Norway is rich in many ways. Apart from the scenic beauty of the fjords, its abundance of oil makes it one of the most prosperous countries in the world. While this may stir the envy of its Scandinavian neighbours, when it comes to design the tables are turned. Compared to the seminal design achievements of Sweden, Denmark and Finland, Norway is pretty much a blank sheet. Thanks to practices such as Snohetta, Norwegian architecture is now an international presence, but design still has some way to go.
Luckily, Norway has the deep pockets and the will to turn this around. For the seventh year Norway’s London Embassy is supporting 100% Norway, which is part of this month’s London Design Festival. Norway is one of a number of countries putting significant effort and cash into elevating the status of their design industries, and this year will see more international pavilions at 100% Design than ever before.
But the idea of national identity has grown ever vaguer and more precarious in our culture, and it is increasingly difficult to discern the differences, aesthetic or otherwise, that would have lent flavour to products designed even a few decades ago. In these times of global homogeneity, what does a show like this mean?
’Norway is in a position where it can do this, but also one where it should,’ says Henrietta Thompson, who has curated 100% Norway for the past four years.
’Norway has a reputation for many wonderful things, but its design culture wasn’t usually promoted. There is a danger of cultural stereotyping, but there is a humbleness in the Norwegian people and a wish not to show off that is perhaps even stronger than in other Scandinavian countries. But art and design, and the creative industries generally, are pretty important exports, and certainly sexier ones than fish.’
There is certainly no shyness about nationality in the names of many Norwegian design groups, including Norway Says (now disbanded), Fjordfiesta, Fantastic Norway, Northern Lighting and Scandinavian Surface. And in the work too, the designs are intimately engaged with the Nordic landscape. References to nature abound, be it trees (for instance, the Twig storage system by Hive), birds in Scusi’s ceramics, or the butterflies revealed when liquid is spilt on the table cloth designed by Kristine Bjaadal. Then there’s the use of very ’pure’ materials (the bleached pine of the Nord chairs designed by Knudsen & Hindenes for Vad or the special local lambswool used by Anderssen & Voll), not to mention a certain folksiness – for instance, in the knitting cuckoo clock of Siren Elise Wilhelmsen. Mette Fjortoft Vagnes of Oslo-based Scusi is typical of many Norwegian designers when she says she wants to ’represent the Scandinavian spirit with a clean, pure expression’.
French philosopher Michel Foucault famously suggested we talk of ’author effects’ rather than authorship per se, and perhaps we can also speak of country effects in design. Nationality has become a hoary old chestnut of design, and national reference has been subsumed into a subset of the consumer experience. Certainly, the benefits of using nationality for marketing and product differentiation, and of accessing the umbrella brand of Scandinavian design, are clear. Yet there is a difference between a cynical, marketing-driven wrapping oneself in the flag and a more genuine engagement with tradition and context that can enrich the design of products in a world of vacuous globalism.
’It’s a small, close-knit community, but Norwegian design is definitely gaining in confidence and quality,’ says Thompson. ’There are some really strong graduates coming out of the schools who are getting interesting internships and setting up companies even in their final year.’
Perhaps the sign of real confidence is when a show like this will no longer be necessary, nor so explicitly linked to its country of origin. And while that will probably happen, in the meantime we can enjoy the charm of these explicitly Norwegian designs.