Queen of design

Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton Publishers. Grete Prytz Kittelsen’s work, such as bowls, were very popular in the 1960s around the world.

The life and work of Norwegian designer Grete Prytz Kittelsen in a new book

Christy Olsen Field

Norwegian American Weekly

The Scandinavian Design movement of the mid-20th century was born of the idea that beautiful, functional everyday objects could be accessible to everyone in society. In the history of design, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have often overshadowed Norway. One Norwegian designer who stood out from the pack is Norwegian design pioneer Grete Prytz Kittelsen, whose enamel and silver designs are celebrated in the newly translated book “Grete Prytz Kittelsen: The Art of Enamel Design.”

Edited by Karianne Bjellås Gilje with contributors Thomas Flor, Widar Halén, Jan-Lauritz Opstad and Astrid Skjerven, the book celebrates the work of Kittelsen and her lasting impact on Norwegian design in the 20th century and beyond.

Author Karianne Bjellås Gilje has a strong background in design and writing, as well as a personal connection to Kittelsen’s work. Gilje was a publisher with Universitetsforlaget (University Press), editor of Prosa magazine and is currently a columnist with national daily newspaper Dagbladet. Today, Gilje is the head of program at Norsk Form, the Foundation for Design and Architecture in Norway. Gilje organizes exhibitions, events and other projects for the Norwegian Center for Design and Architecture in Oslo (DogA).

“When I was a student in Oslo, I came across decorative bowls and other objects from the 1960s at a flea market. I started buying things that I could use, like casseroles and such, because I found them to be beautiful and useful. They weren’t very popular in the late 1980s, but I liked them,” said Gilje.

As her collection grew, Gilje wanted to learn more about the designer behind the enamel pieces. Grete Prytz Kittelsen (1917 – 2010) was one of the most well-known Norwegians in the mid-century Scandinavian Design movement, but not much was written about the leading designer. Gilje made a visit to Kunstindustrimuseet (Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design) to learn more, and found a little brochure to tell about the life of Kittelsen.

Grete Kittelsen with two of her enameled bowls.

Grete Kittelsen with two of her enameled bowls. Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton Publishers

“It was too much history to not write about Kittelsen, and I thought there should be a book about her,” said Gilje. “I thought about it for a long time, then decided in 2003 to edit a book about her. In 2008, Gyldendal published our book ‘Grete Prytz Kittelsen: Emalje og design,’ and it was translated and published in English by W.W. Norton Publishers this May.”

Kittelsen was born in 1917 to Oslo to Ingerid Juel and Jakob Tostrup Prytz, who was a goldsmith and rector at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry. Part of her early exposure to the arts was due to the students and lecturers connected to the school, including renowned Finnish designer and architect Alvar Aalto. Kittelsen attended the Academy to study goldsmithing, and graduated in 1941. She soon changed her focus to enamel work and plastic, but continued her design work in jewelry.

“There are quite a few eminent designers in Norway, but Grete Prytz Kittelsen is known for her widespread influence and innovative talent. Kittelsen worked for the company Cathrineholm, and they had strong exports at the peak of the Scandinavian Design movement in the 1960s. Her enamel bowls were exported to mainland Europe, the U.S., Australia and Japan, just to name a few. Her work was accessible for people to buy and use in their everyday lives. In addition, she made jewelry and special silver pieces for her family business, Tostrup. Her work was special and functional,” said Gilje.

“The retro, mid-century design has grown in popularity, and her pieces can be found on Ebay and vintage shops if you Google her name or Cathrineholm, the company she worked for,” said Gilje.

“For those who watch the American TV show ‘Mad Men,’ you can see her pieces on Don Draper’s desk and other scenes throughout the show,” she added.

Kittelsen received several awards and honors in the 1950s, including the Lunning Prize in 1952, and the 1954 Grand Prix at the Triennale in Milan for her enamel collection. From 1954 to 1957, she participated in the “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition, shown in several places in the U.S. and Canada. She was knighted into the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in 1986. In 2008 she had an exhibition in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design and the book “Grete Prytz Kittelsen: Emalje og design.”

“Kittelsen really had talent, and she was innovative: She developed new methods and techniques in industrial design that are still inspires designers and researchers, as well as everyone who uses her colorful enameled pieces today. She truly is one of Norway’s most interesting designers from the 20th century,” said Gilje.

The book “Grete Prytz Kittelsen: The Art of Enamel Design” is now available in English by publisher W.W. Norton. The book can be purchased online at www.wwnorton.com, through Amazon.com or BN.com, or special-ordered through your local bookstore.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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