Norway Design: symbiosis with nature

Envisioning the ability to adapt, evolve, and change

Image courtesy of Snøhetta
When designing the the Calgary Public Library, Snøhetta architects prioritized pedestrians, not cars, with accessibility a high priority. It was important to make the space “more human.” A steetcar track cuts through the lower level of the building.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

In mid-July, Design Pavilion, an annual public design exhibition in New York’s Times Square, hosted “Design Talks NOW,” a trilogy of discussions under the title “Norway Design: Symbiosis With Nature.” Norwegian architects, designers, and manufacturers were invited to discuss the value and implementation of sustainability. The talks this year were conducted virtually, and viewers can see the discussion on Design Pavilion’s website.

The speakers confronted topics ranging from humanistic industrial design, overarching product design, and sustainable materials. Another key dimension of the discussion was the way that Scandinavia’s deeply ingrained “public right of access” has been extended into urban spaces.


Ilene Shaw, founding producer of the Design Pavilion, opened the program, offering a message of hope: “If we can roll with the flow” during this global pandemic, she said, it can be a time of “epiphanies, revelations, and revolutions.” Shaw pointed out that “Norway has grown in relevance, well beyond the aesthetic, into an exemplary and greatly needed process based on our relationship with nature and the mission to serve humanity.”  

Harriet Berg, consul general of Norway in New York, then offered a welcome. She opened by explaining how COVID-19 has the consulate working in virtual space. Although it has been difficult, it also allows them to reach “a wider, more diverse audience.” 

Berg spoke about looking toward a “human-centered approach” in design, including what we can learn from nature, while also respecting it.

She asked, “How can we make people happier” through design? The concept of profit was not at all mentioned, which of course is a reality but not the priority of the presentations.  

Photo courtesy of Framlab
For Andreas Tjeldflaat, architect and founder of Framlab, design is a “tool to change the world.” With the “Shelter with Dignity” project in New York, his firm has used available vertical space to create hexagonal units to create housing for the city’s “least fortunate.”

Creative conversations

Garette Johnson of Garrott Designs moderated all three panels. The first panel, “Humanistic Industrial Design,” focused on how “the future of design works for humanity in community spaces.”

The panelists were Jan Christian Vestre, CEO of Vestre, a manufacturer of street furniture; Anne-Rachel Schiffmann, director and senior architect at Snøhetta; and Andreas Tjeldflaat, architect and founder of Framlab, a studio that aims to advance social and environmental resilience through design, with offices in Bergen and New York, and adjunct professor at Columbia University.

The discussion opened with a conversation about the “common thread” that these three designers share when it comes to humanistic values in their approach to design. Vestre pointed to the Nordic model of “collaboration.” For him, design is “a tool to change the world” and can and should be carried out in a way that “brings folks together.”

Schiffmann echoed the sentiment: “You need to connect to the local and cultural conditions,” she said, pointing to Snøhetta’s well-known Opera House in Oslo, where the roof was designed as a gathering space.

Tjeldflaat further emphasized the importance of collaboration, insisting that it “is not [just] nice to have, but a must-have” because it “promotes new insights between all parties, creating synergies.”

Tjeldflaat was asked about one of his ongoing projects called Open House, which focuses on isolation in the urban environment.

He shared that the Red Cross has identified loneliness as a “health issue,” and expressed hopes that, as a result of the coronavirus, more people will recognize and accept this problem.

The idea of “home” emerged as an important design concept. Homes can nurture the human species by incorporating nature, and common spaces can be used to connect people, which can lead to happiness and a feeling of being home.

In that vein, Johnson asked the panelists how outdoor spaces can connect us with nature and each other safely during the COVID-19 crisis.

Vestre brought up the concept of “hostile designs,” those design elements that discourage gathering and use of space by certain people, as an important thing to avoid. At Vestre, he said, “we have a commitment to not create any hostile designs, … such as spikes to stop the homeless from sleeping on benches.”

In her response, Schiffmann discussed the example of Snøhetta’s Calgary Public Library project, which was bifurcated by a railroad. “We prioritized pedestrians and not the cars. There was a focus on accessibility, not only physically but also emotionally. Now with COVID-19, people are taking over outdoor space, like restaurants. There is a lot of potential for making these spaces more human,” she said.

Vestre was asked how people respond to his street furniture, which he refers to associal installations.” They are designed so that the public, in turn, individualizes their pieces by reconfiguring them. One example is Vestre’s use of the idea of the stoop, an iconic feature of New York City’s living spaces, and made it into a communal design that can fit up to nine people.

Tjeldflaat, for his part, creates living space designs that often incorporate hexagonal and rounded shapes that help emotionally in acclimating the homeless into society.These shapes affect our mental health,” he said, “including happiness and wellness. There is a direct correlation between the shape of the place and the social dimension of what it feels like to be in a place.”

Schiffmann agreed: The space has to serve diverse public[s]. We have to be careful not to force design, that is to say, over-engineer, and [we must] be prepared for what we create to change the way it is used. We have to let the users have the chance to explore and break down barriers to spaces that have been off-putting.”

Metrics that matter

The discussion moved toward the social and environmental impact of design. The panelists pointed to several key metrics, including carbon emissions, energy use, and the life-cycle of material products. They also noted the role of public safety and real estate values, as well as gender balance in the way spaces are used.

Vestre said that his company uses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in an effort to get companies to think less about profit and more about whether “what they are making improves society.”

Schiffmann pointed to the Alexandria Library project, one of Snøhetta’s major undertakings in Egypt, as a space that paid particular attention to gender balance in the space.

Tjeldflaat brought up the relationship between subject and behavior. “You start with a problem, such as homelessness, realizing that ideological thoughts are often the barriers. You accept the unknown so we have the ability to adapt, evolve, and change,” he said.

Risk-taking in design was another theme that emerged. Vestre pointed out the value of taking risks, noting the wealth of knowledge and creativity that designers around the world have to confront social problems. “We need international cooperation more than ever before to solve big issues. There is a benefit in combining American creativity with Nordic values of equal opportunities,” he said.

Snøhetta, Schiffmann pointed out, “has offices throughout the world, staffed by locals, who know their homes best. Even in terms of the pandemic, we could learn from what they have already gone through.”

Tjeldflaat brought the discussion home, pointing out the new importance that familiar spaces have taken on. “With the pandemic,” he said, “homes have had to expand their uses, become office, gyms, etc. This open-endedness enables us to not try to control it. This is why quality is important. It brings more respect and has a longer lifespan.”

Vision for the future

In sum, Johnson pointed out to close the discussion, we need to create “social monuments instead of sculptural monuments.” We need to allow people to “discover design.” And finally, we need to “foster … delight,” and create a connection of “joy and the human experience in public spaces.”

To listen to Design Pavilion’s “Design Talks NOW” Norway Design sessions online, visit:

Humanistic Industrial Design:

Overarching Product Design:

Sustainable Materials:

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.