Norway 2017

Simple, intentional and slightly surprising; that is Norwegian design. Take, by way of example, the chairs at the City Hall in Hamar, Norway. I wish I’d gotten more video of these chairs, or even better I wish I’d shot some stills- but these screen grabs will have to do.  I was at the City Hall for the opening draw of the 2017 World All-Around Speedskating Championships so I had other things on my mind.

Nevertheless I did get a bit of the chairs before I put the phone away. They are made entirely of  wood, gently curved wood. Nothing is ornate or elaborate, just carefully and gracefully curved wood. They are rather tall. A light varnish shows off the natural color and grain of the wood. The wool cushioning is a deep grey, almost black in color, yet it contrasts in tonal perfection with the light wood. Then there’s the engraving on the back of each chair. It’s not even outlined or highlighted – at first glance you might not even notice it, but when you do, you will soon realize that every chair is engraved, every chair is marked as belonging to Hamar, to Norway. Each chair is a tribute to Hamar’s long history and to Norway’s contemporary 21st century craftsmanship.

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These are just chairs, something for the public to sit on during a boring council meeting – or a speed skating draw. You could easily overlook them since you expect nothing special in a public meeting hall. They do not call attention to themselves.  Their function could be fulfilled just as easily with a set of cheap folding chairs. But then you sit down in one and after a moment you realize it is ridiculously comfortable. Then you begin to think of  how this is exactly the opposite of what you expect in a government building. Then you start to notice why, and you begin to see just how special these chairs are, how everything about them is intentional and refined. Airports and museums should be filled with such chairs.

Once I started to pay attention I saw this design aesthetic everywhere; the police headquarters which looks outward rather than inward, with slightly skewed vertical lines separating the two story windows.  The curving lines of the local mall, yes, the local mall;  irregular windows and cut outs make you think the roof line is sloping down while the rounded edge of the building turns away to infinity. No right angles here! In the interior and on the exterior of City Hall arcing curves are cut off by righteous angles. Or the reverse, rectangular blocks are set in to curved lines. What could be boring, functional, ‘cheapest bid’ public architecture becomes instead a statement of values, of outlook, of shared communal aesthetics. Yet none of these buildings look costly or wasteful, they only look like someone spent time, put in careful thought, used creativity.

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This doesn’t mean the people are without light-heartedness; see the photos of the decorated bus stop. It happens to be about half way between the police station and city hall. This metaphorically and literally frigid bus stop is decorated as if it were the inside of someone’s warm and welcoming home. Such an unexpected and humorous juxtaposition. Every time I went by I smiled.

Perhaps my appreciation for Nordic design is simply bred into my DNA. I am mostly Scandinavian, after all, although it is mostly Swedish rather than Norwegian, apparently. Or perhaps it’s because we’re most comfortable with what we know well. I grew up going to a small Lutheran church which beautifully exemplified this quiet, stark aesthetic.  As did so much of the way my mom decorated our home, down to the thought she put into table cloths and dish ware.  Of course there was that bi-level shag rug explosion in 1976. But that’s to be expected – it was the 70’s.

Most definitely though we are strongly, if subconsciously, influenced by the landscape that surrounds us – or the lack thereof. This is where I think the Scandinavians have an advantage over much of the rest of the world. The landscape here is rugged and dramatic, yet somehow also clean, uncluttered and approachable. Endless miles of white snow, not quite covering hills and small mountains of dark granite and grey rock, all sliding down into frigid blue fjords. It’s not unlike the Minnesota landscape in which I grew up. Perhaps that is why I feel so at home here. Yet the Norwegian horizon holds more vertical interest and the colors here seem  more saturated; if Minnesota is a painting done in watercolors, Norway is a portrait done in oil.

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The stark landscape of Norway is so clearly echoed in the simple, quiet, and strong designs  of the people who live here. Embellishment and ostentation have their place, certainly, but simple, clean, intentional design will always call me home.

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