Shaping the future of Norwegian design

Norwegian design is entering a golden age, with a new exhibition opening at the Salon del Mobile in Milan next week. The road to international recognition has been led by the designers themselves.

– It’s only for the past two years that we’ve had Norwegian exhibitions in Milan at an international level. It no longer feels like a garage sale or a handicraft market where you show off the same woollen blankets, pat yourself on the back and say to yourself that it sure was great to be able to make the trip. Now we’re really having a discussion about quality.

Andreas Engesvik, one of Norway’s most experienced designers, talks fast and passionately on the phone. He’s been discussing this topic for over 15 years, yet he hasn’t run out of neither words nor enthusiasm. The reason for that is probably that the situation for Norwegian designers is far from ideal, but still: It’s better than ever. I mean, just look at the pictures on this page, the work of some of the countries top stylists, photographers and curators. It’s all part of the package now. This exhibition most have cost millions, I thought to myself as I looked at the material for the first time, but it really doesn’t. Though the government funding for the project has more than doubled compared to last year, most of it is done through volunteer work and downright stubbornness. Especially the latter.

Andreas Engesvik_Vigeland_Photo Siren Laudal
Andreas Engesvik’s contribution to Structure is a patinated bronze vase, a subtle tribute to the Vigeland Park, the largest sculpture park in the world dedicated to one artis. The vase is named Vigeland. Photo: Siren Lauvdal

But let’s start where it all began, in the late 1990s. Andreas Engesvik had just graduated from the National Academy of Arts in Norway and soon realized that making a living as a designer in this country was fairly hopeless. The market was next to none and dominated by old, traditional industrial companies. If he was really going to do this, he had to go abroad. Engesvik wanted to go to Milan. He met another Norwegian designer, Espen Voll, who wanted to go too. They sat in café in Oslo filling out applications. The Foreign Ministry gave them some pocket money and off they went.

Anja Borgersrud_Shake_Photo Siren Lauvdal
Anja Borgersrud’s series Shake comprises of a salt, pepper and sugar shaker resembling pebbles. Stone is used throughout the exhibition and the Norwegian stone exporter Lundhs is also a sponsor. Photo: Siren Lauvdal.

Through the design collaboration Norways Says, which Engesvik and Voll founded, they managed to attract international attention entirely on their own, without significant government support. Since then, Engesvik has designed products for a variety of international manufacturers like Muuto, Fontana Arte, Iittala and Fogia. He has achieved what most Norwegian designers fail at, but he’s still not satisfied. Among other things, he laments the fact that there is no government funding for Norwegian designers, while artists get money “thrown at them.”

– I’ve called for a stronger international presence for many years, but this hasn’t been a government priority. Instead, the designers themselves made it happen. Now there’s lots of initiative, lots of positive things going on, which is the result of many years of hard work, presence and networking abroad, says Engesvik.

Barmen & Brekke_Kveik_Photo Siren Laudal
Kveik means to ignite in old Norwegian, which is also the title of Barmen & Brekke’s new series of candleholders. They combine five types of clay and five common Norwegian woods and are made through the old process of turning. Barmen & Brekke is a new collaboration between designers Per Tore Barmen and Siri Brekke. Photo: Siren Lauvdal

Structure, which will be shown in Milan this week and which you can see parts of in these pictures, is the second major exhibition of Norwegian design at the Salon del Mobile. Works of 26 Norwegian designers have been selected by the renowned stylists Jannicke Kråkvik and Alessandro D’Orazio in collaboration with Hanna Nova Beatrice, chief editor of the Swedish magazine Residence. Last year the exhibition was called Norwegian prescence. The prelude to this happened in Milan in 2014, when the organization Norwegian Crafts invited other Norwegian participants at the fair to lunch. The topic was: What can we do put up a joint effort in the future?

Lars Beller Fjetland_Monstera_Photo Siren Laudal
Monstera is based on an unproduced Norwegian cutlery design from the 1950s. Theodor Olsen Sølvvareverksted, the oldest silverware producer in Norway, commissioned Lars Beller Fjetland to rework the design. The result is inspired by the heart-shaped leaves and channelled stems of the Monstera plant. Photo: Siren Lauvdal

– We had no money, but we had plenty of enthusiasm and people who wanted to volunteer, says Trude Gomnæs Ugelstad, director of Norwegian Craft and recently appointed Director of The Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture.

– Then we got the paint company Jotun in on the project, which was essential not only to our economy, but also to show that a large Norwegian company thought this was a project worth supporting. We were offered a space to rent at the fair and had to decide in one day. And then we just thought: Let’s do this.

Kristin Opem_Untitled_Photo Siren Laudal
The strikingly uneven form of Kristin Opems ceramics explore the tension between control and letting go. Photo: Siren Lauvdal.

Through the work of volunteers and some government funding, Norwegian Presence really happened and was a great success. It showcased not only new Norwegian design, but also the country’s design legacy through the initiative Norwegian Icons initiated by the owners of the coffee shop Fuglen. The Norwegian design collective Klubben was a key partner and largely responsible for getting Jotun onboard.

– We had allready exhibited at Stockholm Design Fair, so for us Milan was a natural next step. It was more challenging to do on our own, though, both in terms of money and logistics. So this initiative was very welcome, sais Sara Wright Polmar, designer and one of the initiators of Klubben, on the phone from Milan.

– It really was a joint effort?

– Oh yeah, I worked for free on that projects all year. They paid my air fare to Milan and my hotel, but that was it. But once you get the opportunity to establish a new network that can result in more work, it’s worth it. For me it’s obviously been a good investment. On top of that, this is a fantastic group of people to work with.

gunzler.polmar_Pour_Photo Siren Laudal
The classic water pitcher and bassin has ben reinterpreted by the duo günzler.polmar. “Pour” is inspired by traditional enamelware, but the pitcher here is made of cast-porcelain and the bassins of stone. Photo: Siren Lauvdal

Making a living as a designer in Norway is “almost impossible,” sais Polmar. A lot of people finish their degree, get a bit of attention when they leave school and then disappear. And yet there has never been as many talented young designers in Norway as at this moment.

– I think this has to do with our welfare system and the Norwegian society. We feel safe here, so it’s easier to take risks, says Polmar.

– In addition to that, I find the Norwegian design community to be very including and generous. We work together and help each other. We share experiences and contacts. I think that’s the most important part of being present in Milan too, to forge new relationships and be part of a field. Getting to know people is really what it’s all about.

Structure is shown at the Salon del Mobile in Milan from April 12th to 17th and at The Oslo Design Fair in September. Main photo: Pottery by Ann Kristin Einarsen, the lamp Meld by Noidoi, the sitting furniture Between by Sara Wright Polmar and the colors dusty pink and structure from Jotun. Photo by Siren Lauvdal, styled by Kråkvik & D’Orazio. 

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