Why Are Swedes So Good at Design?

What do ecclesiastical garments have in common with a handheld version of a DJ's mixing board? Both were shortlisted for the Swedish Design Award, one of the country's most prestigious accolades.

Currently on display at the Eugenides Foundation in Athens, they are part of an exhibit featuring the 10 winners and nine nominees that has been touring the world since June 2008. Other examples include a table with sides six millimeters thick, a light that shuts itself off when the room is empty, microfiber equestrian boots, and the first helmet approved by both the United States and the European Union for a range of extreme sports—including rafting, snowboarding, and mountain biking. Culled from 200 entries, the winning products all share the clean lines, simple materials, and sheer usefulness that have come to define Swedish design. "This is a competition that rewards designers and capitalists," says Anna Björkander of the Swedish Consulate General, noting that the winners had to present products that were innovative and sustainable but also ripe with market potential.

In addition to showcasing Scandinavian ingenuity, the exhibit provides a window into the creative processes of the country that birthed the Nobel Prize, IKEA, and H&M. Sweden's penchant for practical innovation stems in part from its geography. "Resources and materials are hard to come by in the woods of rural Sweden," says Janice Simonsen, IKEA's design spokesperson for the U.S. So Swedes are careful to make full and efficient use of the materials they've got: birch, pine, cotton, and felt.

Yet other countries—Norway and Finland, to name two—face a similarly harsh climate. What is it about Sweden that fosters such devotion to innovative design? Partly, it's historical tradition: Swedes didn't invent design, but they wrote one of the first books on it. Modern Swedish Design: Three Founding Texts outlines the importance of function, aesthetics, and affordability, and remains in print even though the first volume was published in 1899. Two of the authors, art historian Gregor Paulsson and architect Gunnar Asplund, established the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, a months-long public display of local works like furniture and models for sustainable housing. The exhibition introduced millions of Swedes to the previously unheard-of concept of functionalism, and raised the profiles of homegrown architects, many of whom received commissions after participating in the fair.

The high-concept design culture is also rooted in the country's socialist ideology. Swedes have an overarching belief in equality, and deep sympathy for the underdog. Minimalism and practicality are virtues, and there is no shame in having the same couch as everyone else on the block. In profiling notable residences for her coffee-table book Domesticities, Pilar Viladas cited the Swedish word lagom, which means "not too much, not too little." It is what Swedes strive for.

To be sure, the pared-down look is not for everyone. "At first blush it doesn't wow you," says Matthew Burger, chairperson of industrial design at Pratt Institute, which featured the nominees at its Manhattan gallery this summer. Even the most ardent Volvo and Saab fans would concede that other cars have more sex appeal. But the love that grows is the one that endures, and the brilliance of Swedish products is often revealed in their user-friendliness: Volvo and Saab are top-rated for safety; Saab recently signed contracts worth nearly $20 million to provide vehicles for the U.S. Army. H&M is durable and affordable; it's proven so successful that it added 196 stores around the world in 2008. When Swedes create a product, "they consider the person who is trying to use it," says Burger. And what cost-conscious extreme athlete wouldn't want one helmet that's good for any occasion?