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Norwegian design is taking the world by storm

Traditionally Norway has not been associated with design in the same way that its Scandinavian neighbours have. Almost every building in Finland houses at least one item of Alvar Aalto furniture and a Marimekko textile or two. The Danes bask in the glow of their lovely Louis Poulsen lights while they curl up in Arne Jacobsen’s egg chair of a night in. Sweden – well we’re at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, so I don’t need to go into much detail here. Plus you have IKEA… the poor Norwegians have a lot to live up to really.

It’s not that Norway doesn’t have a design heritage, because it does. But until quite recently it’s definitely not been a major priority. Norway’s reputation abroad has been built on its fish, its fjords, its dire performances in the Eurovision song contest and the fact that it’s a really shockingly expensive place to visit.

Things are changing, not only did the Norwegians win the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009, but Norwegian design – while it’s also still very expensive - is now big international news.

The Natural Design
I often get asked what characterizes Norwegian design. In my opinion, it is generally not a great idea to start saying things like, “You can always spot Norwegian design because they use a lot of natural wood and reindeer motifs.” Cultural stereotyping is bad. And boring. However, you can’t ignore the fact that national styles do exist and, more than ever, while globalization has erased so much of cultural heritage, provenance and local influences are more relevant and important than ever.

Norwegian design, as you would expect, demonstrates many of the same influences as the other Scandinavian countries. Nature is a biggie. It’s hard not to be inspired by nature when there’s a whopping great fjord outside your back door. Norway has a lot of nature, and it follows that this is apparent in the forms, patterns and materials used in their products, furniture, fashion, architecture, glassware and ceramics.

But it’s very important to realize that national borders are also pretty blurry these days, with designers completing their education and working all over the world influences and knowledge are pretty far reaching. One designer, Torbjorn Anderssen from Andersson Voll, once said that Nordic inspirations can come as indirectly as they can directly, “We are inspired by things that have been inspired by Norwegian design.”

The design for the structure which housed the 100% Norway exhibition in 2009 was inspired by a typical Norwegian fiskehjelle.

© Photograph by Thomas Aastad

The Snowball
So why is Norwegian design having a moment now? When you look at the recent history of Norwegian design it does make sense to talk about national identity in a way that just isn’t true of other places. Company names are proof of this: Norway Says, Permafrost, Frost Produkt, Nora of Norway, Fjord Fiesta… the list goes on.

According to much of the Norwegian media, and the Design Council, the story of contemporary Norwegian design success abroad began some ten years ago, when a collective of bright young things pooled resources and travelled together to Milan to set up a stand there. They called themselves Norway Says, and their stuff was really good.

These three young designers quickly realized that their collective approach was serving them well, and formed a company. Garnering lots of attention from the media and manufacturers, they also began proactively using their position to highlight Norwegian design in general, and to inspire and mentor young talent.

The result was a snowball effect. Norway Says was part of a generation of great designers that also included a number of others. They hit the international stage just at the point when design was becoming big news in the media, and the attention they got, as well as their very inclusive attitude, encouraged a new generation of graduates to follow suit.

Sexier than Petroleum & National Identity
Around the same time the Norwegian Design Council and the Department of Trade and Industry began to see serious potential in this fledgling new source of national pride. Design is one of the sexiest exports a country can have – it beats fish and petroleum hands down for its photogenic properties alone, it has to be said. And so began a programme of investment.

A culture has since emerged which is one of best-practice sharing, and community – the Norwegian design scene today is inclusive and encouraging, less competitive and more full of brotherly love… it is all the stronger for it.

There is a real sense of pride in national identity – a sort of collective promotional tool, that is inspiring, and which I haven’t seen anywhere else.

The Pleasant Future
It’s also very fashionable. Not in the sense of using this season’s latest colour palette and fabrics, but in the sense of having a real appreciation of provenance. At a time when homogeny is ubiquitous, local craftsmanship and a sense of place is increasingly attractive. The Norwegians, too, are traditionally good story-tellers – another thing we all want from our contemporary designed products is that they have a tale to tell. And the pieces are – for the most part – designed and built to last, something that’s important to our sustainability-driven world.

What next for Norwegian design? I think there are a few challenges ahead in order to keep things interesting, and I wonder whether now the time has come when the Norwegian-ness is less important than the fact that these young designers are producing great, innovative and original designs that are, at the end of the day, world-class.

Retaining provenance is still crucial, but I believe that this is where things are going to start getting really interesting. Designers in Norway are now starting to look beyond the tourist industry for their cultural heritage and inspiration. And the rest of the world is due for a pleasant surprise.

The Skandia chair by Hans Bratterud for Fjordfiesta is a classic Scandinavian design that is still extremely popular today.

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