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Japonisme and the Origin of Modern Scandinavian Design

Architecture • Design • Furniture • Interior • Japan

While speaking in London in 1957, renowned architect and designer Alvar Aalto expressed this philosophy of design: “We should work for simple, good, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street.” Although Aalto was Finnish born, it would not be unusual to find a similar sentiment expressed in traditional Japanese design. This similarity in design aesthetics is perhaps not that surprising, though, when we consider that from as far back as the mid-19th century, many Scandinavian architects and artists were drawing inspiration from Japan. While Japonisme, or Western art and aesthetics that show a Japanese influence, enjoyed great popularity throughout all of Europe, its interpretation and effect would vary depending on the region and the artist. In Scandinavian countries, cultural and geographical reasons would create an aesthetic kinship with Japan that would go beyond mere exoticism, and contribute to the formation of the popular modern design style of that region.

Image from the "Learning from Japan" exhibit at the Designmusuem Danmark in 2015, which shows Danish furniture that demonstrates the Japanese influence. Photo credit: Pernille Klemp, Jeppe Gudmundsen Holmgren & Designmuseum Danmark

When Japan was forcibly opened in the 1850s, a unique and previously unknown culture of art and design captured the imagination of the Western world. What could have been a quick infatuation with the novel and exotic items, became much more as European artists, who were already experimenting with new styles like Impressionism, started to draw inspiration from various Japanese sources. Motifs often found in Japanese art, such as wildflowers and insects, and ukiyo-e like images of women in kimonos started to appear in European art. Techniques such as flowing glaze and raku-ware in ceramics, and woodblock printing also found new applications in the hands of European artists. The facet of Japanese art that left the biggest impact, though, were the numerous ways it deviated from the academic conventions of European art, which had existed since Greco-Roman times. Traits found in Japanese art, such as off-centered arrangements with no perspective, light with no shadows, vibrant colors on plain surfaces, and simple, refined lines in furniture and architecture, opened new creative pathways for 19th century European artists. The experimentation in art and design catalyzed by Japonisme would lead to the development of important movements in Europe, such as Art Nouveau, and the style that would bring Scandinavian design world-wide acclaim, modernism.

Thorvald Bindesbøll. Vase, 1895. This Danish earthenware piece uses the Japanese flowing glaze technique. Credit: Influences From Japan in Danish Art and Design 1870-2010, Arkitektens Forlag / The Danish Architectural Press.
Japanese sake bottle from the 19th century. It used the flowing glaze technique. Photo credit: Pernille Klemp, Jeppe Gudmundsen Holmgren & Designmuseum Danmark


While in many ways, Japanese art and design were totally different than what existed in Scandinavian countries before their interaction, there were cultural and geographical elements that did make Japanese works especially palatable and influential for Scandinavian artisans. Like Japan, the Northern European countries are very rich in trees, and from early on in their histories they developed acclaimed woodworking traditions. Fine and precise woodworking not only helped protect Scandinavians against brutally cold winters, but also allowed the Vikings to rule the seas. This pre-existing culture of woodworking allowed Scandinavian craftsmen a deeper appreciation of the new techniques, simplified forms, and most importantly, approach towards woodworking that they discovered in Japan. To them, Japanese craftsmen seemed to have a deep understanding and awareness of both the process and the materials that went into forming a design. They witnessed the meticulous care towards fine craftsmanship, as well as the respect and sense of the natural materials that Japanese artisans approached their work with. Particularly, they observed how Japanese craftsmen worked with wood to bring out its essence, using minimalistic, refined designs so as not to detract from the beauty of the material or overwhelm the viewer. In terms of modern Scandinavian design, simple lines and shapes have developed as a cornerstone of the movement, not only for their beauty, but also because they create spaces that are neat, open, and calming, while adding functionality. This design trait is especially important for the Scandinavian region, where people are forced indoors by long winters and the few hours of sunlight. Looking at the characteristics of the modern movement, which helped bring Scandinavian design to the world’s attention from around the 1950s onwards, we can see how the influence they received from Japan was taken to heart.

Hans Sandgren Jakobsens’ Gallery stool, 1998, is a wood piece with a simplified form such as one finds in Japanese furniture.  Photo credit: Pernille Klemp, Jeppe Gudmundsen Holmgren & Designmuseum Danmark
Japanese traditional Magemono container from Hakata in the making. The technique of wood-bending of thin slice of Hinoki (Cypress wood) resembles that of the bentwood furniture in  the mid-century period. 

The effect of Japanese design can still be witnessed around the world today, as more than half a century after modernism’s rise to popularity the style remains as in demand as ever. With regards to modern furniture, this is because of how easily integratable the style’s simple and refined designs are to our contemporary lives; where our furniture must be able to adapt to our ever-changing needs, and we seek to reduce clutter and increase function without sacrificing beauty. The palpable appeal of modern design has influenced furniture makers around the globe, including in Japan. In this way, the aesthetic kinship between Japan and the Scandinavian countries has come full circle.

Examples of Japanese Modern furniture from our Kisaragi Collection by Hida Sangyo

By Danielle Johnson, OOKKUU

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