The neglected stars of Norwegian design

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

What do you think of as a typical example of Scandinavian design? The massively copied 1950s bentwood chair series “Seven Chairs” by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen? The vividly colored Unikko poppy patterns by the Finnish textile company Marimekko? Or the ready-to-assemble furniture available at the originally Swedish (now Dutch) Ikea?

Whatever your pick is, one country is conspicuously missing from this list of admired Scandinavian design icons: Norway. And for Peppe Trulsen, a longtime Norwegian vintage design-products dealer who is curator of the ongoing sales exhibition “Norwegian Icons,” it’s a void that can — and should — be filled.

Tokyo is the second venue for the exhibition, which has been put together by the Norwegian cafe/bar/vintage design shop Fuglen, following a successful run in Oslo in January. After Tokyo, the company plans to take the exhibition to New York later this year.

“Not a lot of people know about Norwegian design — that’s one of the biggest reasons we are doing this (exhibition),” Trulsen explains during an interview earlier this month. “When people talk about Scandinavian design, internationally, it’s mostly Sweden, Denmark and Finland that are mentioned. We kind of saw that there was a big black hole when it came to Norwegian design.”

Trulsen, one of the founders of Fuglen, goes on to say that numerous designers used to be active in Norway, producing award-winning furniture and other products during the 1950s and ’60s. But unlike in other Scandinavian countries, which supported their designers and successfully built an industry around them, Norway neglected its creative industries after it discovered oil in the North Sea in the late 1960s.

“Suddenly we had a lot of money (from exporting oil), and all other industries in Norway became uninteresting,” he says. “We didn’t need to export other merchandise to keep the country running, and it was easier and cheaper to just import (goods). A lot of the industries in Norway kind of died out.”

As a result, many people, even Norwegians themselves, had little opportunity to learn about what had once been a robust design culture in Norway. And that is why the January exhibition in Oslo, organized by Fuglen in collaboration with the Oslo-based auction house Blomqvist, caused something of a sensation, attracting 7,000 people, of which 2,000, says Trulsen, visited in the first three hours.

“If you look at the catalog (from the exhibition in Oslo), we show about 92 objects, and of those, 34 have won international gold design medals,” Trulsen enthuses. “This was in competition with Arne Jacobsen (of Denmark), Hans Wegner (Denmark) and (American architect/designer couple Charles and Ray) Eames, all the big names that are known now. So that shows that Norway wasn’t so far behind.”

But are there features of Norwegian design, that define and differentiate it from other Scandinavian countries? While conceding that cross-border exchanges among the region’s mid-century designers make Norway’s style hard to define, Trulsen says Norwegian creators turned to a slightly “more honest and moderate” way of expression.

For example, Hans Brattrud (born 1933), one of the few Norwegian designers who are still active today, designed his most famous chair, the Scandia Jr. (1957), using the wood-bending techniques that Finnish designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) experimented with in the ’30s. Brattrud developed Aalto’s techniques further and used eight longitudinal strips of bent laminated wood to create the beautiful curved and organic shape of his chair.

In 1959, Sven Ivar Dysthe (born 1931), another designer still working today, debuted the now-classic black leather 1001, which won him the American Institute of Decorations International Award. He was innovative in that he created “flat-packed” furniture, which allowed the items to be easily shipped and exported in flat cartons. Customers would then assemble the furniture simply using screws, “like an earlier version of Ikea,” Trulsen says.

Rather than just remind visitors that Norway does have a history of design, though, Trulsen wants to highlight the novelty aspect of it. Unlike other Scandinavian designers, most of whom have already been discovered and marketed internationally, Norwegian designers are yet to be “discovered,” making them a draw for collectors.

“When it comes to Norwegian design, by doing what we’re doing (exhibiting), it’s almost like opening a big box of candy,” the curator says. “Suddenly, as a collector you can dive into new ideas, there are a lot of new names to discover and learn about, and a lot of new projects to hunt for and start to collect.”

Trulsen says he is confident of the event’s success in Japan, due to the cultural similarities between the two countries.

“We (share) an awareness of, and connection to, nature,” he says. “You have (an active) fish industry, like us. And you have mountains, pine woods, and craftsmanship. We also have a similar focus on material, a lot of wood and pottery traditions, and there are similarities in (our penchant for) simplicity.”

With a total of 520 pieces on show at the exhibition, which opened last Friday, visitors now have an opportunity to put the long-neglected Norwegian design culture in perspective — and perhaps even start their own collection. The items on show, which include furniture, glassware, jewelry and other decorative art objects, are all available to purchase, at prices ranging from ¥17,000 to ¥60 million, with the most pricey item being one of six Edvard Munch paintings.

Additional research by Natasha Vik

“Norwegian Icons: Important Norwegian Design from the Era 1940-1975,” runs till July 7 at the Hillside Forum in the Hillside Terrace F Tower in Daikanyama, Tokyo. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.norwegianicons.com.

  • http://www.abicana.com/shop2.htm Knut Holt

    Norway had a great tdesign tradition. Unfortunately my country has declined a lot the last decades, but hopefully new designers take up the thread from 50-30 years back again.