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Scandinavian Design Brings Simplicity to the States

October 31, 2018

On the 11th floor of the Merchandise Mart sits a Nordic design hub of activity and excitement – even when the showroom is utterly devoid of people. One may have noticed the new Scandinavian Spaces location during NeoCon as tides of onlookers flowed through, lounging on the sofas, having conversations in the moss alcove and seemingly conducting meetings over a series of seating systems. But even if you missed the NeoCon introduction, the bevy of awards and mentions in the short few months since June has left many in the industry wondering whether the Scandinavian furniture company appeared seemingly overnight.

The answer: yes and no.

The Decades of Work for Overnight Success

Brothers and co-owners Thomas and Robert Jönsson have been working diligently since 2011 to grow the Scandinavian Spaces brand. After seven years of attending NeoCon, they invested in their own showroom in Chicago. The electrifyingly colorful showroom, designed by Ghislaine Viñas, won Best Small Showroom and introduced the brand to the wider commercial design market. Since then, they’ve increased their sales team and reach, utilizing the momentum gained through the annual trade show.

Things have moved quickly.

However, the Jönsson brothers grew up with an entrepreneurial father who saw modernistic simplicity – a hallmark in their native Sweden – was missing from American office designs. Although working in tech sales during the ‘90s, the elder Jönsson decided to tap into the demand for upgraded corporate interiors after the dot-com burst.

Thomas and Robert grew up helping their father’s fledgling business, assembling furniture on weekends.

Both moved on to other fields in college; Thomas received a chemical science degree from University of California, Berkeley, while Robert moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue a finance BA and accounting MA from University of Texas.

As Robert puts it, laughing at the irony, “I said there was no way in hell I was going to continue our father’s work.”

The stock market once again had other plans for the Jönssons. Robert called Thomas, convincing him to move to Austin from Stockholm, and together they approached their parents in purchasing the company with the goal of bringing Scandinavian design and furniture to the States.

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Today they represent nine Scandinavian companies – all of which currently come from Sweden. While their heritage and ties stem from Sweden (where they both were born and lived until the ‘90s), Thomas said the use of the term “Scandinavian” was intentional. They have plans to continue expanding as far as possible and decided from the beginning not to create constraints on their brand. The future of the company can see the inclusion of design from around the Scandinavian regions.

Turning Their Eyes to The Mart

Already that expansion is evident. In 2018 they leased the newly available 11th floor spot in the Merchandise Mart just in time for NeoCon.

They admit they may have jumped the gun, and waiting another year to settle into a showroom space could have been helpful (particularly as Thomas’s first child was born in April), but fortune tends to favor the brave.

It also favors those who know how to surround themselves with those who can fill the gaps in their abilities and knowledge. They hired Ghislaine Viñas to design the showroom, and her strong grasp of interiors and colors pulled the space together, sometimes even against the brothers’ initial opinions.

In Scandinavian countries, bright hues are often used, which gave Viñas a wide berth for her designs. “I remember when she came to us with the original color schematics and we were like... oh man...” laughs Robert, recounting their nerves over designing the showroom.

Thomas adds, “I remember opening it up and saying ‘Rob! It’s a yellow sofa!’”

“What made me nervous were all the tones of yellow,” Robert continues. “I wasn’t sure and asked, ‘Can you do this?’ I remember [Viñas] said: ‘Robert, I’m an expert at this. You’re colorblind. Let me do my job.’”

That trust earned the Best Small Showroom award at NeoCon, and the multi-tones of yellow not only ended up working but have become the most noticeable aspects of the space.

Expanding Scandinavian Simplicity

Much has been said over the years regarding the importance of wellness in workplace design, as well as the reemergence of Modernism in America.

The history of design in the Scandinavian region has always centered around wellness and Modernist aesthetics, however. According to the United Nations, Norway, Denmark and Sweden were three of the top five happiest countries in the world, alongside their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland. (Scandinavia is defined as Norway, Denmark and Sweden, while Nordic countries are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and their associated territories.)

Known for being the birthplace of IKEA, Swedish design has often been associated with clean, simplistic lines and utilitarianism. IKEA began selling mail-order furniture in 1948. The flat-packages meant convenient and cheap shipping, and the self-assembly aspect of simplistic furniture allowed even the most impoverished citizens to buy and personalize their furniture and living spaces. The no-nonsense of furniture highlighted by whimsical, bright and colorful accessories and textiles has continued to be a hallmark of Swedish design.

Robert points out that looking at Swedish design history, one would see the same aesthetic further back in time.

Additionally, while America is debating what constitutes wellness in the workplace – as well as sit-stand desks and the open office versus closed office question – Scandinavian design has been at the forefront of health and wellness. Pointing to KINNARPS’ Polaris and Series[P] sit-stand desks, Robert mentions that the company sold its first sit-stand systems in the early ‘90s. “Scandinavian design is about 10 years ahead of the rest of the world.”

The Growing Pains of Innovation

Of course, being the first doesn’t automatically mean most successful, but the Jönssons are hoping that some of their more extreme pieces will be seen as innovative classics by history – even if they aren’t currently flying off the shelves.

That hasn’t been the case for their Vagabond by Materia system that began selling immediately after being presented. Robert says they were shocked by the reception at first – they were prepared to wait months or years after a product is made available for it to start to gain traction in the industry. Vagabond’s success has helped the brothers find their feet in a market they admit they don’t have an educational background in.

What Comes Next in Scandinavian Design

What lies at the heart of Scandinavian Spaces, beyond the aesthetic, bright colors and awards, are the ideals of the Jönsson brothers that they are currently learning to disseminate throughout their fast-growing company. Creating a company culture is hard, they admitted, but it’s an important aspect of creating longevity for their brand and emboldening their employees.

When asked what’s on the horizon or if they needed some time to absorb all the changes in the last year, they laughed and answered “a little bit of both.”

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Some of Our Favorite Scandinavian Design ►

Ginko from Blå Station design by Stone Designs

These easy-to-place acoustic panels give designers a wide variety of customizable options through color and how they are arranged on a vertical surface.

Pixel from Nordgröna design by Oudendijk & Pressfeldt

Available in 15 colors, the Pixel collection is made of natural Reindeer Moss. Environmentally friendly and fire-resistant, the moss can be laid out on horizontal or vertical surfaces, providing sound absorption and an eye-catching detail.

Innovation C from Blå Station design by Fredrik Mattson

Blending seating, work surface, and the ability to swivel, Innovation C is the next thing in informal task seating.

The Bin from Materia design by Front

Goodbye to boring trash bins! Bin from Materia takes inspiration from paper lanterns to create a sculptural vessel for tossing waste.

Gap table from Blå Station design by Osko + Deichmann

Saving space doesn’t mean sacrificing design. With the Gap table from Blå Station, each table nestles into each other, stacking away quickly and easily.

Poppe from Blå Station by Stefan Borselius

Within the Scandinavian Spaces Chicago showroom is an example of the Poppe chair in bright yellow. Lovingly referred to as “The Banana Chair,” the thin seat and high-back of the Poppe provides an eye-catching silhouette while the shape gives optimal lumbar support.

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About the author
Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.