Back in the Fabulous '50s, a traveling design show put Scandinavian style on the international map and briefly transformed living rooms into temples of Danish modern teak. A brash new exhibit, "Young Nordic Design: Generation X," could be the advance guard for a new wave of "Scandi" chic.
Curves of pale birch, blocks of glass and minimalist carpets of soft wool set the tone for the show, which opened Wednesday at the Finnish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. But designers only nod to their famous modernist heritage. Instead, the progeny of such master designers as Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen seem to have forsaken the snow-covered forests for a sunny Mediterranean holiday.
Bowls are made of straw, jewelry wraps playfully around the body, plastic snack plates snap together like toys, a rocking chair is little more than an oversize potato chip, and a lamp in the shape of a yo-yo is meant to be rolled across the floor.
Such whimsical work comes from designers born in the 1960s and 1970s. Working largely on their own, these upstarts have become the leading edge in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Companies may bear names like Snowcrash and Permafrost, but the designers have come in from the cold.
"This is the first major survey of Nordic design since the 1950s," says Tuula Yrjo-Koskinen, the Finnish cultural counselor. "This is like a new coming."
The exhibition originated in New York last fall, where it was the inaugural event at Scandinavia House, a cultural center opened by the American-Scandinavian Foundation. The show was held over by popular demand, and it came to Washington as a happy accident of scheduling. "Young Nordic Design" will go next to Mexico City, then to Berlin.
Design shows can have broad impact. The first time around, an exhibition called "Design in Scandinavia" sent clean-lined Danish chairs, Norwegian enamelware, Swedish silver and Finnish glass on a 24-city North American tour. From 1954 to 1957, millions of visitors were introduced to functional elegance. The effort was supported by the influential editor of House Beautiful magazine, Elizabeth Gordon, who had seen Finnish and Swedish designs in Milan. A wave of redecorating followed as Americans adopted the fresh approach to contemporary living and furnishings by Aalto and Jacobsen, which now are highly collectible.
Yrjo-Koskinen says she can "spot the Nordic qualities" in even the least traditional designs: lightness, natural materials, highly unusual silver jewelry, elegant minimalism in wood chairs, and finely crafted textiles.
But the aesthetics are stateless rather than regional. The designs would be equally appropriate to global nomads in Tokyo, London or Reykjavik. A utopian attention to everyday objects continues, but the focus is on millennial lifestyle accessories.
In the fashion department, an outer garment called a "gravity-free jacket" promises to make the wearer feel as if the jacket is weightless -- and to hold the wearer's shape after the body has departed. That one is only a prototype made of filmy layers of transparent plastic. But a "smart" jumpsuit hanging nearby is in production. It comes wired with 17 sensors to provide heat if body temperature falls, give directions and send out distress signals in case of extreme adventure.
Several pieces in the show already are icons of contemporary design. The Globlow lamp by Snowcrash, a silky pouf of parachute fabric that inflates and deflates as the light is turned off and on, was a hit of the Milan Furniture Fair in 1997. Harri Koskinen's Block Lamp, essentially a light bulb encased in a glass brick, is sold at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Hans Sandgren Jacobsen's steely "Viper Screen" is made by the prestigious Fritz Hansen company. The Kiss chair by Sari Anttonen won a Good Design award from the Chicago Athenaeum.
But many prototypes are in search of a manufacturer. Sigbjorn Windingstad's plastic "Bagman" figure would enliven the handlebars of any bicycle while holding a bag. Tinna Gunnarsdottir's lacelike industrial-rubber table mats await mass production.
Some Generation X designers will turn to manufacturers outside the Nordic fold. Ilkka Suppanen, one of the best known of Finland's New Age designers, is already among them. He works with Snowcrash but maintains his own studio in Helsinki. His airy felt "Flying Carpet" sofa, designed in 1998, is a highlight of the display. Essentially a rug on spindly legs, it is at least as comfortable as a futon and fully collapsible.
And it ripples like a banner on the battlefield of design. The piece is made in Italy by the Cappellini company, a sign that the next new wave will be global design.
Young Nordic Design: Generation X at the Embassy of Finland, 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. seven days a week, through April 1. Call 202-298-5800 for more information.