Tradition and innovation

Photo: Variér. The Eight bar stool by Variér comes in a rainbow of colors.

An in-depth look at the evolution of Norwegian design from the 19th century to today

Carla Danziger

Norwegian American Weekly

Come September 2012, “100% Norway” – an exhibition of innovative Norwegian industrial design – will return for its 10th year to the London Design Festival. Thousands of visitors will flock to see new works from Norway’s talented emerging designers and leading interiors manufacturers. These works will not only showcase the creativity of today’s designers but feature iconic furniture designs of the past.

“Norway’s place on the world stage of design is rooted in tradition and innovation,” says one of exhibition’s curators Benedicte Sunde of the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture (DogA) in Oslo.

Industrial designers use a combination of applied art and science to improve the aesthetics, ergonomics, and usability—and often the manufacture and marketability—of a product. Norway’s designers excel at this.

The history of Norwegian furniture design provides insight not only into the evolution of industrial design in Norway but social change as well, Sunde says. Long a male-dominated industry throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, Norwegian design and designers began to change as a result of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Norway struggled in the 20th century to find its place in the design world, where – Denmark and Sweden, and to an extent Finland – had already established a reputation,” Sunde says. Even though Norwegian-designed furniture was part of the Scandinavian Design movement that hit North America in the early 1950s, Norway was overshadowed by its neighbors.

Lars Kinsarvik's art nouveau Viking throne.

Long before 1905 when Norway gained true independence from Sweden, Norwegians sought to establish their distinct national identity, Sunde says. Artisans looked back to their Viking history, drawing inspiration from the carved dragonheads decorating the tips of the longboats and that were later incorporated into the design of medieval stave churches. Coupled with the dragon themes were geometric and organic designs. Rosemaling (decorative painting), which originated in rural communities, drew from the classical S and C swirls of the Acanthus leaf motif of Baroque and Rococo art and inspired the carving that became an especially popular pattern in home furnishings.

Lars Kinsarvik is credited with developing the “dragon style” in the late 19th century in Hardanger, carving the designs into churches especially in Western Norway, and later into homes and furniture. He was the first to carve the dragon-style chair. He also educated other carvers to become skilled in this style.

Furniture making originated in the fjords on Norway’s west coast, in Sunnmøre, where over a third of today’s 450 furniture manufacturers have their roots, says Sunde. To supplement their incomes, farmers and fishermen made furniture using the wood from the plentiful pine trees. Sunnmøre native Petter Iverson Langlo read about Henry Ford’s mass production of cars and decided to apply it to making furniture. In 1929 he experimented with series production of furniture, albeit on a primitive level, Sunde says. Yet his initiative revolutionized furniture making in Norway. Following Langlo’s lead, his Sykkylven neighbor Jens Ekornes established a furniture factory there in 1934. Today J.E. Ekornes Fjærfabrikk is Norway’s largest furniture manufacturer.

Like most industries in Norway during the Nazi occupation in World War II, furniture production lapsed. But by the 1950s, Norwegians produced important breakthroughs in the modern design movement, focusing not only on the look of furniture but on its comfort and function. In addition to pine, designers used teak, plywood, birch and other woods.

In 1954 Øyvind Iversen made history with his space-saving, stackable, body friendly “City” chair, the first with laminated seat and back. Its popularity soared and it has remained a classic.

Many of Fredrik Kayser’s chair designs have also become classics, such as the “Kryss” chair) designed in 1955.

Hans Brattrud pioneered the use of high-frequency lamination in the creation of his bent-wood laminated “Scandia chair” in 1957. His work continues to influence designs to this day. The Scandia chair is manufactured by FjordFiesta.

The 1960s brought more innovative designs. Ingmar Relling, another Sikkylven son, designed the high-backed “Siesta” chair, which brought him international attention.

Another iconic and prolific designer Svein Ivar Dysthe debutted the cushy Planet chair, which seemingly molds around the torso and the comfy “1001” chair in 1965.

In the 1970s Peter Opsvik’s designs responded to the era of feminism and gender equality, says Sunde. The women’s movement changed men’s perspective of the household and housework. Opsvik looked for ways of making life easier because now, with more women working outside the home, men were involved in taking care it. He introduced design as problem-solving. An example of this was his invention of the Tripp Trapp, 1972, an adjustable ladder-like highchair that “grows” with the child from toddler to teenager.

He was also instrumental in creating the Balans Chair, with no back, just resting pads for the knees. Hans Chr. Mengshoel initiated the concept of the kneeling chair posture in Norway, and Opsvik was one of three designers who developed the models.

Opsvik rethought sitting, decided people were not designed to sit the same way for a long time, says Sunde. “The trends he started have become tradition.”

Terje Ekstrom designed the Ekstrem armchair with its organic structure (looking something like a padded section of a jungle gym) also in the early 70s but it wasn’t commercialized until the 1980s. For 100% Norway, furniture maker Variér (formerly Stokke) has reissued its classic Variable Balans chair and the Ekstrem chair.

In the 1980s, women began to study design, though at first, Sunde says, they were told “they would be unemployed because it’s a man’s world.” That attitude has changed.

Beate Ellingsen, one of Norway’s women trailblazers in interior architecture and furniture design, established her own firm in 1992. She has designed furniture for the Tinghus, the new courthouse in Oslo, and has created several commissioned works for the Norwegian embassies.

Solveig Torsteinsen worked as a freelance furniture designer and interior architect until 1997 when she and her husband opened their business Torsteinsen Design AS.

While Norwegian designers and manufacturers have exhibited their works in shows in Europe and the United States for decades, in the 21st century an innovative group of young Norwegian designers has brought Norwegian industrial design new international recognition, says Sunde.

Torbjørn Anderssen, Andreas Engesvik, and Espen Voll started a collective in Oslo in 2002, in the workers district called Grünerløkka, and connected their studio to a shop where they sold their designs. They called their company “Norway Says,” Sunde says, “They changed the mindset for a whole nation.” They started with furniture then moved into lamps, glass, electronics, and other media. Their entrepreneurial style influenced other designers, both male and female. Sunde also credits them as the catalyst for Innovation Norway (see sidebar).

Building on the traditions and evolution of Norwegian design, today’s designers maintain the rigor and attention to detail of Scandinavian design while incorporating nature, playfulness, function, innovation, and aesthetics into their work; always with the user in mind.

Today, approximately 50 percent of Norwegian design students are women; and 30 percent of Norway’s design entrepreneurs are women. A recent exhibition at the Corcoran College of Art in Washington highlighted some of the rising stars of Norway’s designing women (See NAW Feb. 3, 2012 or Of course, Sunde herself is an example of women who are design professionals.

No longer a man’s world, the Norwegian design industry has become one in which men and women together have raised Norway’s design profile. It’s 100% Norway!

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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