Northern exposure

A year-long cultural initiative promoting Nordic design and a young, adventurous generation of design talent is finally putting Norway on the design map. It’s about time, says Sara Manuelli

The image of Norway has always lagged behind its Scandinavian neighbours. Try to think of an image of Norway except for the fjord, or perhaps The Scream, which is now widely available in inflatable form. Even the clich̩s are too limited to portray the cultural richness of this Northern outpost, home to artists such as E Munch, H Ibsen and E Grieg. Norwegian design in particular has suffered from a lack of star players that would otherwise promote an indigenous aesthetic, such as Alvar Aalto did for Finland or Bruno Mathusson for Sweden. Scarcity of manufacturers and Рuntil recently Рdesign schools, have led talented designers to search for success abroad.

One of the differences between Norway and other Scandinavian countries is the environment, says Graig Dykers, partner of Norwegian architectural and interior design consultancy Snøhetta. “Norway has a distinct landscape that is not found in Europe and Scandinavia; it is vertical and dynamic. Its location so far to the north provides it with unusual seasons of darkness and light. Landscape and climate have affected the design of physical objects, from clothing and kitchen utensils to architecture.

“As a consequence, Norwegian design is usually described as robust and direct, owing to the harshness of the natural elements,” he adds.

There is another element that differentiates Norway from its neighbours: its national identity is still very young. “Despite the long history of Norway as a Viking nation, its modern history is relatively short, achieving independence only in the last century,” explains Dykers. “This means that a contemporary Norwegian character hasn’t had time to develop. Attempts were made to identify a distinctive Norwegian identity in the 19th and 20th century, but they were merely attempts to nationalise design.”

Today a younger, motivated generation is emerging. “There is a tendency to look at other countries and cultures for inspiration, while retaining a connection to the unique character of this land,” says Dykers. As a result, Dykers says that “contemporary design is still simple and clear, yet it possesses a savvyness that is a sign of growing self confidence.”

Reasons for the Norwegian renaissance seem mainly economic. One of the biggest oil exporters in the world, Norway is now enjoying a second wave of economic vitality, after the big boom of the 1970s and 1980s. This time, though, the wealth has been re-directed into a youthful culture and leisure scene. The capital Oslo “now boasts more nightclubs and bars than its Scandinavian counterparts Stockholm and Copenhagen,” says Dykers.

A concrete example of this new confidence has been shown here in the UK with Visions of Norway, a year-long cultural programme promoting Nordic design and culture, backed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Covering diverse subjects such as textiles, glass, photography, music and video art, it has shown the rich diversity of talent. Currently on show at the Design Museum in London is Waves, a small selection of furniture pieces that includes established names such as Peter Opsvik and newcomers such as the design collective Norway Says. It shows how furniture is very much a hands-on tradition; products are often designed and assembled by the same person.

A sparsely populated country, Norway’s lack of an urban elite has led to a democratic and egalitarian approach to design, characterised by a simplicity of materials, an ecological awareness and a functional clarity. In the 1950s and 1960s and even today, according to the exhibition, Norwegian design is actively promoting a design ethos that would be neither elitist nor mass produced, but would assume the responsibilities involved in production and emphasise the use of materials and purity of line.

Waves has made the public and manufacturers aware of Norwegian design. “One piece, the Breeze chair by Kristin Saeterhaug and Kaja Kosonen Geiran, is to be produced by Fontana Arte,” points out Catherine Lande, the exhibition co-ordinator at Norsk Form, who created the touring exhibition for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For Lande, this is an important achievement. “We don’t have many factories left in Norway, you either do things because you get commissioned, or you design something and then find a producer,” she explains. The exhibition is sponsored by the Norwegian Furnishing Manufacturers Association and the Norwegian Association of Interior and Furniture designers. This in itself is a sign of change for Nordic design.

But it isn’t all about Norwegian wood. Graphics, Web design, video art and photography have all been enjoying a creative bloom. British-trained Espen Gees, winner of last year’s London Photographic Awards, is now much in demand, working on advertising campaigns for corporate clients in Norway such as BP Amoco. His trademark animal series displays a dream like quality, while the exploration of icons is the subject of his forthcoming show in Oslo. The 29-year-old photographer acknowledges a Northern style to his images. “I think the Scandinavian light is a big inspiration,” he says. “Sometimes it’s very dark and other times very light… There is a melancholy to my images. Some villages in Norway are deserted after eight o’clock in the evening. It can be a very desolate place, and it shows in my pictures.” Gees says that although Norway is still considered as a smaller sibling of Sweden and Denmark, things are improving. “There are so many Norwegians studying abroad and then coming back here,” he says. “They are bound to bring something back.”

A sign that the time might be right to return home is given by Einar Hareide’s decision to come back to Norway last January, to set up an industrial design consultancy, Designmills, in the town of Moss. In his early forties, Hareide studied industrial design in Sweden, and was director of design for Saab between 1996-1999. At present, Designmills is producing a range of office chairs for Savo, outdoor shoes for Viking and a picnic bag concept for sportsware company Helly Hansen. “There is a great potential for industrial design in Norway,” he says. “Norway has always exported raw materials such as oil and fish, and imported produced goods. Traditional industry – from electronics to the shipping industry – does not normally use industrial design, but now they are starting to understand that design is the only way in which they can compete in the future.”

Waves: Norwegian Furniture Design beyond 2000 is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 10 September

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