+ Munch

Christina Skreiberg speaks to director of the Munch Museum, Stein Olav Henrichsen, and Henrik Haugan, senior brand designer at Snøhetta, to discover the intersection between art and design in a groundbreaking series of exhibitions, casting Norway’s most famous artist in a controversial new light

Photography Christina Skreiberg

This year’s European Design Festival will take place in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. In advance of both the festival’s opening in June, and another design festival – the Salone del Mobile in Milan – Port met two of Norway’s foremost thinkers in art and design; Stein Olav Henrichsen, director of the Munch Museum and Henrik Haugan, senior brand designer at Snøhetta. Here, they reflect on their prize-winning exhibition series, which presented the artist Edvard Munch in a new, bold and sometimes provoking way. 

The + Munch exhibition series marked a shift at the Munch Museum. Suddenly the traditional museum was on everybody’s lips, at times visiting numbers from the local community increased by tenfold. How did the collaboration with Snøhetta come about?

Stein Olav Henrichsen: When I became the director of the museum in late 2010, one of our main challenges was that the local audience rarely visited the museum. The locals viewed Munch as a historical icon that belonged to the past. I realised that we needed to re-enliven him as an artist and change the Norwegian’s perspective of their grand old master. We needed to be relevant to the society around us.

I got in touch with Snøhetta and asked if they wanted to throw ideas with us. A group from the museum – curators, art historians, conservators, communicators – went down to their place, by the seaside in Oslo, and spent a full day discussing how we could present Edvard Munch in new ways. We had immediate chemistry, and worked together as a team, as if we were one. And importantly, we had fun! Together we realised that we could throw new light on Edvard Munch by creating dialogue exhibitions, exhibiting him alongside other artists.

Melgaard + Munch

+Munch was a series of six exhibitions over two years, exploring the work of Edvard Munch side by side the works of first Bjarne Melgaard, then Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Vigeland, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jasper Johns and Asger Jorn. Henrik, what was your main goal when designing these exhibitions?

Henrik Haugan: Our goal is to be communicative with the audience, and treat the space with focused attention and a fresh approach, so the people who visit have a valuable experience. We aim to have an element of surprise, and give the audience unexpected experiences, hoping they will want to come back next time. We like to create a shift in temperature and energy-level from exhibition to exhibition. From rebellious and challenging to delicate and sensuous – or contemplative to playful. It was important to see the series as a whole, but we also had maximum contrast: starting with Melgaard and moving on to Van Gogh.

I like to bring the knowledge and experience we have from commercial clients into our cultural projects. The branding deals with much more than making the museum nice and beautiful, it is also something that changes people’s perception. Perhaps we have changed people’s perception of what a museum can offer, and also of what’s allowed to be done with a national treasure like Munch.

Van Gogh + Munch

Bjarne Melgaard, one of Norway’s best-known contemporary artists, was the first to exhibit alongside Edvard Munch. He is provoking to many. Why was he chosen as the one to launch the series?

Stein Olav Henrichsen: In choosing Melgaard we marked a paradigm shift, which we were eager to do. We shook up the whole museum and got to show the city that from now on we’ll also exhibit contemporary art and we will be part of the contemporary discussion. Many were provoked because up until then the museum had only exhibited Edvard Munch, and some thought it should stay that way. Many thought Bjarne Melgaard wasn’t on Munch’s level; how could we degrade Munch in this way, and show him next to this enfant terrible? Melgaard is provoking to some, but if you look into the work of Edvard Munch, he can also provoke.

Henrik Haugan: It wasn’t just Melgaard that provoked either, but our choice of colours and the way we presented the artworks next to each other. In the catalogue we infiltrated Melgaard’s work into Munch’s work, and that created a lot of controversy. Being bold and perhaps radical with the first exhibition paved the way; we could do almost anything after that. But I was slightly concerned that it would be hard to maintain the temperature in the following exhibitions.

Stein Olav Henrichsen: I believe that it is important to take a few risks. When you work with art, you never know what comes next. We managed to keep up the steam, and the public and media expectation grew with every exhibition. 

Mapplethorpe + Munch

Snøhetta has done the exhibition design, but also the catalogue design and the logo design, for all six exhibitions. You’ve won prizes such as the DOGA Award for Design and Architecture and Grafill’s Visuelt prize, the National Norwegian Graphic Design Award, for the work. Could you give us some insight into the design process?

Henrik Haugan: We started the +Munch series with a couple of large workshops where the foundation for the whole series was conceived. For the different exhibitions it was really important to get as much information from the curators as possible before starting to work on concrete ideas. The concept for the exhibition could come from these meetings or a museum visit with the team, or it could come from starting to prototype rough ideas. The fact that we had six exhibitions in a row demanded simple and communicative ideas for each exhibition. Each exhibition was a dialogue between an artist and Edvard Munch, but it was also equally important dialogue between the previous and next exhibitions in the series.

I was a visual artist before I became a designer, so I have read a lot of the biographies and literature about Munch. Later on I became a designer, but with my background I might have seen some possibilities that aren’t obvious to all, since I have a lot of insight into Munch’s lesser known works. We have placed artworks next to each other, unsure if they would stand well together, but just let the snowball roll, and we never really knew where it would land. But as long as the initial ideas are good the result is usually good too. I like it when the process is slightly unpredictable. 

Nordic Design Wisdom

How the considered design principles of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland reflect thoughtful ways of living 

Ox chairs and footstool, Hans Wegner, AP Stolen, 1960 / Currently manufactured by Erik Jørgensen / Insula table, Ernst & Jensen, Erik Jørgensen, 2009; AJ Table lamp, Arne Jacobsen, Louis Poulsen, 1960. Picture credit: Erik Jørgensen

The Swedish have an expression, den röda tråden (the red thread), which they use to describe the essence of something. The ‘red thread’ might run through a particular style, cultural identity or shared experience. In other words, it is a through line; a narrative device and one that speaks to our impulse for storytelling. In a new book that borrows its title from the saying– The Red Thread: Nordic Design – the authors write: “In no other practice is this red thread brighter, tauter and more apparent than in Nordic design.”

Looking at the stellar design legacy of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, such a claim is hard to deny. Lifestyle is Scandinavia’s greatest export. This is in part because the region’s design is all-encompassing. From furniture to lighting to tableware, design in this part of the world reflects thoughtful ways of living, and is marked by functionality, simplicity and an emphasis on natural materials. Most of us are familiar with some of its prototypes: three-legged stools from Finland, sheepskin rugs from Norway and Denmark’s innumerable armchairs. Each is a studied reminder of the power of design in everyday life.

Taken from the pages of The Red Thread, here are some words of wisdom which highlight the significance of the Nordic approach.

Stool 60, Alvar Aalto, Artek, 1933. Picture credit: © ARTEK

Design to Improve Life

“When Nordic designers sit down to work on a thermos flask, a set of cutlery or a frying pan, they will likely approach the task with the same degree of seriousness as they would bring to designing a motorway overpass. Every single detail is considered and many different solutions are tested; the Nordic designer’s common mission is to investigate how to make an object as streamlined, safe and user-friendly as possible.”

Swan chair, Arne Jacobsen, Fritz Hansen, 1958. Picture credit: Fritz Hansen A/S

Design to Improve Spaces

“The Nordic interest in holding onto good things and passing on heirlooms is explained, in part, by practicality, not necessarily sentimentality. Things are kept because they are useful and, although there are exceptions, the rest is largely jettisoned. A Nordic home must have a sense of clarity; there should be space between furniture as well as underneath it it; walls are often left bare and, even when more furniture could be squeezed in, restraint is practised. Rather a few good pieces than many mediocre ones.”

Children’s Furniture, Alvar Aalto, 1940s. Image courtsey Jackson Design

Design to Improve Relationships

“Nordic designers are known for their social commitment. This concern became particularly prominent in the twentieth century, when many were intrinsically involved with forging the region’s welfare states, designing objects to make everyday life easier, more balance and more beautiful. Seeing design as a process of ‘problem solving’ has become commonplace in the industry today; but it was architects, designers and indeed even craftsmen from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland who set the precedent for this, long before think tanks and design labs came along.”

The Red Thread: Nordic Design by Oak Publishing is out on 22 May, published by Phaidon

The Story of Slow TV

How filming a seven-hour train journey launched the Slow TV movement and became a Norwegian broadcasting phenomenon

Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt / photograph by Rolf Sørensen
Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt / photograph by Rolf Sørensen

During an ordinary lunchtime in 2009, a colleague of mine came up with the idea for a radio programme to mark the day of the German invasion of Norway in 1940 – a programme that would go through the whole night, reporting from the right place, the exact times and so on. It was a good idea, but couldn’t be made as it was only a few days before the anniversary of the invasion. But we kept sitting there having lunch, seeing which stories we could tell over a long time. It was the centenary of the Bergen Railway, and that was the suggestion that stuck. 

It’s a very slow train and takes seven and a half hours. One of us suggested filming the whole thing and putting it on TV, and we all laughed. It could have been one of those ideas that you have after a few drinks and forget about the next day, but it kept coming back to us. We called our commissioning editors and said that we wanted to make a documentary that would be ‘minute by minute’, and they didn’t know what we meant. They laughed with us when they understood.  


The original railway programme was a four-camera production. We occasionally talked to the passengers, and we had a presenter and a lot of archive footage, but otherwise it was just the train. It’s telling a story, but a story that’s happening without us, as TV-makers, colouring it in any sense.

The key thing is the unbroken timeline, which means that everything is there – the boring parts as well as the interesting parts. This means that you, as the viewer, have to decide for yourself which bits are interesting. That’s why people find different stories in the programme, and why people watch Slow TV in different ways; some just lean back and have it as a nice picture on the wall, like a big window in the living room, and other people sit on the edge of their seats, genuinely curious.

Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt © NRK
Bergensbanen – minutt for minutt © NRK

When we did the next project – the coastal ship – we filmed live over five and a half days, and had the advantage of people talking about something that is happening in real-time. The live element has become a very important part of Slow TV. I think it’s important for the viewer, as a kind of contract, that this is happening right now, that no one has taken anything away. It’s also important for the viewer to know that something could happen. It most probably won’t, but it could, just as in life. That’s why you carry on watching.   

Despite some perceptions, this is not watching paint dry. At the heart of all the stories that we’ve made is a story worth telling. Maybe a story connected to Norwegian culture, or a journey, or a subject that many Norwegians can relate to. When you find that story and tell it in a fascinating way, then you have the power to help show people what’s important and what’s not. By broadcasting a crazy programme on prime-time television, you’re telling the audience this is something worth watching. If you choose the right subject, and you’re brave, then people will respond. 

Interview by Caolan Blaney