North Star: Oslo
North Star: Oslo
Long overshadowed by its Nordic neighbors Sweden and Denmark, oil-rich Norway has been something of an underdog. But at the prestigious Milan Furniture Fair last year, “Norwegian Presence,” an exhibition of craft and design, attracted international press. And through local and international efforts, along with a collective spirit, Norwegian craft has been raising its profile, both at home and abroad, with Oslo at the center. The city boasts a thriving art scene, where borders between fine art, design, and craft have been blurring. And though certainly reflecting the region’s celebrated Scandinavian aesthetic, the work tends to be more playful and experimental. “Because we don’t have the design heritage that Sweden and Denmark have,” says ceramist Sara Skotte, “we can be a bit more free.”
Craft is concentrated in two regions of Oslo: its city center and a creatively inclined area on the east side of the city.
Not far from Oslo Central Station, Rådhusgata Street is home to a number of organizations and galleries that form the heart of the support system for Norwegian craft and its makers. Among them is the 40-year-old Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (NK), which spawned Norwegian Crafts (an organization that shares office space with NK), which promotes contemporary craft and design through domestic and international exhibitions, trade fairs, critical and academic initiatives, and residencies and other artist opportunities. NK also runs Galleri Format Oslo – an exhibition space and sales gallery, opened in 1991 – a few doors down from its headquarters. Franz Petter Schmidt, a local tailor, textile artist, and scholar, calls Galleri Format the “missing link between crafts makers and audience.” This year, Format’s exhibition schedule includes solo shows by glass artist Kari Håkonsen and ceramic artist Irene Nordli – plus a booth at Collective Design in New York City.
In the gallery’s showroom, director Irija Øwre points out a piece by artist Katrine Køster Holst, with porcelain shavings scattered like sheets of paper carried by the wind, as an example of the work that seeks to blur traditional boundaries.
“Many young Norwegian artists work with different materials to express their concepts and artistic practice. This joins the more material-based art with the fine arts field and creates a unique expression,” she says. “Norwegian craft is thus more experimental, with a high level of knowledge within the different materials.”
Just around the corner from Galleri Format is Kunsthåndverkerne i Kongensgate, an artist-owned and -operated crafts cooperative founded in 1979 that shows textiles, ceramics, glass, and metalwork from its 20-plus members. Across the street, near the Museum of Contemporary Art, is Ram Galleri, whose offerings include textiles and other forms of craft.
Oslo’s city center is also home to Soft Galleri. Founded in 2006 by the Norwegian Textile Artists association, Soft supports the medium with the most established tradition in Norway. (Schmidt notes: “In the 1960s, textiles was the biggest industry in Norway; then came oil.”)
Schmidt himself is involved in nearby enterprises, including an ongoing revitalization of an old weaving factory not far from Soft. Still filled with old weaving machines – one dates back to 1952 – the space has a magical atmosphere. Schmidt, who used a research fellowship at Oslo’s National Academy of the Arts to work with two heritage woolen mills in Norway, wants to use the new space as a vehicle to showcase the value of the country’s textile heritage. It’s too soon to tell if he can use the workshop commercially, but he has high hopes that he can put the old machines back to work.
Schmidt’s workshop shares space with HAiK, a design collective and fashion label that collaborates with makers including Schmidt, as well as traditional Norwegian craft manufacturers, under the name HAiK w/. Both Schmidt and Ida Falck Øien, one of the three designers behind HAiK, speak of a growing trend in collaborations and small collectives. “The general mood going on is that we realize we need each other,” says Falck Øien.
The Akerselva River has long served as an unofficial dividing line between Oslo’s posh west and hipster-haven east, where rents are cheaper. The east side of the river is home to a number of creative venues, many housed in former factories, including the Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHIO).
From its home in a 19th-century former sail factory, KHIO offers a diverse range of craft programs, including textiles, metalworking and jewelry, and ceramics. “This is where students come to study craft,” says Marit Tingleff, head of ceramics and one of Norway’s foremost ceramic artists.
The academy is located in Grünerløkka, a quintessential east Oslo neighborhood. Here, artisan coffee houses, vintage stores, bike shops, quirky barbershops, and microbreweries line the streets. Contributing to the area’s almost village-like atmosphere are 19th-century buildings a few stories high, with charming architectural details such as rounded windows and large doors.
Through those doors lie a number of design collectives, including Brudd, a tiny artist-run gallery and shop. Founded in 1985, it features ceramics, glass, jewelry, and metal. Some 20 artists are members, and each takes turns working at the shop. “It’s very democratic,” says jewelry artist Heidi Sand.
Rising rents have prompted some makers to begin moving further east, to neighborhoods around Carl Berners square, a district where many artists have their studios, says jewelry artist Camilla Luihn, a member of collective studio space Volum Atelierfellesskap.
Next door to Luihn’s studio at Volum, jewelry artist Anna Talbot creates exquisite, wearable fairy-tale worlds from aluminum and wood. Down the hall, Jørgen Platou Willumsen and Stian Korntved Ruud comprise the interdisciplinary craft, design, and art studio Kneip. Drawing from eclectic inspirations, the duo works with found and natural materials, such as timber they harvest in local forests.
Another artist in the neighborhood is Hanne Friis, who shapes materials such as wool, canvas, Gore-Tex, and even secondhand jeans into hand-sewn, often site-specific, sculptures.
Along with studio space and a growing collaborative spirit, what many of Oslo’s makers share is an appreciation for their city’s urban environment close to nature. “In just a tram ride, you are in the wilderness or at the fjord,” says Luihn.
Norway’s capital city has taken the lead in moving Norwegian contemporary craft into the spotlight, says Galleri Format’s Øwre, and the effort is starting to show results.
Oslo’s makers, not surprisingly, recognize that they and their contributions have long deserved recognition. “The Norwegian craft scene has always been there,” says Kneip’s Korntved Ruud. “It just hasn’t been that well documented.”
Joann Plockova is a freelance writer based in Prague.