It takes a lot of cash to have few things: the fetishisation of scandinavian minimalism

People are loving clean lines, less clutter, getting balanced and getting conscious with their design choices these days. Scandinavian design captures this essence and is increasingly infiltrating home decor, fashion, food and coffee. But why? and why now?
Within Europe, Nordic culture and society is put on a socio-economic, political and cultural pedestal: from their energy efficiency (even though Norway’s top export is petroleum), to their social-democratic approach to government policies, they really seem to be getting it right. Yet, more recently, our obsession with that part of the world is reaching into the realms of fashion, design and food, with some people calling this obsession – Scandimania.

‘Scandinavia’ refers to the countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark and the term ‘Nordic’ includes Finland, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Scandinavian minimalism and Nordic style can be characterised by simplicity, neutral tones, subtle and chromatic highlights and natural materials – intersecting to create a vision of effortless calm and understated cool. The region is part of Europe and therefore it’s Western and, like everything Western, it spreads like a cancer, proliferating uncontrollably, killing all other goodness in its path. Living in South Africa, I see it, and it’s everywhere.
The issue with the ideology of minimalism, however, is that it takes a certain level of economic stability for someone to truly be able to live with very little - unless you’re a monk living in a monastery. In capitalist-consumerist culture, by adopting the ideology of minimalism, you’re trying to show the world that you don’t need material stuff to be happy. But whilst projecting this image you know that if there’s anything you need, you can buy it. Conversely, for someone who is economically disadvantaged and financially unstable, a penny-pincher-hoarder mentality can take charge: because you don’t know when you’re next going to need that thing that you don’t need right now, but may need at some unspecified time in the future - it takes a lot of cash to have few things.

Scandinavian countries are looked up to for their inclusive and alternative education system, their reformative prison system, the generous allocation of both maternity and paternity leave and some of the best health care systems in the world – their way of life is essentially being idolised. By contrast, Krishnendu Ray, Chair of the Food Studies Program at New York University provides an interesting analysis of the way a society relates to immigrant culture, more specifically –food. He states that how we value a culture’s cuisine often reflects the status of those who cook it. He demonstrates this in his book ‘The Ethnic Restaurateur” and talks about how Greek and Italian immigrants who came to the US in the early 1880s and the cultures that came with them, were considered inferior to the dominant Anglo-American culture. However, he also notes, that as their livelihoods improved over the decades and they moved up the economic and social ladder in America, appreciation for their food changed, too. Through this lens, it could be argued that ‘Scandimania’ is successfully propelling itself across the globe due to the position of its countries at the top of the global socio-economic ladder, a ladder constructed and subsequently kicked away by dominant international institutions.
But how has minimalism taken off in a capitalist culture, in which being a consumer is in fact “our real job”? Firstly, don’t be fooled, consuming still takes place, but the ideology behind the consumption changes – now driven by moral sentiments. By consuming minimalist ideology, through fashion, food and interior design, we too can be fulfilled by ‘not having very much’ and obtain a sliver of cosy, Nordic prosperity accentuated by chromatic contentment.

But how did Scandinavia come to be so blissful? In a brief and historical context, Sweden managed to retain its neutrality during the world wars, so in the post-war period had the upper hand with intact means of production and labour. Norway has a tiny population, a lot of land and is rich in resources (especially oil), and during the time of great depression dropped the gold standard which meant it felt the repercussions a lot less than those who didn’t. Finland, again, has a small, well-educated population. Denmark, unlike other Nordic countries, was a major colonial power. It had trading stations built in Ghana in 1661, stole Greenland in 1546 and took possession of what they called the Danish West Indies in the late 17th century. So, like other European colonial powers, the Danes have amassed wealth at the expense and plight of other, non-western countries.
Though this wealth is not to be shared. Nordic governments are extremely aware of their positions at the top of those patronising lists and they’re keen to stay there. Their immigration laws are amongst the toughest in the world and in terms of taking refugees, in 2015, Norway said that 5,000 of the roughly 33,000 asylum seekers who came to Norway that year will be moved on to other countries. Similarly, in the first half of 2016, nearly 5000 refugees withdrew their asylum applications from Sweden due to severe family reunion restrictions and pay-outs that offered asylum seekers £3,500 to return to their home country. So the sweet life of socialist Scandinavia is reserved for them and them alone.
Thus, their histories are much the same - oil, colonisation and a small population - the real recipe for Nordic chic.

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