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

Oslo Pilot: Rethinking Art in Norway

Madeleine Morley travels to Oslo and discovers the new two-year programme that’s reconsidering the role of public art in Norway’s capital city

Munch Museum. Photo of unknown visitor (date unknown). Photo: Knudsens fotoaterlier © Dextra Photo, Norsk Teknisk Museum
Munch Museum. Photo of unknown visitor (date unknown). Photo: Knudsens fotoaterlier © Dextra Photo, Norsk Teknisk Museum

Opening out from Oslo’s centre, a myriad streets take you to public spaces, as is the case in most cities. Yet, unlike most other cities, there’s a new, cohesive plan for these areas: they will act as multiple stages for a new public art project boldly entitled Oslo Pilot.

Recently initiated by the City of Oslo’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, the two-year programme intends to reconsider the role of public art through a series of events, talks, installations and art projects, laying the research groundwork for a biennale that the Oslo Pilot curators, Eva Gonzalez-Sancho and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk, are organising in 2018.

The project developed out of a desire to do things differently; the art biennial format has become increasingly standardised, or so Oslo Pilot argues, so the initiative seeks to produce something born from the contemporary rhythms of the local community, from the pace, purpose and people of the city itself. They suggest that the art industry – its makers, writers, buyers, sellers and enthusiasts – routinely travel from city-to-city for biennale after biennale and, apart from taking a taxi from the airport to the exhibitions, there is often little chance to interact with the show’s surroundings Guests move from white lecture room to anonymous gallery space in a vacuum; Oslo Pilot seeks to rethink this separatist status quo. By commissioning work that’s intimately connected to public space, the artworks, lectures and words that Oslo Pilot curates will inevitably define where the city and its people are today.

The National Gallery in Oslo, 1920
The National Gallery in Oslo, 1920

When you fly into Oslo city airport in the heart of winter, and possibly throughout the year, you descend through a landscape so white that you can’t distinguish what’s ice and what’s cloud. If it weren’t for the thick tufts of forest that erupt from blankets of snow, you wouldn’t be able to tell where the mountains start, the sea ends or the sky begins.

It takes exactly 22 minutes to get from Oslo city airport, which is embedded in classic Norwegian landscape, to Oslo city centre. And the transition from country to city is a sudden one. You cut through a dark tunnel carved through the mountainside, shuttling from a world of pine trees heavy with snow to a scenery of fantastic glass towers that spring up next to the train tracks. These stark buildings make no secret of Norway’s relatively newfound wealth: the glitzy surfaces speak of oil – as does the plush tinkling of a grand piano player and the blazing, rose-gold fire pits that fill the station’s central hall.

The Munch Museum in 1963. Courtesy Teigens Fotoatelier
The Munch Museum in 1963. Courtesy Teigens Fotoatelier

Step outside of the station and you’ll immediately see Norway’s Opera House designed by Tarald Lundevall, where silhouettes trudge slowly and obediently up a slope that will take them to the roof. You saw the ancient mountains from the plane; now in the capital, newer steel, glass and concrete mountains loom with science-fiction vividness.

One public space, or stage, just minutes from the Opera House has been recently filled by Oslo Pilot, the first of many projects that will sprawl in squares and along the side-streets over the next two years. Beside the elaborate House of Commons built in the 17th Century is this first commission: Marianne Heske’s House of Commons, built in 17th Century but moved to this icy public spot in front of parliament in 2015. The red-slat house could be mistaken for one of the structures you can see from the plane window – its relocation is a grand attempt to subtly remind the city of its own humble past and roots.

Deichman Main Library (1959). Photo: Leif Ørnelund © Oslo Museum
Deichman Main Library (1959). Photo: Leif Ørnelund © Oslo Museum

The first Oslo Pilot presentation and exhibition of 2016, launched January 21, 2016, articulates how a now modernistic sensibility is impacting the fabric of the city and its public spaces.

‘The City of Dislocation’, an extensive research project, examines why cultural institutions are being moved out of their current locations – historical buildings scattered throughout the city of Oslo – and alludes to the loss that neighbourhoods will experience as a result of these organisations merging and relocating to newly built facilities. Using pictures, newspaper clippings and a map of Oslo plastered around the Oslo Pilot Project Room, the project demonstrates how The National Museum, the Munch Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the public library are being moved from their current neo-classical homes to large, dominant buildings presently under construction.

One such site is the Fjord City project that will sit beside the dramatic Opera House on the waterfront; although movement and change is vital to the energy of a city, what concerns City of Dislocation curators Joanne Borthne, Vilhelm Christensen, Martin Braathen, and Even Smith Wergelad, is that there are no plans for what will happen to the old buildings when they’re left empty.

Deichmanske bibliotek, 1959. Photo Leif Ørnelund © Oslo Museum
Deichmanske bibliotek, 1959. Photo Leif Ørnelund © Oslo Museum

“My worry is that they’ll become hotels or luxury apartments and no longer retain their status as public space,” says Wergelad, an architectural historian. If these buildings get claimed for other, more commercial purposes, the stories contained in their architecture will be rewritten and potentially forgotten by the public too.

Built in the late 1800s and early 1900s after Norway gained independence, the small yet proud public buildings were a celebration of freedom, though as a poor country, the structures were small. Now, their modest size has become an embarrassment to many and developers are eager to create confident, international glass towers that reflect Norway’s current economic reality and position as European powerhouse.

Wergelad takes me on a walking tour to a few of the institutes that are going to be relocated. The Contemporary Art Museum is currently situated in a former bank built in 1900 – an art-nouveau creation with thick, textured blank bricks that harmonise with the towering, ancient mountains. Ten minutes up the road, there’s the National Art Museum, which houses Norway’s oldest collection in some dignity. It’s a building that was built for the art it houses, each archway and elaborate detail encasing the paintings hung on the wall. And while it makes sense that contemporary art should be moved out of a formidable old bank and into a sweeping, more accessible modern building, this neoclassical structure seems tied to the artworks that it shelters. That’s why the abandonment of the current National Art Museum is the most controversial.

On the way to the site, Wergelad and I bump into the head of the Architectural Association of Norway, who has been campaigning against the relocation of the national art collection, for years. “It’s good that The City of Dislocation and Oslo Pilot is bringing this to attention,” he says, “but it’s probably too late now.”

Marianne Heske, House of Commons, 2015-16. Photographer Niklas Lello
Marianne Heske, House of Commons, 2015-16. Photographer Niklas Lello

The role of public art is often about reflection and contextualisation. A public piece of art can be an enlightening visual manifestation that embodies a pervasive feeling or thought and brings a community together, or it can bring to light an ideal or tradition that has been forgotten. The City of Dislocation and The House of Commons articulate current feelings and bring the forgotten to wider attention. How much of an effect these pieces and others being commissioned by Oslo Pilot will have on the rampant changes of the city is still uncertain. Will they be just charming pin pricks dotted around the streets, appreciated and admired but ultimately unheard whispers, or will their resounding relevance shine through?

Oslo Pilot has a tireless programme of public art initiatives, research programmes, talks, commissions and events planned for the city, all of which investigate the function of art in public space. In Summer 2016, Siri Anker Aurdal will present her sculptures in Vigeland Park, and in August Norwegian artist duo Trollkrem will be organising a festival in the Ekeberg Park woods.

‘Moneyed newness’ threatens to separate the city of Oslo from its history but the real question is whether public art can repair these broken and fractured ties or will it become a minor, decorative part of the tourist trade.

Oslo Pilot is a two-year project investigating the role of art in and for the public realm

Art in the Arctic Circle: KaviarFactory

Simon Parkin travels to the Arctic Circle to explore one of the most remote contemporary art galleries in the world

The KaviarFactory building with the logo (missing the letters A, R and T) designed by German artist, Michael Sailstrorfer
The KaviarFactory building with the logo (missing the letters A, R and T) designed by German artist, Michael Sailstrorfer

The Lofoten archipelago, a series of islands that curve away from the mainland of Norway, is nothing short of spectacular. It is a harsh and simple landscape, but, despite being situated deep inside the Arctic Circle, the mountains that rise out of the sea and the fishing villages that take shelter in them are warmed by the Gulf Stream.

Hopping from village to village in a place that is as much sea as it is land, you do not expect to stumble upon a contemporary art gallery, especially one housed in a converted caviar factory and exhibiting the work of one of Norway’s greatest living artists.

An exhibition at the KaviarFactory showing works from Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard
An exhibition at the KaviarFactory showing works from Norwegian arist Bjarne Melgaard

Henningsvær is a fishing village in the Lofoten archipelago that juts into the Norwegian Sea and is home to a population of less than 500. From the vantage point of the bridge, the only way to access the island, it looks like the last pieces of land before the sea drops off the edge of the world. But it is here that Venke and Rolf Hoff established their gallery, KaviarFactory. Or rather their ‘Kunsthalle‘, as Rolf corrects me, which means a not-for-profit exhibition space.

“This property, an abandoned caviar factory, was up for sale,” said Rolf, when I asked him how he and Venke came to own what must be one of the most remote art galleries in the world. “Someone wanted to knock it down and build flats so my wife bought it, but we had no idea what to do with it.”

When Dolk and Pøbel – two of Norway’s best known street artists – came to the Lofoten, the Hoffs offered them the old factory as a base. After a family chat around the kitchen table in Oslo, the Hoffs decided to offer the street artists the building to exhibit their work, even though the old factory had not changed since it was shut down in the 1990s. “We had removed all of the old machinery and there was no water or electricity, but it was a success,” Rolf tells me. “That was when we decided to start KaviarFactory.”


Before the network of bridges between the archipelago’s islands were built and the region became known as the ‘Nordic Venice’, locals relied heavily on boats for transportation. The factory was built on the sea wall for loading and unloading crates of caviar, and there were apertures in the ceiling to move produce between floors. Unusually, Rolf tells me, he and Venke decided to change as little as possible when restoring the building and tried to preserve the functionality of the building. “Every window and door is exactly where it used to be,” Rolf adds.

The result is a pared-back space with white washed walls and concrete floors, but the openings in the ceiling – now covered with glass – and the wide windows on the second floor allow natural light to circulate throughout the building. From the top floors, there are incredible views across the water to the steep mountains beyond. “The art inside goes very well with the nature outside, so long as the art is strong,” Rolf tells me.


Strong is an apt description of Bjarne Melgaard, the artist currently on exhibition at KaviarFactory. Melgaard is a provocateur who, in his installations and expressive paintings, is never far from controversy and divides many, including those who have patronised KaviarFactory. Despite having been called ‘unethical and demoralising’ in some visitors’ reviews, Melgaard has earned his position as one of Norway’s greatest artists and was recently exhibited in Oslo alongside Edvard Munch.

That the Hoffs can mount an exhibition of Melgaard (the only one to show the artist’s work from over the past 20 years) is a testament to the decades that the couple have spent collecting, making contacts in the art world and investing in young talent long before KaviarFactory opened its doors.

“I have always been a collector. Before art it was stamps and coins,” Rolf says. “At first we had no money so I had to find the young and upcoming artists, which is exciting. You have to judge the art yourself and form your own opinion.”

It seems as if Rolf’s taste has paid off. When he happened upon Melgaard’s work in Oslo in 1996, he was so impressed that he walked out with three of his paintings; Rolf was the second person in Norway to have bought his work.


Having enjoyed a large amount of success so far, there is an exciting future for KaviarFactory. Continuing the programme of one carefully curated, high-quality exhibition each year, 2016 will see a group show of 25 female artists that includes Cindy Sherman and Roni Horn.

And after that? “In 2017 it will be a one-person show with a superstar,” says Rolf, giving nothing away. “It will be a sensation.”



Main photography Marc de Bertier


Homepage image of KaviarFactory – Photo © John Stenersen