconic chairs, Saab, Volvo, Bang & Olufsen, Republic of Fritz Hansen and IKEA – and also includes toys.

The Century of the Child exhibition borrowed its title from the book of the same name by Swedish educational reformist Ellen Key, first published in 1900. She was by no means alone in her educational proposals. We need only think of Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. If you want to make a lasting change in the world, goes the view, you have to start with the young and watch what they are given hold of.

Toys became mass produced at the end of the 19th century. This led to calls for simple toys suited to children. Those of us living 100 years later in this era of tech toys are very familiar with this. It is not surprising, therefore, that children increasingly became central to the work of architects, designers and artists in the early 20th century – just think of the Bauhaus with Lyonel Feininger (wooden railway), Paul Klee (puppets) and Oskar Schlemmer (dolls). Some works were exhibited again for the 100th anniversary.

Design for a better society

Design also played a prominent role in Nordic countries, and still does so today. Nowhere else has there been and is there still such a close relationship between politics and design. Still today, design must also fulfil social policy objectives and not just produce beautiful things in these countries, which are always ranked among the top in the World Happiness Report. It should help to make life easier when the winters are long and the weather so capricious. Dane Børge Mogensen, one of the most important representatives of the famous Danish Design style, therefore did not want to simply design but to create “democratic furniture”, so to speak. It is thus no coincidence that the Danish INDEX foundation awards the world’s largest monetary design prize worth €500,000 every two years under the motto “Design to Improve Life”.

Doll house
The Sebra doll™s house/ Sebra Interior ApS

Swede Eva Eliasson, designer and owner of toy firm JaBaDaBaDo, also believes that design still has a social policy role. “The living room became the heart of every home as part of the ‘folkhemmet’ political concept in the fifties in Sweden”, she says. “It was a room for the whole family, for making new contacts, for eating and for playing. This was also when design became part of the life of every ordinary person and, in this time of social change, Scandinavian furniture companies began to design affordable, functional and modern furniture to respond to the emerging needs. The ‘design for all’ idea still persists and plays a role in Scandinavian design.”

Mia Dela, designer and owner of Sebra, is of a similar view. The company founded in Denmark in 2004 is known for, among other things, crocheted and wooden toys, children’s furniture and textiles. Design must be democratic, in our own best interests alone. “Design should be for everyone”, she says. “It is much more satisfying for a designer to reach as many people as possible rather than just a few.” And, like Eva Eliasson, she sees in nature one key reason why the Northern Europeans attach great importance to design. “Danes spend a lot of time in their homes and invite friends and family over instead of going out”, she says. “The winters are long and dark. We simply need beautiful living spaces for this kind of life.”

The Nordic spirit in toys

Cuddly animals
Cuddly toy Little bear / Klippan Yllefabrik AB

And that also means the way in which we live says something about how we think, when it comes to our children as well. “At Sebra, we love making things for children that we would like to have in our own living rooms”, says the designer. This is precisely the view which also guides the work of Done by Deer. “Great designs for children are functional and safe”, says Helene Hjorth, designer and owner of the company founded in 2000, “but also aesthetically appealing to parents. The design, colours and materials should help babies develop sensory perception and other skills but also, at the same time, achieve a harmony with the rest of the home – that is always our focus and primary objective.” This vision is shared by Sweden’s Klippan Yllefabrik, a long-standing family business. The company has also been manufacturing cuddly toys for a number of years – and hired the services of renowned Swedish designers Sissi Edholm and Lisa Ullenius. The Swedes’ philosophy is pretty simple: to combine Swedish design with the long tradition of textile knowledge.

But separate from the policy ambitions and ideals, what characterises Swedish design? Like the design of the most formative school of the 20th century, the Bauhaus, it is functional, clear and stringent. Nothing appears overwrought or glaring, everything is restrained and timeless, with clean lines. This is particularly noticeable in the Danish Design concept which achieved global fame in the fifties and sixties through the Egg and Swan chairs (Arne Jacobsen), Y chair (Hans J. Wegener), PH pendant light (Paul Hennigsen) and Tulip chair (Poul Kjærholm). Given the country’s geographic location, the continental European influence cannot be denied, but Danish Design still shows a close association with Sweden, Norway and Finland – a kind of light version of Germanic functionalism.

Designed in Scandinavia – a quality mark

Activity toy for babies
Tiny Activity Toys / Done by Deer

The passion for materials and discreet colours is another striking feature of Scandinavian product design. When Done by Deer received the Red Dot Award, one of the world’s most respected design prizes, in 2018 for its Tiny Activity Toys set, the jury also remarked on the toys’ “discreet colours” and great attention to detail. It was the fifth such award for the Danes. A tendency towards traditional craftsmanship is often noticeable as well, as in the crocheted toys from natureZoo, the products from Sebra and the early years of the classic wooden toy range from designer Kåre Tofte for Moover. His designs are based on simplicity, quality and durability and include trucks, cars, doll’s prams and more. “Toys from Germany and Italy are often more complex, with more functionality and brighter colours”, believes Eva Eliasson. “Swedish toys tend to have a simpler design and functionality and softer colours.”

Tradition is no less important! That is why the relatively young Danish firm muuto consciously roots itself in the Scandinavian design tradition, as a way of linking itself with this golden era. Even when a furniture brand is involved, the mindset can be reflected in toy design. “We know”, says Vibike Bay, designer and owner of natureZOO, Copenhagen, “that our background is a key part of our brand DNA. We are valued and respected for having our products designed in Denmark and this is a key selling point globally.”

Not to mention the great love for nature and a certain enthusiasm for natural materials. Sustainability was already a concern in Nordic countries before it ever became a global buzzword. “In the Nordic style, I look for purity, simplicity and natural elements, originality and clean lines”, says Vibike Bay. “It is a cool, minimalist and natural style, very simplistic and unfussy. We want to keep it simple, and this approach may become a lot more important in the years ahead as a counter-reaction to our increasingly complex world.” Obviously, Scandinavia has tastefully designed products in abundance besides its global brands such as Lego, Brio, IKEA, Fritz Hansen, Artek and Iittala.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.

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Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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