Lacking the heritage of its Scandinavian siblings, Norway invents its own brand of design
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 2/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Norway is the third-richest European country, per capita, with incomes second only to Luxembourg and Switzerland. But unlike Denmark and Sweden—the long-prosperous former rulers of Norway—the latter acquired wealth recently, as a byproduct of North Sea oil. This has left the country relatively unfettered by tradition. "We're not prisoners of history, so we're not encumbered by the need to create it," says Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, the Oslo architecture firm that landed the coveted commission for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt.
While the Norwegians have been free to invent their own heritage, however, they've also been rich enough to import all the design they need. Until recently, they've done just that. High wages, furthermore, have deterred the growth of manufacturing. Without production facilities, there are fewer products, well designed or not, and fewer places to hire designers.
Progress has been relatively slow. It's been 40 years since the Norwegian Design Council, a government-supported organization, began working to raise awareness of design's value in the marketplace by conferring the annual Design Excellence awards on manufacturers and designers. The "anti-design" rebellion of the mid-'80s, an attempt to escape the restraints of "Scandinavian design," produced no visible advancement. Norwegian design remained generally limited, if not actually dull.
The crucial climate-changing event for Norway was the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Eager to forge a national image in visual terms, the government mandated design guidelines for everything from graphics to furniture and serving ware. The tactic proved an unqualified success, and the nation's manufacturers took notice—along with the rest of the world. Organizations such as the government-supported Norsk Form, founded in the lead-up to Lillehammer, now "work to influence the demand for good design," says former director Peter Butenschøn.
The big difference in today's Norway is the attitude. Still not precisely at the apex of prestige, design has risen well above horizon level, showing up in well styled products and, more important, a new public awareness after decades of benign neglect. This is partly due to newfound respect in two influential sectors: government and big business. According to a study by the Norwegian Design Council, the last five years have seen a gain of 10 percent in the number of corporate managers who use designers. (The total nevertheless remains under 50 percent.) As one Oslo journalist puts it, "They've realized that a flourishing economy means more than just oil." Proof can be highly visible. Two years ago, when Farris introduced pretty blue bottles for its water—and jacked up the price—customers not only kept buying but also started swiping the bottles from restaurant tables.
Promoting the new attitude where it can best take root, art and design schools are marketing design as a way to prepare for work in the real world. At the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, an innovative master's program based on a Dutch model is training 100 students as product design engineers, a profession that merges industrial design and engineering. The development of this rigorous five-year program was sponsored by a Norwegian hydro-aluminum giant, and industry is reaping some of the benefits. Students develop actual projects for manufacturers, and design fees are fed back to fund university facilities.
Thanks to a combination of these factors, Norway is finally making news. Winner of a national competition, Snøhetta has designed a striking Oslo opera house for the Norwegian National Opera, which lacks a permanent home. Norway Says, a four-person group that in 2000 became the first Norwegian concern in over a decade to show at the Milan furniture fair, is developing products for several international companies. Johan Verde's restaurant tableware became the first Norwegian product sold at the stylish London shop Skandium. K8 Industridesign is among firms designing products for consumers (kayaks and cardboard furniture) and industry clients (a patient-lifting device for hospitals). To provide a showcase for this flourishing talent, a new design center will open in downtown Oslo in 2004. Meanwhile, kunsthandwaerk, or handcrafting, flourishes independently. Practitioners, officially classified as artists rather than designers, are shown at galleries such as Oslo's Format and at Oslo, Trondheim, and Bergen's decorative-arts museums, which recently began to acknowledge contemporary design.
Former University of Oslo industrial design professor Per Farstad admits that his country has produced few things "that are written about in art-history books." Espen Voll of Norway Says looks forward to changing that: "We're usually five years behind Sweden—and things have been heating up in Sweden for the past five years. Now it's time for us."