Andreas Engesvik - a Master of Objects
«On a deeper human level, design has to do with knowing that if you can make everything around you, you can have a certain peace of mind»Andreas Engesvik
“To work with design is not a matter of embracing what’s new, but of drawing information from objects and of mastering them, of understanding where everything comes from and why things are as they are, of having a kind of sovereignty over objects”, says Andreas Engesvik, an established figure in the field of Norwegian design. For the past 15 years he has been involved in defining new Norwegian design and putting it on the map, nationally and internationally, initially through the design collective Norway Says and now through his own company. In one sense he is both an established practitioner and spokesman for the direction Norwegian design is on the verge of taking, a designer with a strong interest in, and focus on, materials.
One example of the things he has designed is Corky Carafe – a stylish and simple glass carafe with a large cork that is both useable and conspicuous. Another example is The Woods – a series of small decorative glass objects inspired by Norwegian forests and light, and produced through collaboration with the design studio StokkeAustad. A third example is Bunad Blankets – a series of woven wool blankets with motifs inspired by national costumes (bunads) from various regions of Norway. These have been developed through collaboration with the weaving studio Mandal Veveri.
For Engesvik, design as a professional discipline is not about producing things for the masses:
“On a deeper human level, design has to do with knowing that if you can make everything around you, you can have a certain peace of mind. Earlier, I felt I was being attacked by objects, that they demanded something of me. Now, however, owning things isn’t important to me. I own many fine things, but I have an unsentimental relation to them.”
It might sound paradoxical that Engesvik was very focused on possessions as a child. He went to flee markets, car boot sales and the like to find and collect things. He liked repairing things, fixing and polishing and using his hands. By middle school he had started buying and selling antiques. He dreamed of enrolling in a school for art and design but instead chose the University of Bergen. There he studied art history, focusing especially on post-Reformation wood architecture in Norway and gaining theoretical knowledge of building preservation. He also studied archaeology, cultural analysis, cultural heritage and cultural communication. He learned everything from theories of taste as outlined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to theories in the field of museum studies and museum communication. And he studied Latin and ancient Roman culture.
“I had an academic education with lots of theory, but was driven more and more towards praxis”, he says today.
In the summer of 1995 he went to Sothebye’s in London to specialise in fine art, but then enrolled in design studies at the National College of Art and Design in Bergen. His course work there was not particularly demanding, and he studied for the most part on his own, talking with his advisor from time to time.
“I soon disengaged myself from the school and the curricula”, he recalls. At 25, he was somewhat older than many of his fellow students, and he did not feel the school was particularly challenging:
“My time at the school was nice but the course work was very easy. At university I had to work hard, but at design school I was mostly left to my own devices. There weren’t that many demands, and many students couldn’t handle the freedom. It was probably good that I had some years of study under my belt.”
«It was about having a focus on making things, about daring to show things, believing you have something that can be presented and be of interest to others»Andreas Engesvik
Engesvik would have liked a critical glance from the teachers, someone who could tell him whether what he was doing was good enough. This is one reason why he himself, in addition to his design practice, now also teaches:
“If someone is doing something, and he or she starts talking incoherently about their practice, then someone should point that out – when there’s no connection between what you say and what you do, between the head and the hand. In saying this, I don’t mean that one can’t use abstract or poetic language about concrete objects, but that as a teacher, one tries to understand people’s practices on their own terms. The most important aspect of going to a school is that someone notices you and gives you the feeling that you can do something, that you have something to offer and something to develop; you need to learn this, and there was nothing of that in Bergen”, he explains.
At school he had to find the answers himself, and he got the impression that the teachers did not have much faith in his work. A bit out of spite, he decided to create a spectacular exam project at the end of the three-year foundation course:
“I opened the exhibition on 29 May, on my birthday, in a gallery in Bergen, with a DJ and free drinks. As an extra provocation, I got a girlfriend to take my portrait in black and white, and I wrote my name in large letters on the wall. It was sort of like ‘giving the finger’ to the school, to the teachers who didn’t even bother to come to the opening.”
What Engesvik showed there was the start of what he is doing today:
“I presented a series of chaise longues, a handmade floor carpet, two porcelain vases, lamps, some shelves, and a table. I had everything made, got everything sponsored, and acquired all the materials”, he recalls.
It took him six weeks to create the exhibition, working in a goal-oriented way under pressure, stepping outside the school’s safe framework:
“It was about having a focus on making things, about daring to show things, believing you have something that can be presented and be of interest to others. For me personally, it was about stepping beyond boundaries”, he explains.
«The first time Norway Says dared to present itself in the international market, it was clear the group had something relevant to contribute»Laura Houseley
Norway Says: 10 years of new Scandinavian design
That was in 1998. Two years later, at the same time as he was completing his degree project (in the space of two months), he collaborated with others to set up the design collective Norway Says in order to present works at the Milan furniture fair. Engesvik and his colleagues were the first Norwegians to participate in the fair for 40 years.
“When there’s no market in Norway, you have to find a different market. You have to establish yourself internationally, so it also takes more time. If we had a manufacturing industry that made the end products in Norway, plus lots of actors in the field with whom we could work here at home, then it would be easier to get on our feet. But here in Norway there are only a few potential collaborative partners, and back in the 1990s there were even less than there are today. So to establish yourself here at home and well as internationally, it takes longer.”
In saying this, Engesvik puts the establishment of Norway Says in perspective. He goes on to tell how it happened:
“I met Espen Voll at a party in Oslo in the summer of 1999. We both wanted to go to the furniture fair in Milan, so we banded together to make it happen. I returned to Bergen and wrote a project description, called around and collected money. Then I decided on the name and wanted to use ‘Norway’ as part of it, to make it not seem like we were ashamed of being from Norway”, he recalls.
At that time Engesvik worked from Bergen and Voll from Oslo. They and few other young Norwegian designers went to Milan in April 2000 and presented their first design collection at Salone Satellite.
Later on the design journalist Laura Houseley (previously a design editor for Wallpaper magazine), spoke about the impression the exhibition had on her:
“The first time Norway Says dared to present itself in the international market, it was clear the group had something relevant to contribute. Even at such an early point in their career they demonstrated an intuitive understanding of the values and issues that make contemporary design relevant and vital. At the same time, they expressed a differentness and independence from that – present, but nevertheless on the side. That was the group’s strength, and I think they started suspecting it after the exhibition was over.”*
Norway Says was also at a design fair in London in September that same year. In January 2002 they participated in a fair in the USA, then returned to Milan and then to another furniture fair in Stockholm. They soon found their footing and in 2002 opened an office and salesroom in the neighbourhood of Grünerløkka in Oslo. By 2003 the group formally became a design trio. They worked within a visual idiom that Engesvik describes as Scandinavian neo-simplicity.
“A lot was happening in Scandinavia at the time, and there was a big focus on Scandinavian designers. This was partly because the magazine Wallpaper was writing a lot about Scandinavia, and partly because the renowned designer Jasper Morrisson startet making objects that reintroduced Scandinavian simplicity in the mid-90s”, he remembers.
The timing was therefore good for Norway Says, and it soon gained international attention. This in turn meant that it was noticed in Norway. On the Norwegian dictionary website Store Norske Leksikon, one can read that “their products were both different and innovative when compared with other designed products at the time, and they were described as ‘contemporary design’, form innovation and signature design”.
Little else was happening on the design front in Norway in the early 2000s, but more has happened since. Within the context of Norway Says, Engesvik developed a series of salt and pepper shakers in beech wood called Plus, a flexible sofa system called OK Sofa, and the modular-based sofa UGO. The latter won the Wallpaper Design Award 2004, in the category ‘Best Domestic Design’. All the products mentioned here are considered design icons today.
In the course of ten years, Norway Says became Norway’s most ‘decorated’ design trio, winning the Bruno Mathson Award (2004), the Wallpaper Design Award (2004 and 2009) and the Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize (2008), among others. The collective designed products for manufacturers such as LK Hjelle, Muuto, ClassiCon, Offect, Swedese and Lone Tepper. But after ten years the trio disbanded, marking the end of their collaboration in the spring of 2009 with the exhibition Norway Says 10 at the National Museum, Oslo / Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. Andersson and Vold started working as a duo and Engesvik launched out on his own.
«I feel my objects have a clearer profile, so for that reason it’s better to work independently than as a team»Andreas Engesvik
The economic climate posed difficulties for going solo, since it was a time of world-wide financial crisis. Furthermore, the break-up of Norway Says was not perfectly amicable. Engesvik felt tricked when his former colleagues worked actively to accumulate contracts, projects and customers, instead of straightforwardly dividing up the firm. It costed him dearly to start all over again, both emotionally and financially, and he was compelled to sell his vintage racing car and his flat to make ends meet. An important aspect of the story is that just in general, it is difficult to establish yourself as a designer in Norway:
“There are many misconceptions and prejudiced opinions about what it means to work with design”, he explains.
“It’s challenging to establish yourself, to set up a practice you can make a living from. We designers have no funding arrangements, no grants we can apply for, and no designers’ union that works on our behalf. I’m a member of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts, and I can apply to this organisation for work grants and the like, but for the field of design, there is little financial support to be had. And what makes it even harder is that people think there’s a lot of money to be earned from design”, he asserts.
“It takes just as long to establish yourself at a certain level as it does for someone working with fine art or craft. You have to work for ten, fifteen or maybe twenty years before you establish your name and are taken seriously.”
During the last five years Engesvik has become a name in the design world in his own right, with new and exciting products such as the Tiki Sofa, New Alto and Vang, and there are the lamps Light Tray and Colour that are designed in partnership with Daniel Rybakken. Engesvik also recently launched new furniture at the furniture fair in Stockholm, in collaboration with the manufacturers Fogia, Edsbyn and Tonning & Stryn. The Bollo Lounge Chair, which he designed for Fogia, was described by the magazine Residence’s editor Hanna Nova Beatrice as one of the twelve most exciting products at the fair.
Engesvik asserts that there are some clear advantages to working on his own and on a relatively small scale:
“I feel my objects have a clearer profile, so for that reason it’s better to work independently than as a team. It’s important for me to run a small studio where I can have control and focus on the output. I think good quality comes from that. I would rather do two or three solid projects per year that people really notice, then produce en masse.”
«Many people think the field of design has a ruinous effect on society, but the opposite is the case»Andreas Engesvik
Between the organic and the manmade
Although Engesvik denies having a design philosophy, he has an awareness of his responsibility as a designer:
“It’s important to remember that things have a lifespan. Many people think the field of design has a ruinous effect on society, but the opposite is the case. Most people who work like I do practice a type of responsibility. Design factories on the whole produce only 10 percent of what Ikea pumps into the world.”
He thinks this responsibility is rooted in the Scandinavian tradition:
“The Scandinavian paradigm is about materials and quality, and of course function. To find a kind of balance. I think that’s why the concept of Scandinavian design has been and still is so robust and why it’s perceived as quality.”
Engesvik has also created a new vase for the exhibition Structure – Norwegian Contemporary Crafts and Design. He describes it as a personal response to Vigeland Park in Oslo, and the vase has therefore been named Vigeland. It is produced in patinated bronze, and, according to Engesvik, explores the relation between the organic and the manmade:
“The openings around the vase act as a frame for the flowers or plants within, creating a juxtaposition between, on one hand, the grounded weight and seemingly eternal character of the object, and on the other hand the changing nature of its contents”, concludes Engesvik.
* From the catalogue for the exhibition Norway Says 10, edited by Widar Halén. Oslo: National Museum for Art, Architecture and Design, 2009.