Finding the pulse of Scandinavia

The Shop at Scandinavia House’s buyer discusses curating a Nordic wonderland

Photo: Flickr / bridges_nichols_collection Laura Winterhalter has featured the work of the famous Finnish glass blower Oiva Toikka in the Shop at Scandinavia House

Photo: Flickr / bridges_nichols_collection
Laura Winterhalter features many Scandinavian artists in the Shop at Scandinavia House, including the work of the famous Finnish glass blower Oiva Toikka, shown here.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I love museums and monuments. And after encountering the high-brow, I can never leave without visiting what I love second best, their shops. This past August, I visited the Hoover Dam and it was amazing. But so was their shop, a wooden building perched high above this magnificent feat of engineering. The shop was a hoot and well worth the visit, with its juxtaposition of beef jerky, tchotchke souvenirs, and artisanal quality Native American dolls.

I also like the other extreme. The museum shops that carry unique and hand-crafted items, skillfully displayed. Perhaps the best example of this type of shop can be found at Scandinavia House in New York. The best words to describe it are elegant, tasteful, and carefully curated.

Their original space was tiny but full of wonderful pieces, each nook and cranny begging to be explored. Last Easter the display was brilliant and no longer confined to the small back store. It took center stage, spilling out to the entrance, delicate eggs dangerously dangling from branches and delighting passersby. Who created this jubilant scene? I had to know.

It was Laura Winterhalter, the buyer and manager of the Shop at Scandinavia House, who’s been in the position for over 10 years. She explains: “It was a small bookshop. It still is a small shop physically. But we’ve moved from selling books into more of a lifestyle shop. That was part of my strategic plan, as there are just such wonderfully designed items out of the Nordic countries in all categories of lifestyle products from clothing, jewelry, shoes, handbags, and home décor—blankets, pillows, and furniture, of course, which is most well known.”

The small shop has a long reach. According to Winterhalter, “Either the shop or the products that we carry have been featured in Martha Stewart, InStyle, Domino Magazine, House & Garden, the New York Post, and many Scandinavian business and design publications.”

She finds the beautiful, unique items at trade shows and by searching online for new European contacts. Everything is imported, most from Scandinavia. She is also very deliberate in finding trends in colors and products in Scandinavia. “As you’ve probably noticed in the shop right now, most often it is color coordinated. Those visuals are done in lifestyle products. The colors are what is trending out of Scandinavia. For example the aqua/teal we started in very, very early spring and is now finally reaching America.”

Scandinavia House features very fine pieces, hand-crafted by a variety of artisans in a plethora of materials. The shop even does private labels for some of them, a great gift for those who wish to break into the American market.

Day Birger et Mikkelsen, a Danish fashion company, was recently featured. According to Winterhalter it is “a fashion company out of Copenhagen with gorgeous clothing… I was one of the first in America to carry them last year. I am actually one of the first they come to because I showcase the line. It has to be very, very special to be in the shop. Our trends are about six months ahead.”

So what’s trending in Scandinavia now? According to Winterhalter, the fall trend is warm colors inspired by the spice market.

I asked Winterhalter about the Easter display that originally caught my eye.

She told me, “Easter is a very important holiday in Scandinavia… as big as Christmas. One tradition includes hanging branches from a window or vase, usually birch branches. On these blown Easter eggs are hung… Our display came from my interpretation of those traditions. We used branches with mouth-blown and hand-painted eggs. Some eggs were almost cut like lace.”

Easter is not the only holiday that reverberates at Scandinavia House: “At the Christmas season I transfer the shop into a Jul Shop on the first floor in the front and back. One year I had a mural painted of a Christmas market, snow placed all over, and once an upside down Christmas tree.”

And Winterhalter’s creativity goes beyond her choice of purchases and displays.

She also creates amazing events around products and artisans. She explained, “I do a lot of trunk shows where I feature specific artists in the back shop, front shop, and second floor. Oiva Toikka is a Finnish glass blower famous for his birds. One year I had live birds in large cages and had Oiva working there.”

One would think that an import-based business such as this would struggle with shipping and other difficulties, but Winterhalter insists it’s all a matter of knowing how to do business. “The only challenge sometimes is that some of the Scandinavian companies do not want to do deal with the customs regulations,” she admits.

Winterhalter truly is a Jill of all Trades, as you can tell from her diverse duties. She does the buying, operations, hiring, and training, works and negotiates with vendors, and spends time with staff every day, teaching them what’s new and what each artist is all about. She finds the biggest challenge to be finding time to do the marketing properly.

But that won’t stop her from planning big things for the future. “Currently I am giving the shop a facelift—Swedish wood floors, racks from Royal Copenhagen, and white walls vintage lamps have been donated. My goal is a cross between the designs found at Anthropologie and Madewell. They show a lifestyle from tabletops to clothing and how they mix the lifestyle products together, for example denim with vintage glass. Madewell’s stores are simple. They have a homespun organic feel and are highly curated; just the finest things are selected. Displaying all of these wonderful products in a lifestyle setting that is organic is a departure from the museum shop and that is what is planned for the shop at Scandinavia House.”

Winterhalter is the perfect dynamo to pull this all off.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.