Scandinavian furniture, and particularly Danish furniture, was held in high regard in Britain from the 50s onwards. Scandinavian furniture was well designed, modern and well made. It had a strong appeal to middle class homes and was regarded as a statement of good taste. The kudos of Danish furniture was assured when the American television company, CBS, chose the famous Danish design, the 'Round Chair' by Hans Wegner, for the presidential debates between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.
In the fifties, people liked the simplicity of the Scandinavian design, but it was the high standard of the finish that made them prefer it to home-grown products. Scandinavian furniture of the time was made from teak, a wood with a distinctive grain pattern. Teak is an oily wood and was new to Britain in the fifties, excepting for its use in garden furniture and occasionally in kitchen fittings. Scandinavian teak furniture was oiled by hand and had a satin finish. It contrasted sharply with the high polish applied to British furniture.
Imports of Scandinavian furniture to the UK rose substantially in the late 'fifties, with imports of Danish furniture increasing by over 500% between 1954 and 1960. Importers of Scandinavian furniture, such as Frederick Restall Ltd of Birmingham, saw their business more than double in the late 'fifties. Restsalls imported from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Holland. Some of the more exclusive retailers, such as Heals, bought direct from Scandinavia. Furniture makers, Morris of Glasgow, set up an import business, Skan-Design, to handle the products of over forty Scandinavian furniture makers.
Retail giant GUS set up a link with the Scandinavian manufacturer, Bahus, who came from near Bergen, in Norway. The first store to start selling the furniture was a branch of James Woodhouse and Son in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Harold F Thompson, Chairman and Managing Director of GUS Furniture, reasoned that the ease of shipping from Norway to Newcastle made the store in Newcastle the ideal choice to start the venture.
From the late 50s, some of the more expensive British manufacturers were already making Scandinavian style designs. One the first British firms to make teak furniture was A Younger Ltd. They marketed their 'Moselle' dining suite in teak January 1955.
Top manufacturer Archie Shine also made Scandinavian style furniture; their 'Hamilton' sideboard by Robert Heritage won a design award as early as 1958. Hille introduced teak furniture in 1960. Gimson and Slater announced a new dining room suite in rosewood, a favourite wood for the very best Scandinavian furniture, in 1960. This design sold for £360, which would be approaching £6000 in todays money.
Furniture by these makers was the very best of the era. It was high quality and expensive. As with contemporary furniture in the 'fifties, mass-market makers soon adopted the Scandinavian style.
Some of the pioneers of mass-market Scandinavian style in the UK were the same firms who pioneered early contemporary design. A H McIntosh launched a new design in 1959, the 'Dunvegan' sideboard in teak veneer, which later became one of their best selling designs. The design was simple, with scallop shaped wooden handles. At 6 foot 3 inches in length and a little taller than the classic coffin style Scandinavian sideboard, it looked imposing.
F Austin, also a pioneer of the early contemporary style, introduced their first teak furniture in 1961. Their new dining room suite was available in teak with contrasting rosewood, although they hedged their bets by offering tola and rosewood as an alternative. The design was very simple and modern for mass-market furniture of the early 'sixties. There were several variants, including one with collapsible sliding doors. All were very good value, with the 5ft version costing 26 [£ 398 in todays money].
E Gomme was surprisingly slow to catch onto the fashion for teak furniture. Gomme finally went Danish in 1962. In an attempt to stop losing sales to Scandinavian imports, they hired their own Danish designer, Ib Kofod-Larsen to design a new range, G-Plan Danish.
Although teak was the wood most associated with Scandinavian furniture, designers from Scandinavia started to move away from teak as early as 1962. Scandinavian furniture makers first experimented with light oak, but they found little market for it. Then they tried rosewood, which unlike its name suggests, does not come from rose trees, but is named after its reddish colour. Like teak, rosewood has a distinctive grain pattern and also like teak it was difficult to match and even more difficult to find veneers with a suitable pattern. Rosewood worked for a while at the top end of the market. It was a statement of exclusivity that the manufacturers at the cheaper end of the market could not copy. However, rosewood was too expensive, even at the top end of the market, and the dark colour did not suit everyone's taste.
Some leading British firms were also poised to reject teak. For most of the public though, the early years of the 'sixties were only the beginning of the love affair with teak and Scandinavian style that would last another twenty years. Scandinavian style continued to mean good taste for UK buyers throughout the 70s.
By Steven Braggs