Scandinavian Modern furniture is often associated with teak, the ultra-durable hardwood from Southeast Asia. Before their discovery of teak, Scandinavian furniture designers used softer woods, like pine, which is native to the region. Teak is considered by many to be an ideal material for furniture because it’s one of the strongest woods, and at the same time relatively light. Its inherent color and oil gives it a soft, natural sheen, which mirrors the Modern emphasis on truth to materials and functionality.
With the technological innovations of synthetic quick-drying glue and bent plywood, Scandinavian designers created beautifully simple pieces that revolutionized furniture design. Unlike their German modernist counterparts in the Bauhaus movement, Scandinavian designers never warmed to widespread use of metal, perhaps because it lacked “hygge” or “fika” the Scandinavian concept loosely translated as ‘coziness’.
NOT JUST MID-CENTURY DANISH
Americans commonly refer to Scandinavian modern as ‘mid-century Danish’. In fact the origins of this design aesthetic are wider than the tiny peninsula nation and have their roots much early in the 20th century. The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who began designing in the 1920s is often called the “Father of Scandinavian Modern”. The confabulation of the two terms can be attributed to the fact that Danish designers were the most prolific and the most reliant on teak. Denmark was also the chief European importer of teak in the 1950s.
The many Danish designers who used teak include Grete Jalk, one of the movement’s only female designers and Kay Bojesen, who made teak bowls, teak toys and teak children’s furniture. Finn Juhl, often attributed with bringing Scandinavian style to the masses in America, is famous for his teak furniture.
Scandinavian designers witnessed a tremendous response to their work at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair – so much so that American furniture manufacturers fell over themselves recreating these designs. The post-war American public was ravenous for modern home furnishings. American manufacturers were keen to emphasize their designs “authenticity” and often worked with Scandinavian designers.
The American designer Sam Maloof was also fond of using teak. Although he was often branded a modernist, he considered himself a woodworker first and foremost. When he was approached by industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss, who wanted to manufacture a line of his furniture, Maloof refused. He made every piece by hand, with the help of three assistants.
A genus of tropical hardwood tree, teak is native to south and southeast Asia, particularly in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia. Like many natural materials, the current teak supply is tangled in environmental issues and political upheaval. If purchasing new teak, be sure to understand the complex issues surrounding its harvest, particularly Burma, where human rights groups have accused the military junta of forced labor, and other violations, leading Burmese dissidents to start a ‘Teak is Torture’ campaign.
As there is only a very limited supply of sustainably harvested teak, there is even more reason to seek out these vintage pieces – furniture with classic style made from an incredibly durable material. Teak will not warp in cold or heat, is resistant to rot and impervious to infestation – it can remain outdoors for up to 10 years with no damage. Teak turns an ash grey color when exposed to the elements but with a little bit of wood oil its lustrous hue returns immediately.