Northern Lights

Exploring the New Nuances of Scandinavian Design and Color


Crisp whites, layered pastels—we love discovering and incorporating the latest design trends from the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. But a recent infusion of color and changes to traditional Scandinavian palettes have us looking deeper into just what’s happening in this important part of the world and how we can interpret and introduce these brand-new nuances into North American design.

“There are still plenty of light tones, particularly in wall color,” explained Donna Schroeder of Pratt & Lambert’s color marketing and design team. “But now these tender shades are punched up with midtones and deeps."

Cool Whisper
27-27

Brevity
32-29

Sunset Snow
3-2

Tidal Foam
17-30

Contemplation
19-28

Winsome Lilac
29-3

Blue Solitude
27-4

Brie
15-2

Dovefeather
28-30

Just how did we get here? And more importantly, what’s next?

For decades the design industry has revered and emulated Scandinavian design—ever since the 1947 edition of the Triennale di Milano, in which Nordic countries turned heads with their streamlined chairs, minimalist glassware silhouettes, and simple, clean lines. The designs were straightforward, fresh, unassuming—an antithesis to the ornate, overdesigned trends of the time.

In a world rebuilding and reestablishing itself after World War II, Scandinavia’s focus on form and function for all was exactly the message that people wanted to hear. No longer was great design a luxury for just the elite. Elegant, light, and comfortable, the message of Scandinavian design was that beauty could be functional. And moreover, it could be for everyone.

Elegant, light, and comfortable, the message of Scandinavian design was that beauty could be functional. And moreover, it could be for everyone.

Shortly after the Triennale di Milano, word of this new approach to design spread. High demand stateside resulted in the Design in Scandinavia show that toured North America from 1954 to 1957. The event introduced Americans and Canadians to what had been flourishing in Nordic countries for years, establishing entirely new possibilities and aesthetics for American homes. This show helped to shape the midcentury modern movement, the United States’ answer to Bauhaus and other international trends.

Cast aside in the 1970s and ’80s, Scandinavian design and midcentury mod were embraced once again in the mid-1990s by Generation Xers, encouraging Knoll and Herman Miller to reissue many of their iconic pieces with updated fabrics and materials. New shelter magazines like Wallpaper* and Dwell celebrated simple, well-designed objects, and stores like West Elm and Ikea made minimalist design available to the mass market once again.

Today, the aesthetic’s structural simplicity, pure design intention, and organic shapes fit with our desire to live more purposefully, sustainably, and wholly.

Today, the aesthetic’s structural simplicity, pure design intention, and organic shapes fit with our desire to live more purposefully, sustainably, and wholly. And while the original masters still seem to rule the space, a captivating new generation of Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian designers offer their unique perspective on structure and fluidity, serenity, and playfulness to American interiors.

Just as these cultures continue to influence architecture and furniture design, what is even more subtle and fascinating is how our passion for minimalist Scandinavian design is reshaping how we approach color.

The Quiet Beauty of Chalky Pastels

It’s no surprise that in countries like Sweden, a region plagued by long, dark winters and overcast summers, great lengths are taken to make the most of natural light. Walls are painted in white or with a breath of color. Textiles are cozy without being heavy and dramatic. Furniture is kept clean and minimalist without sacrificing comfort. And rooms are never overstuffed, overdecorated, or overworked. Danish teak and walnut offer a grounding contrast without being heavy-handed, and enameled surfaces and high-shine metallics are unexpected treasures.

A photo posted by JBphotography (@jb11photos) on

“The foundation of Scandinavian design and our Nordic homes will always be light and easy, as we simply need that in the lack of sunlight,” Karl Johan Bertilsson, creative director of Sweden’s leading color authority, NCS Colour Academy, told the European news outlet, the Local.

From Stockholm to Copenhagen, luminescent whites frame both modern and rustic interiors. Blanched pastels appear equally as often—soft, breathy, and surprisingly cozy.

In the mid-2010s, perhaps on the coattails of our love affair with modern design, and most certainly as a reaction to the recession, tinted lights unexpectedly made their way into interior design. Shots of chalky mint and lemon sorbet were seen mingling with the same neutrals that had come and gone a decade prior.

A photo posted by @000fiona0 on

A photo posted by @ilyroom on

Adding both a foil and a bit of whimsy to textural monochromatic palettes, a pastel like Pratt & Lambert’s Contemplation 19-28 (as seen in the palette at the top of the page) is a daring choice with its soft blue-green glow that finds comfortable company when layered with sisal, ivory, or even the au courant grays.

At NeoCon 2014, North America’s largest commercial interiors show, everything from lounge chairs to cubicle partitions was being shown in frosty shades of pink and blue—something that completely delighted us and continues to be an influence on our color palettes, as pink has now blossomed into a unique, captivating neutral for interiors.

Ranging from peachy cameo to a powdery cosmetic tone, pink can be seen everywhere right now. Martin Kesselman from Manhattan’s Colors by Martin perfectly captures the appeal.

“A soft, warm pink is a great complement to crisp décor—a glow over our world as opposed to a cloud hanging over it,” he said. “A perfectly ripe soft peach can be a pleasant surprise to come home to after a long, feverish day.”

It is difficult to imagine how, after the ’80s, we can love these pastels as much as we do, but it’s true. The colors continue to work in new, unexpected ways, and our feelings for these light-filled beauties run deep and wide.

But if this is our past and present, what could be next? Is there another Scandinavian import that will turn everything we know about color on its ear?

The Bold Future of Pastels

Swedish design is influenced by immense forests and a sustainable mindset, Bertilsson explained in a recent post gaining exposure on LinkedIn.

“Fine craftsmanship and strong entrepreneurial spirit, together with a permeating playfulness, provide ground for novelty,” he commented. “We like new ideas, and we are quick to identify and spring new trends and movements.” He was referencing NCS’s new Colors of Sweden trend forecast.

Scandinavian design continues to give us new ideas and possibilities to work with. We’ve come up with new palettes and new ways to work with spaces, new ideas to make the most of sunlight and of nature.

Scandinavian design continues to give us new ideas and possibilities to work with. We’ve come up with new palettes and new ways to work with spaces, new ideas to make the most of sunlight and of nature. And while whites and lights are still a big part of this design, the Nordic countries have given us a new curiosity to work with—and yes, strong muted colors are making a big comeback.

Photo courtesy of: Fawn Galli Interior Design

“What we see now is a change,” Bertilsson added. “In the last two, three years, the colorful colors have made a comeback. At trend shows and fairs we have seen interiors, which have gone from more neutral colors to blue and violet, on to more bright colors, and, most recently, orange, pink, yellow, and red."

Pratt and Lambert’s Schroeder explained that once layered and tonal, pastels are now moving into more interesting high-contrast palettes—paired now with moss, mustard and garnet. This colorful approach incorporates a lively blend of modern and traditional furnishings. Pattern returns to textiles, often modern and geometric. Colorful art replaces the sketches and line drawings previously paired with pastels.

“The look is very modern, individual, and authentic,” Schroeder said. “This is a new eclectic. It’s color and design that make you feel good without trying too hard. While this style has been inspired by folkloric deeps and jewel tones, tapestry, and ornamentation, colors have lightened up, been grayed off, and the result is something entirely fresh and new. It’s very modern, very comfortable, and very colorful.”

Montana Sky
25-9

Hermosa
4-4

Beau Geste
24-18

Glimmer of Lime
16-8

China Rose
32-9

Jack Horner’s Plum
1-20

The Heart of It All

With its independent spirit, masterfully designed furniture, and pledge to make great design accessible to all, it’s no surprise that the Scandinavian movement was and has been a big success in North America. But the reasons we continue our love affair with its beauty and simplicity go far beyond class equality and a passion for sun-kissed spaces. It has to do with how we live and how we want to live.

Ultimately, we are inspired by the purity of the Scandinavian perspective, a design culture where a world of white transforms into chalky pastels and is now adorned with lush midtones and alluring deeps.

We admire Scandinavia’s minimalist lifestyle, and we see the value in living with less. We also admire its connection with nature—that despite Scandinavia’s long winters and overcast summers, people in the Nordics embrace the natural beauty that is all around them and bring as much of what is outdoors in.

Ultimately, we are inspired by the purity of the Scandinavian perspective, a design culture where a world of white transforms into chalky pastels and is now adorned with lush midtones and alluring deeps. So we keep watching, translating, and bringing our own unique perspectives.