Speech by Mr Jukka Valtasaari, Secretary of State: Scandinavia House, the Nordic Center in America Young Nordic Design: Generation X, in New York 31th October 2000

Mr Jukka Valtasaari,
Secretary of State,
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to open this exhibition, Young Nordic Design: Generation X.

Before I go on, I have for you a message: Scandinavia’s back in town!

Scandinavia House, the Nordic Center in America, opened two weeks ago, thus giving a distinct face to Scandinavia amid the architecture of New York. Today, young Scandinavian design is on display, although the adjective has changed to "Nordic", and that calls for a brief explanation.

The concept "Scandinavian Design", familiar to all of you, was created fifty years ago when Elizabeth Gordon, one of the great design gurus of the time and owner of the L.A. magazine "House Beautiful", traveled to the 1951 Milano triennale, also known as "The Olympics of Design". One of her conclusions was that applied art in all the Scandinavian countries was similar enough for it to be put together and presented under a geographical banner: Scandinavian design.

A few years later, a large collection of design from our countries was assembled and sent to the United States. It toured here for over two years, was exhibited in 24 locations and attracted over a million visitors. A brand was born.

Like political declarations, design is a product of its time. What was characteristic of Scandinavia in the late forties and early fifties was frugality. There was food rationing and shortages of practically everything else. Norway and Denmark had just been liberated from German occupation, Finland was recovering from its war effort, and only Sweden was in reasonable shape, relatively speaking. Yet all of them wanted to make their mark and be part of the reconstruction of Europe.

Out of the shortages grew a minimalist style in design. Attributes such as genuine, essential, functional, unadorned and justified were used to describe the objects being produced.

The times in Scandinavia then did not call for any non-essential add-ons to objects or products. This left a lasting impression in the United States, where war had not interfered too much and where affluence had survived. We ordinary young Finns admired your cars, the Cadillacs, the Buicks, the DeSotos.

But our designers thought otherwise. Those cars had quite a number of features which they deemed non-essential for the purpose of taking a family comfortably from New York to Boston.

The social environment does not, however, explain the entire story. Design, like all innovation, prospers where cultures meet. In Scandinavia, where similar societal approaches had produced an almost uniform set of values regarding human rights, equality, justice and democracy, creative tension took a different form.

Instead of reflecting clashes between cultures, Scandinavian design was influenced by encounters between man and nature, darkness and light, breaking waves and rocky shores. These interactions not only produced pure forms but also an ethic of design. This stipulated that design should be self-evident, understated, best when you don´t notice it, when the inherent beauty of the object pleases the eye and the mind.

But times changed. The growing affluence of the 1960s and ´70s in Europe brought new lifestyles in its wake. Objects and spaces were redesigned accordingly. Varying and more versatile materials left room for maneuver for the designer and the design industry. Design more attuned to the changing cultural trends gained the upper hand. Italian design eclipsed Scandinavian. As Stuart Wrede puts it in his introduction: "A Scandinavian philosophy of ‘salvation’ through design lost ground". Scandinavian design was caught in a crisis. But with time, as we now can witness, reassessment and renewal took place.

The exhibition upstairs is still very much in harmony with the Scandinavian tradition. This time we call it Nordic, just indicating a general direction, because Generation X is no longer bound to a geographical area. The world of the ´50s generation was still regionally compartmentalized. Now it is an open, global world where production processes, technology and pricing travel easily and universally and where design is an ever more important factor in competition.

Moreover, today´s young generation are well traveled and their ideas are accelerated through the medium of information technology. The Internet multiplies encounters which, in turn, generate innovation.

To my eyes, this exhibition does not look uniform to the same extent as those of earlier decades. Yet I do see a good number of features and ideas generated by the ethic of minimalism that grew out of the ´50s. There is also a remarkable degree of practicality about many of the objects. A winter jacket is a winter jacket even if it is said to be gravity-free, uses sensors to regulate its warmth and is made of recyclable materials.

If the present trend continues and design becomes determined more by environment than by technology, the ethic of minimalism may well re-emerge as the environmental design statement of the future. If this does happen and if abundance does not suffocate the ideal again, this exhibition of young Nordic design may well prove to be an important new beginning.

But if preferences take a different turn - I just had a vision for which I hope you might forgive me. You see, in my day job, which happens to be foreign policy, such dreams are not allowed.

Thank you very much for your attention.