Finland is home to brands like Marimekko and Artek, and has produced architects and designers like Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen. But you don’t need to go shopping or visit Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, to fully appreciate the nation’s design legacy. All you likely have to do is open a kitchen drawer, office closet, or garage toolbox and pull out a pair of orange, plastic-handled scissors.
Even if you don’t immediately recognize the maker—Fiskars Corporation, the Finnish consumer goods company—you’ve likely used these lightweight shears at least once while sewing, gardening, or wrapping presents. More than 1 billion pairs have been sold since they first hit the market in 1967, and in Finland, the word “Fiskars” is even synonymous with scissors. Their ubiquity, though, isn’t without reason: As the world’s first plastic-handled scissors, they’re considered a game-changer in the field of industrial design.
Scissors are likely thousands of years old, and were used by everyone from the ancient Egyptians to members of China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE). Fiskars itself—which was founded in 1649, in Fiskars Village, Finland—has manufactured the tools for centuries. The brand was once known for forging quality metal scissors that were used in tailoring clothes and upholstering furniture. But these tools were “quite, quite heavy,” and cumbersome to use, Jay Gillespie, the company’s vice president of marketing, tells Mental Floss.
This changed in the 1960s, as plastic was just starting to become a popular material. Fiskars began using the light, strong compound to make tabletops and dishes, but one of the company's industrial designers, Olof Bäckström, sensed an opportunity to completely reinvent one of the company’s signature goods. Using plastic, he created a lighter scissor handle that was curved to fit the hand, thus making them easier to hold. Ultimately, this tweak also helped make the scissors easier to manufacture, helping them become affordable to the masses.
With a single prototype, “we completely redefined a product,” Gillespie says. “Today it’s very hard to find scissors that don’t have plastic handles.”
Bäckström didn’t technically invent the concept of ergonomically designed scissors, as Fiskars had been casting similar designs in metal for years, Gillespie says. However, the designer “probably took it to the next level,” he concludes, as he “solved the problem of weight and fit.”
Bäckström originally wanted his scissors to be black. But at the time, Fiskars was making orange juicers from—you guessed it—orange plastic. The first prototype for plastic-handled scissors was created with plastic from a juicer that was left in a machine. Fiskars employees ended up liking this original look so much that they ultimately voted to stick with it.
Save for a few minor tweaks, like a more durable plastic handle and an improved angle, the scissors’s original design has remained largely unchanged since Bäckström’s initial stroke of genius. They eventually became so iconic that competitors began copying their look, forcing the Finnish company to trademark their signature “Fiskars Orange.” Today, Fiskars is the only brand in the world that’s allowed to manufacture orange-handled scissors in the U.S., Canada, and Finland, according to Gillespie.
For all these reasons—and to mark the product's 50th birthday in 2017—the Design Museum Helsinki has created an ongoing exhibition that celebrates the utilitarian household staple. The “Our Scissors” exhibition, which ends on October 29, features works by artists and designers who use (or simply appreciate) orange-handled scissors. They include contributions from fashion designer Tracy Reese, Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney, and other creative influencers, all of whom sing the praises of a tiny Finnish tool that ended up taking the world by storm.