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Undressing Scandinavian design

Ever since the bead and charm explosion, Scandinavian jewellery design has grown in stature. Coleby Nicholson visited Denmark to explore what it is and why it’s so popular.

Like most people in the West, Australians are ardent followers of US popular culture. Across music, movies, television, fashion, food and even sporting culture, we have taken a liking to most US trends, except for jewellery. When it comes to our taste in jewellery, we look towards Europe.

While almost all iconic fine jewellery houses like Bulgari and Cartier have their roots in Europe, there are few high-profile US jewellery brands even when it comes to the mass market.

Australian women seem to prefer the more stylish Europeans when it comes to adornment. Traditionally, this demand centred around the traditional western Europe culture centres Italy and France; however, in recent years, the gaze of the consumer has moved north to focus on Scandinavian design.

What it is that makes Scandinavian design so popular? Its clean, no-nonsense approach has always worked with products of interior and industrial design, such as furniture, but now Scandinavian jewellery is resonating with consumers, who are voting their approval at cash registers across the country.

Some clue as to why it’s so difficult to pinpoint the reasons that Scandinavian jewellery has become so popular might lie in the notion that consumers struggle to define what is, and is not, Scandinavian, let alone what is and isn’t Scandinavian design.

Apart from the fact that it’s a historical and geographical region named after the Scandinavian Peninsula, the term is often misused – for example, it’s not a country! Because of their similar languages, Norway, Sweden and Denmark form Scandinavia; however, Finland and Iceland are often incorrectly included.

The descriptors “Scandinavia” and “Nordic” may often be misused but there is no confusion about the love that Australian consumers feel for what almost everyone describes as clean and minimalistic jewellery design.

“Design in Denmark for at least the past 20 years has almost been a national sport,” says Mads Ziegler, creative director for Danish jewellery house Story by Kranz Ziegler. “We [Danes] are more minimalistic; we are very good at ‘less is more’ and we have a long tradition of doing it in our own way. It started with furniture and many of these are still icons of the furniture industry today.”

Ziegler’s mention of furniture is important because Danish design is a style that came into popularity in the mid-20th century and is usually applied to industrial design, furniture and household objects. In the late 1940s, shortly after the end of the Second World War, conditions in Denmark were ideally suited to success in design. At the time, emphasis was put on furniture but architecture, silver, ceramics, glass and textiles also benefited from the trend.

In more recent times, jewellery has been added to that list.

“When I see what they do abroad with their jewellery design I will often say, ‘This is a nice piece but I would remove things’. They have a tendency of not stopping and overdoing design,” Ziegler explains.

Mette Saabye, Trollbeads global head of design, believes the hallmark of Scandinavian design is pure and soft lines, with reflective surfaces, adding that Danish design is inspired by nature.

“The design language and form is ultimately an expression or interpretation of our nature: the water around us; the waves – all present in the reflecting surfaces; our rolling hills are also present in the soft gentle shapes of many of our design classics,” Saabye says.

Ziegler also believes that the success of Danish design might be because it’s more adventurous and imaginative.

One only has to look to the Sydney Opera House, designed in 1957 by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, to see the sense of adventure and also understand the long-term connection between the two countries and design appreciation.

According to Julie Sandlau, head designer at her eponymous jewellery brand, “There are two main reasons why Danish design stands out – the first is quality; the second is braveness. Danish design doesn’t look like just any piece of generic jewellery.”

Sandlau believes another attribute to Scandinavian design is that it’s not polished.

“It’s hard to define exactly why it’s different, but it’s delicate and timeless. You should be able to look at a design in 10 to 20 years and say, ‘That’s really well done; it’s a beautiful piece of jewellery, whether it’s for fashion or formal wear or for everyday use.’”

In addition to nature, Saabye says she draws inspiration from the way, “Jewellery communicates who we are, our identity, our values, our memories. I reflect on life and I interpret it and express it in a way that can touch us all.”

Not only is the country recognised for design excellence but Danes also certainly appreciate design in their everyday life.

“If you visit a Danish home, they spend a lot of money on their housing, decor and furniture,” says Charlotte Biehl, chief designer at byBiehl, another Copenhagen-based jewellery house. “We are brought up to appreciate design; it’s cultural. Danish people prioritise good design even if they are not wealthy – we like ‘less is better’; we cut out all the useless stuff; we make it clean, pure and as simple
as possible.”

On that point, Ziegler agrees: “Danish people learn to appreciate design at an early age”, he says, adding that he also believes the weather contributes a lot towards design appreciation as a cultural issue. “You can see in people’s homes that they care a lot about design because, in Denmark, design is more on show. Danish people visit each other’s houses much more than in southern Europe, where it’s more of an outdoor lifestyle and where they meet in restaurants and cafes.”

Because Danes spend a lot more time indoors due to the weather, Ziegler believes their homes become a design showcase and all aspects of home decoration take on a designer influence.

“People have different priorities in other parts of Europe because of the climate and they spend money on other things,” he says.
Biehl’s designs aim to be simple, sophisticated, timeless and personal. She launched her company after a career in corporate finance and says two years of designing and testing went into the products prior to release.

“When I look at my design, it has to fit all four categories, and then I look at every single design and consider whether something will have hype now but will be out in six months,” Biehl explains. “We look for designs that we believe will have the potential to become classic and still sell in five years.”

Biehl was inspired to create the range because she identified a gap in the market for jewellery that was elegant enough to wear with a suit at work but priced accessibly for a larger market penetration.

Interestingly, prior to starting her business in 2001, Julie Sandlau did not have a jewellery design background either.

“I was studying law and working as a model,” Sandlau says. “I always loved tools because my father was a toolmaker but I thought I should become a lawyer.

When I took some time off, I started making fashion accessories as a hobby.”

Sandlau didn’t start selling her work until a fashion store asked her to make some earrings. “I told the owner that I don’t do jewellery. She kept asking me to design some earrings and after I rejected her a few times, I finally made them,” she says.

The jewellery sold out in the store so more were made.

“It was a huge success,” Sandlau beams. “My husband said, ‘You’re really good at this. We should start a business.’ He is a good salesman so I made it and he sold it.”

Michael Witt Johansen is another Danish designer who has taken the minimalist approach for his Bering watches, though he cautions that an item will not necessarily be successful just because it is clean and simple in its design. “Just because you design in a minimalist way doesn’t mean it’s good. Like all other design, there is good and bad minimalist work,” Witt Johansen says.

Ziegler agrees: “I have a lot of designs in my desk drawer that are minimalist but they never come out of the drawer because they just won’t work.”

It’s generally agreed that the key hallmark of Scandinavian design is minimalism, with its clean simple lines and absence of heavy elements, but geo-political aspects are often said to have helped shape and define the Scandinavian look also. For example, one wonders whether survival in the northern European winters required products to be highly functional above everything else.

Ziegler also points to another issue: “Scandinavian people might be more creative because we don’t have much [of a heavy] manufacturing industry so we have to be adventurous in other ways.”

There are obviously many factors that contribute to the way the people of Denmark, Sweden and Norway see objects and how they have shaped their design. Some of these factors date back centuries, even though the term “Scandinavian design” is said to have been coined from a design show that travelled the US and Canada from 1954 to 1957.

The show promoted a “Scandinavian way of living,” and exhibited various works by Nordic designers that utilise features that continue to be used today: beautiful, simple, clean designs inspired by nature and the northern climate that are accessible and available to all with an emphasis on enjoying the domestic environment.

Today the Danish Government provides strong support to designers via The Danish Agency for Culture. With an annual budget of around DKK4.8 billion (AU$95 million), the agency employs about 300 professionals. Its major priority is to promote increased awareness of Danish arts and culture as a top priority.

“For example, the Danish Government Art Foundation made a large push in Sydney last year, and one is being planned in China this year. Also the Danish State Art Foundation promotes the State Jewelry Box, a collection of the best Danish jewellery in the past 40 years,” Saabye explains.

It’s an interesting initiative; citizens representing Denmark at official events abroad can borrow one of the many pieces of jewellery purchased by the Danish Arts Foundation. Since 2007, the foundation has purchased jewellery from some of the most revered jewellery designers in Denmark and, while supporting the artists, their work is occasionally put on public display to promote Danish jewellery design in Denmark and abroad.

Saabye highlights the importance of the State Jewelry Box: “It’s promoted internationally along with the rest of our design and art, often represented by our Queen. It’s a large national priority relative to our small country size.”

With this in mind, Ziegler probably isn’t too far off the mark when he says that design in Denmark is almost a national sport, and one with firm backing from the government.












ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Coleby Nicholson • Managing Editor

Managing Editor • Jeweller Magazine


Coleby Nicholson is publisher and managing editor of Jeweller magazine. He has covered the jewellery industry for more than a decade and specialises in business-to-business aspects of the industry.

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Tuesday, 16 July, 2019 10:51pm
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