Icons of Norway


1 February 2016

Browsing Tent London last year, Lucio Longoni came across the 100% Norway stand. The head buyer for Scandinavian design retailer Skandium, Longoni was beguiled by the young designers on display and opened a dialogue with Norwegian Icons, a government-supported initiative dedicated to promoting Norway’s mid-century furniture around the world.

Icons of Norway is the fruit of that collaboration. Opening this week at Skandium’s Brompton Road store in London, it is a commercial exhibition that gathers classic and contemporary pieces, spanning from Hans Brattrud’s Scandia Series (1957-59) chairs to Fimbul’s Canary Wharf brush (2015) for shoes. With the exception of the Andreas Engesvik’s Bunad blanket (2012), the products will only be available for the duration of the show.

“When people think of Scandinavian designers,” says Longoni, “Danish, Swedish and Finnish ones come to mind.” Norway, despite its abundance of natural materials and a common Nordic aesthetic, has never achieved the same global prominence in design as its neighbours.

Why has Norway lagged behind? The seeds of this discrepancy sprout from Norway’s wider economic success. Since the discovery of North Sea oil in the late 60s, the country has been one of the richest in the world. As Longoni succinctly puts it, “the oil boom put up the cost of manufacture over the last 50 years.” With labour, production and transport costs soaring, it became difficult for a furniture company to establish itself in the domestic market – never mind the international one.

This environment is not without its aesthetic boons, however. The price of mass production has led to a cluster of small, often home-based practices, sheltered from the pressures of a wider market. “The smaller market and industry encourages creative and limited products,” says Longoni. The paucity of established companies demands that designers become self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

One such small brand is the punningly named Fjordfiesta. Since 2001, it has recreated forgotten classics of Norwegian design. The Scandia chairs, now available in several configurations, are a case in point. With a seat and backrest composed of horizontal wooden strips, they straddle man-made precision and organic curvature.

After reviving Torbjørn Afdal’s Krobo (1960), a minimalist wooden bench that can serve as either table or seating, Fjordfiesta commissioned Oslo’s Anderssen & Voll to supplement it with complementary accessories, building a bridge between designers a half-century apart.

What distinguishes Norwegian design from its cousins? According to Longoni, “There is a simplicity as with all Scandinavian design, but Norwegian work is really interested in nature and colour.” He goes on to list a distinctly organic palette: “natural woods, tinted glass, earthy greens, light blues.”

This devotion to the natural world pervades Fauna (2015), a set of bookends designed by the brother-and-sister team Hallgeir and Hege Homstvedt. Available in figurative and abstracted versions, each one is crated from mottled local rock and takes the form of a Norwegian woodland animal. Ingrid Aspen’s Bottoms Up (2015), a set comprising six wine glasses and a carafe, replaces the stem with a second, smaller vessel for nightcaps. Entirely mouth-blown, each piece comes in a different colour.

While Bottoms Up looks towards the drinking culture of Italy for inspiration, its combination of warmth and minimalism seems characteristically Norwegian. If the pieces in Icons of Norway are representative, international audiences should prepare to become more familiar with the country’s work. Its neighbours may have dominated the 20th century, but Norway might well gain a significant foothold in the 21st.