Non-competitive advantage: Norway's blossoming design industry


Spurred on by the country’s wealth from North Atlantic oil and gas, Norway’s design industry is blossoming. We talk to its young stars about how to project a small nation, with an almost non-existant design heritage, onto the world design stage, and discuss the benefits of collaboration over competition.


Blueprint

Words Liz Farrelly

It's nearly half a century since the discovery of oil and gas in the North Atlantic began to change Norway's fortunes. In this black-gold rush, the state was the main developer and stakeholder in the exploration and exploitation of these game-changing natural resources. How the Norwegian state manages and spends that revenue isn't the story here, but the wider economic growth that has come in its wake has spread prosperity and increased the cost of living accordingly: in 2013, Oslo was named the world's most expensive city.

The capital is still being 'made over', especially along its waterfront; Norwegians love their coast. Through the Eighties and Nineties, Oslo's shipyards were redeveloped into Aker Brygge, a shopping, eating and entertainment mecca and the country's biggest tourist attraction; Renzo Piano designed the Astrup Fearnley Museet -- a museum with a world-class art collection, privately funded by shipping barons -- and public money built the Opera House at Bjørvika (designed by Snøhetta, one of Norway's leading architects). The next show-stopping turn, also on the water, is the Nasjonalmuseet at Vestbanen (a national museum of Art, Architecture and Design), rehousing three museums into one mega-venue (opening 2019).

Furniture by Anderssen & Voll
Furniture by Anderssen & Voll

Beyond massive investment in infrastructure and culture, the government's promotion of design is paying off too. Norsk Form (the Foundation for Design and Architecture in Norway) was established in 1993 by the Ministry of Culture 'to improve people's quality of life and everyday experience through the use of design and architecture'. By contrast, Norsk Designråd (the Norwegian Design Council) aims to promote 'the use of design as a strategic tool for innovation, to enhance profitability for business'. This year, a pragmatic move consolidated the public-facing and industry-focused organisations under one roof at DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture -- an electricity transformer station remodelled into exhibition and event spaces.

Touchwood stacking chairs from Beller Design
Touchwood stacking chairs from Beller Design

Denise Hagströmer, senior curator of design and decorative arts at the Nasjonalmuseet, acknowledges the design scene has grown steadily since the Nineties and 'is more confident now', pointing to the beneficial effects of design promotion, the internationalisation of design education (young Norwegians travel extensively for study and internships), and trail-blazing success stories such as Norway Says (the studio of Espen Voll, Torbjørn Anderssen and Andreas Engesvik, 2002-2009), which 'inspired more multidisciplinary design generations'. Anderssen and Voll suggest Norwegian designers are 'born global', and that due to a lack of industry in Norway '...design itself is becoming a small industry, exporting the ideas of Norwegian designers to international manufacturers'.

Bake Me a Cake, a lamp from Morten and Jonas. Photo Credit: Chris Harrison
Bake Me a Cake, a lamp from Morten and Jonas. Photo Credit: Chris Harrison

Promoting Norwegian design to international audiences has raised its profile. Launched in 2003 by the Norwegian Design Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Royal Norwegian Embassy in London, 100 %Norway is a staple of London's Design Festival, and there's a healthy Norwegian presence at trade fairs around the world. But beyond official routes, designers are making the effort too. Klubben, aka, the Norwegian Designers Union, was founded in 2011 by Victoria Günzler, Sara Wright Polmar and Sverre Uhnger. Active member Kristine Bjaadal explains: 'We made the choice to view one another as colleagues instead of competitors. Helping each other, we lift the whole design scene, and in my view, this is one of the keys to why the Oslo design scene is flourishing now.'

Tore Vinje Brustad, of Permafrost, makes a distinction by recognising two strands in Norway's design scene: 'The large multi-professional design agencies are growing, chasing big money in the oil and naval industries, and large interactive and service design projects funded by public money; these companies are mopping up talented designers.' On the other hand, he sees 'designers who want to develop user-friendly consumer projects; who value beautiful, real-life objects and rely on their own creativity and enterprise'. Daniel Rybakken cites Europe's positive economic climate as an incentive for young designers to go solo, adding to the 'very healthy design scene in Norway'.

Compendium light, from Daniel Rybakken
Compendium light, from Daniel Rybakken

Being unfettered by expectations can be a plus, especially in a Scandinavian context laden with legends. Kenneth Pedersen of Anti says: 'The Norwegian design community benefits from a non-existent design heritage. We don't have much experience as a design nation, but we don't have anything holding us back either. It's opened up more experimentation.' That said, Benedicte Sunde, managing director and curator at DogA, is keen to uncover Norway's design legacy, for example Peter Opsvik's Balan stool and Tripp Trapp high chair, and Terje Ekstrøm's Ekstrem chair, designed in 1972, but which took until 1984 to perfect for production. In May, DogA staged the first Nordic Design Fair, mixing vintage and contemporary vendors, including Fuglen, the uber-cool coffee shop/retro store with branches in Oslo and Tokyo.

Branding for the Bergen International Festival, created by Anti by chopping up the festival logo to create bold monochrome patterns
Branding for the Bergen International Festival, created by Anti by chopping up the festival logo to create bold monochrome patterns

The event attracted eager buyers and an audience for talks by and about Norwegian designers of various vintage. Vera & Kyte believes that history can inspire: 'Norway is stepping into the light, through an increased awareness of the hidden gems of Norwegian design history.' Evidence the recent re-issue of Birger Dahl's elegant Birdy lamps from 1952 by Northern Lighting.

There's much to discover about Norwegian design past and present, and this year's 100 %Norway (curated by the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, KHiB) teams young designers with a peer group of successful studios to tell a more complete story. And, as a case study of how to grow a design industry, which perhaps in the past was a little reticent about showing off, the Norwegian scene is definitely worth scrutinising. 100% Norway is at Tent London, 18-21 September

Anti
This autumn, Anti will be big in Japan as it launches its Anti Denim range ('True Norwegian Black Denim') into the world's most discerning street-fashion arena. But what is a mid-sized communications agency doing with its own cult brand? 'We felt the need to create a manifestation of the rebellious core of the brand,' explains CEO and founding partner, Kenneth Pederson.

Endre Berentzen and Robert Dalen-CEOs Founding Partners Anti Bergen
Endre Berentzen and Robert Dalen-CEOs Founding Partners Anti Bergen

Launched in 2008 with the proviso 'we had to do things differently, Anti stands for A New Type of Interference, in advertising, branding and broadcasting; incorporating Bergen's Grandpeople into the Anti family ramped-up the design aesthetic to 'edgy'.

Recent attention-grabbing projects include branding the Bergen International Festival by chopping the logo into beat-induced patterns. Because Bergen 'one of the rainiest cities in the world', Anti pulled in another client, Norwegian Rain, to co-produce show-stopping waterproofs for festival-goers. The on-going project won a host of awards, including a Design Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, the first for a Norwegian agency. Other notable home-grown projects include: Rainbow Coffee, launched by Norway's LGBT community during the Russian Olympics; Black Vodka, Anti's own-brand vodka created with Arcus, and packaging for Bergen neighbour, Lars Beller Fjetland's Re-turned Birds, transforming workshop off-cuts in to 'feel-good wood-craft'. anti.as


Daniel Rybakken
Early on, Daniel Rybakken widened his horizons, decamping to the School of Arts and Crafts in Gothenburg, Sweden for his MA, and showing at Milan's Salone Satellite and London's 100% Norway. Of all the young Nordic designers, Rybakken must be the best known in the UK, having won London Design Festival's Emerging Talent Medal in 2013.

Daniel Rybakken
Daniel Rybakken

He's been accumulating accolades: three Red Dot Design Awards; a touring retrospective The New Light, curated by Widar Halén of Oslo's Nasjonalmuseet; and upping the stakes this year as the first Scandinavian to win Italy's coveted Compasso d'Oro for Counterbalance (pictured left with Rybakken), produced in partnership with LucePlan.

Daniel Rybakken’s Compendium light, made in partnership with LucePlan, comes out of his focus on how to artificially recreate the appearance and effect of daylight. Phto credit: Portrait Magnus Johansson
Daniel Rybakken's Compendium light, made in partnership with LucePlan, comes out of his focus on how to artificially recreate theappearance and effect of daylight. Photo credit: Portrait Magnus Johansson

Based on observation of nature and facilitated by an understanding of engineering principles, Rybakken's work inhabits an edge between art and design, but avoids the kitschy clichés of design art. Perhaps only a designer from northern climes would set out to 'replicate the positive effect of daylight'. His lighting designs are more of a sensorial 'experience', complex but almost subliminal, matching aesthetic simplicity with technical sophistication (mechanical and material). And he's only just warming up. danielrybakken.com

 

Permafrost
Permafrost is an exemplar of Oslo's new wave of design studios. 'The current flourish in design is very much of the designers' own making. People are inventive and enthusiastic, creating opportunities and getting noticed,' suggests founding partner, Tore Vinje Brustad who, with fellow-partners Andreas Murray, Eivind Halseth and Oskar Johansen, graduated from the Oslo School of Architecture.

Wooden toys, from the Stories series by Permafrost Photo Credit: Johan Holmquist
Wooden toys, from the Stories series by Permafrost Photo Credit: Johan Holmquist

Stories is a self-starter project by Permafrost that epitomises this approach: a series of wellcrafted wooden toys, depicting the megastructures big boys like to play with -- oil rigs, tankers, 'copters and lighthouses -- the scenery of Norway's boom time. Originally made for an exhibition, an entrepreneurial leap launched Stories as collectables while demonstrating Permafrost's playful side.

Permafrost team
Permafrost team

Perhaps that attitude endeared it to Norwegian institution Stokke, the boomers' favourite baby brand and manufacturer of the Tripp Trapp adjustable high chair. Designed by Peter Opsvik in 1972, it's possibly Norway's most famous product.

Permafrost took one of Norway’s most famous products, the Tripp Trapp high chair, designed in 1972, and produced Stepps, a product that grows with the baby . Photo Credit: Johan Holmquist Portrait Photoshelter
Permafrost took one of Norway's most famous products, the Tripp Trapp high chair, designed in 1972, and produced Stepps, aproduct that grows with the baby . Photo Credit: Johan Holmquist Portrait Photoshelter

Updating an icon was never going to be easy, but Permafrost's ongoing relationship with Stokke has produced a carrier/chair that not only 'grows', but gets the baby mobile too. Stepps celebrates a Scandinavian design approach -- it's modular, flexible and combines blond wood, white plastic and strong colour into a new classic. permafrost.no

 

Kristine Bjaadal
With an MA from Oslo's National Academy of the Arts, Kristine Bjaadal hit the headlines in 2010 by winning a 100%Design Blueprint Award for her innovative use of materials. She's exhibited at New York's ICFF, Los Angeles' Dwell on Design, and with Klubben at Paris Design Week; she's been a member since the first Oslo exhibition in 2012.

Hold, by Kristine Bjaadal
Hold, by Kristine Bjaadal

Bjaadal's outreach introduces her Nordic take on domesticity to a wider audience: 'I try to turn daily routines into rituals, to appreciate using everyday objects.' Her designs have a sculptural turn, which extend functionality into an emotional connection, most notably in a series of containers.

Kristine Bjaadal, Portrait by Elisabeth Sperre Alnes
Kristine Bjaadal, Portrait by Elisabeth Sperre Alnes

'A container keeps something as trivial as beans, coins or cotton wool; a practical function. Or it keeps objects you love, and in this way holds your memories; it can even be empty but still contain the idea of taking care of something,' she says.

Container from Kristine Bjaadal’s Siska collection, aiming to turn daily routines into rituals. Photo Credit: Ellen Johanne Jarli Portrait Elisabeth Sperre Alnes
Container from Kristine Bjaadal's Siska collection, aiming to turn daily routines into rituals. Photo Credit: Ellen Johanne Jarli PortraitElisabeth Sperre Alnes

Bjaadal heightens her connection to these objects by using materials -- ceramic, glass and wood -- that position her practice 'between product and craft'. Tactile quality is paramount: 'I work with my hands to make prototypes and have a dialogue with the shape throughout the design process.' kristinebjaadal.no

 

Gridy
Acknowledging the 'collective positive energy' around Oslo's 'blooming' scene, Wilhelm Teisner and Lars Olav Dybdal, aka Gridy, have been working and exhibiting for almost a decade, representing Norway's new spirit in design at trade fairs from Seoul to New York. This April they branched out with a solo stand at Milan's Salone Satellite, exhibiting six new prototypes, and found that, 'it's a great place to make new friends'.

Spiff lamp from Gridy
Spiff lamp from Gridy

Their high-profile presence paid off, cementing productive relations with several Danish producers; MENU picked up Gridy's Fungi shelves, made of turned ash and inspired by 'mushrooms that grow on trees'.

Wilhelm Teisner and Lars Olav Dybdal
Wilhelm Teisner and Lars Olav Dybdal

Mixing local materials, such as sustainable oak, with traditional joinery techniques that recall sturdy wooden toys (in the Spiff lamp for Northern Lighting, right), or giving a nostalgic nod to Fifties' and Sixties' Scandi-teak furniture (Rocky Balboa rocking chair in walnut) locates the pair's practice as unmistakably Nordic. But Gridy avoids slavish allegiance by tempering its designs with a hint of humour; quotations are never too literal but translate into functional, no-nonsense pieces with strong personalities. gridy.no

Anderssen & Voll
Espen Voll and Torbjørn Anderssen set up Anderssen & Voll in 2009 in a 16th-century farm building in the newly trendy Vulkan district of Oslo (it has plans to develop a micro-brewery).

Espen Voll and Torbjørn Anderssen
Espen Voll and Torbjørn Anderssen

Deliberately keeping it small, the team occasionally expands to seven. But with such an enviable client list of manufacturers across Scandinavia and internationally (Muuto, Wrong for Hay, Nokia, Lapalma), a stint at Anderssen & Voll has become a rite of passage for Nordic design graduates.

While acknowledging that Norway has only ever had a small industrial base 'and it's slowing, diminishing', Anderssen & Voll links with a wide roster of national firms. Recent projects include the Public Chair for Nordic Comfort Products (updating the Eames/Day idea of a 'universal' plastic chair), and the F305 cast-iron stove for Jøtul (a Norwegian staple since 1853, which makes stoves from recycled scrap iron).

Yokjo Lamp (2013) by anderssen & Voll. Photo Credit: Grandpeople Portrait Martin Ramstad Rygner
Yokjo Lamp (2013) by Anderssen & Voll. Photo Credit: Grandpeople Portrait Martin Ramstad Rygner

Referencing its Tibu stool for Magis (launched this year at Milan), Anderssen & Voll suggests: 'If there is a shift in our recent work it might be embracing the liberating force of large-scale manufacturing. Big volume enables specialised solutions; if you can think it, you can make it. The people at Magis are not cautious -- they're bold -- so industry is very inspiring to us.' anderssen-voll.com

Morten and Jonas
Based in Bergen (the 'western capital'), Morten Skjærpe Knarrum and Jonas Norheim are alumni of the Bergen Academy of Art and Design (KHiB), and feature in this year's 100% Norway, which is curated by the college. Asked why Norwegian designers are so visible right now, they give a nod to 'the Norwegian design and art schools, which are great promoting machines'.

Morten Skjærpe Knarrum and Jonas Norheim
Morten Skjærpe Knarrum and Jonas Norheim

Like other young Norwegians, Morten and Jonas have exhibited abroad and launched a collection of prototypes at this year's Salone Satellite. Deals are in the pipeline with European producers; Bolia was first out of the gate this summer launching the elemental Morse lamp, which teams a spun brass shade/uplighter with a base of solid granite (mined in Østfold, Norway).

Morten and Jonas’ Morse lamp in brass and granite is being produced by Bolia from this summer . Vegard Fimland Portrait Photoshelter.
Morten and Jonas' Morse lamp in brass and granite is being produced by Bolia from this summer.Vegard Fimland PortraitPhotoshelter

Another lamp, Bake Me A Cake, produced with Oslo's Northern Lighting, demonstrates how the duo incorporates 'a small drip of humour' into each design, alongside a less-than-standard day job: 'For a year we've both been working half-time as designers in the correctional services in Bergen and Bjørgvin prisons, developing projects with the inmates and employees,' they say. They've built coffee shops, and designed and made furniture, including the quirky lamp inspired by the 'file in a cake' escape ploy (you change the bulb by lifting the lid). morten-jonas.no

Vera & Kyte
This is the first year Vera Kleppe and Åshild Kyte will exhibit with 100%Norway, having previously shown in London, Milan and the USA. Graduates of Bergen's Academy of Art and Design, they manage to work internationally while living in Norway's westerly city, known for its great views and a creative community ready to collaborate: 'As designers in a small nation such as Norway there's no option but to work towards an international marketplace. We meet the design industry several times a year at the large design fairs then follow up from our studio in Bergen.'

Apparel partition/ wardrobe from Vera & Kyte
Apparel partition/ wardrobe from Vera & Kyte

Vera & Kyte designs lighting, furniture, homewares and interiors. Statement pieces mix a bold palette (colour, form and materials) to fit a flexible, urban lifestyle; beyond 'trendy', it's design with attitude but not an ego. Playing with Pop geometries, its Apparel wardrobe/room divider in blue, lacquered steel works as display or storage. Nesting or Solo, the trio of pedestal tables teams black granite tops with bright bases of punched mesh, multi-legs and steel tubes.

Vera & Kyte’s Apparel wardrobe/room divider is made in blue, lacquered steel. Phto Credit: Grandpeople Portrait Martin Ramstad Rygner
Vera & Kyte's Apparel wardrobe/room divider is made in blue, lacquered steel. Photo Credit: Grandpeople Portrait Martin Ramstad Rygner

 

Vera Kleppe and Åshild Kyte
Vera Kleppe and Åshild Kyte

So far, each piece feels like an experiment, but there's an underlying cohesion, perhaps born of their working method: 'We collaborate on all our projects, switching between encouraging and challenging. Each other drives our work forward.' vera-kyte.com

Lars Beller Fjetland
An admirably precocious Bergen native, Lars Beller Fjetland set up Beller Design in 2011, while at Bergen's Academy of Art and Design. This year he launched a diverse range of products with Italian company, Discipline, which has worldwide distribution.

Lars Beller Fjetland
Lars Beller Fjetland

Striving for a 'sense of timelessness and longevity', his work prioritises function but uses a poetic mix of materials to recall the natural Nordic environment: drifted seating of ash and cork is inspired by scoured driftwood found on a beach walk; Touchwood is an affordable stacking chair of dyed ash prompted by Fjetland's belief that 'humans benefit from daily interaction with natural materials'; and Link knits leather waste into plaited textiles and cushions.

Link from Lars Beller Fjetland’s Beller Design plaits leather waste into textiles and cushions. Photo Credit: Grandpeople Portrait Martin Ramstad Rygner
Link from Lars Beller Fjetland's Beller Design plaits leather waste into textiles and cushions. Photo Credit: Grandpeople Portrait Martin Ramstad Rygner

Talking about Norway's design community, Fjetland declares: 'It's relatively small, but buzzing with activity. We've been playing second fiddle in the Scandinavian design orchestra, but that's about to change.' He puts the scene's success down to 'treating each other like colleagues rather than competitors, which enables us to work much more efficiently'.

And he acknowledges the role of design promotion: 'As a young designer, you need to publish and display your work. Initiatives like 100% Norway have played a key role in getting Norwegian design into the spotlight.' beller.no





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