Barmen & Brekke – a Meeting of Minds and Materials

Barmen & Brekke: MAKE (partner), 2016
Kristin Valla has talked to Barmen & Brekke about paired objects, collaboration and Milan

Make is the title of Barmen & Brekke’s new series of paired objects for the exhibition Everything is Connected in Milan this spring, but the title shouldn’t be interpreted in the sense of the English word for constructing something. Rather, it stems from a Norwegian expression meaning that two things are found to be alike and to fit together. Perhaps this is what happened when the ceramist Siri Brekke and the woodcarver Per Tore Barmen met in Bergen in 2013. Siri had studied product design and had a Master’s degree in ceramics from Bergen Academy of the Arts, while Per Tore was a certified woodcarver who also worked as an engineer in 3D modelling. Their ensuing relationship meant they would relocate to the island of Stord in Western Norway, where Per Tore grew up, but it also resulted in a new direction for both of them as artists and craftspersons.

“In the beginning when we got together, Per Tore was working on his things and I was working on mine”, says Siri Brekke.

“But then we thought it would be nice to work together. We submitted a sketch to the exhibition Norway Designs NÅ, which is a yearly event initiated by the shop Norway Designs in Oslo. When our project proposal was selected, we had to realise it. That was very helpful. It kind of gave us a kick in the butt.”

The project on the sketching pad at the time was called Kveik: a series of candleholders made with five types of clay and five types of wood. The materials were turned by hand (on wheel and lathe) and then combined. The series tells a story of cycles, all reflected in the circular forms, the materials, the burning candle and the light it projects. Kveik was also included in the exhibition Structure at last year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan.

“It’s been very exciting for me to enter the art world in this way”, says Per Tore Barmen.

Barmen & Brekke: EINS (two becoming a whole), 2016
Barmen & Brekke: EINS (two becoming a whole), 2016

“I’ve mostly been working as a craftsman, so all this is quite new and inspiring. I especially like working on exhibitions with everything that entails, it’s very specific and keeps you focused. I guess I became more and more interested in art as I got older, and had already started working on more sculptural projects when I met Siri. Through her, I gained even greater insight into the art world.”

“It also seems like the world of art and craft has expanded to include a really broad range of expressions”, says Brekke.

“If you look at the Norwegian exhibitions that have travelled to Milan, they include everything from serially produced design objects and handicrafts to pure art objects. I think that’s great.”

When I talk to Barmen & Brekke, they are sitting in the kitchen of their home in Stord. This is where Per Tore Barmen grew up, where he would run over to his grandfather’s workshop after school to learn everything there was to know about woodcarving. He would spend his afternoons chopping, hammering and making spoons and ladles.

“My family has always worked with carpentry and handicrafts, so it was natural for me to go in that direction”, he says.

He earned his certificate as a professional woodcarver at the Norwegian School of Art and Craft at Voss. At the same time, Brekke was completing her Master’s degree at the Department of Specialised Art at Bergen Academy of the Arts. They both seemed to grow into the materials they eventually ended up working with, but for her, it took a little more time.

“I was always making things as a youngster, but it wasn’t until I completed secondary school that I started experimenting with different materials. I worked as an assistant for a few ceramic artists in Oslo and lived there for a while, and eventually decided I wanted to go down that path myself. I like the physicality of the material, the fact that it’s so easy to shape and holds so many possibilities. There’s that instant impression you make on the clay, and then there’s a more complicated side to it, such as working with glaze and special techniques,” says Brekke.

Barmen & Brekke: EMNE (piece of material), 2016

The aspect of having different backgrounds is exactly what makes their collaboration so unique. In just two years, the works of Barmen & Brekke have been exhibited widely, from the afore-mentioned Structure exhibition in Milan in 2015 to Norway Designs NÅ and Oslo Design Fair in 2016. This year will be their biggest yet, with Everything is Connected in Milan, as well as the exhibition Multiply, which will be on show at the gallery Hå Gamle Prestegård in Stavanger and then travel to the gallery KRAFT in Bergen. Their products are now sold at selected museums in Norway such as KODE in Bergen, The National Museum in Oslo and The National Museum of Decorative Arts in Trondheim.

“The response to our collaboration has been really positive”, says Barmen.

“It’s a bit surprising, actually”, says Brekke.

“It’s been very inspiring to us both. In future, we would like to explore larger and more sculptural objects, but at the same time, we don’t want to make it too complicated. It’s not worth putting a strain on our relationship by taking on too much.”

Sometimes they sit around the table, almost like they do now, and talk about ideas, perhaps jotting some of them down on paper. More often, it starts with one of them crafting something, usually Siri.

“Make grew out of another project called Eins, which consists of bowls in different materials that fit together”, she explains.

“I experimented with new ceramic forms and played around with the wooden parts from Eins. Then Per Tore took the forms I made and crafted new wooden bowls. It developed organically from there.”

“The clay shrinks when it’s in the kiln, so Siri has to make her part first before I can work with it”, Barmen says.

“With this series, the parts can be used separately as containers, but they also form a closed container when put together. The trick is to actually get the parts to fit.”

Barmen & Brekke: MAKE and KVEIK. Styling: Kråkvik D'Orazio
Barmen & Brekke: KVAST
Barmen & Brekke: MAKE and EINS. Styling: Hege Barnholt.

When I ask them about the meaning of their work, they pause for a second, before answering that it is reflected mostly in the names. The candleholders, for instance, are called Kveik, an old Norwegian word meaning “ignite”. Eins means two becoming a whole, while another work is called Emne, meaning a piece of material. But in a way, the collaboration between Barmen and Brekke is mostly a beautiful manifestation of craftsmanship and ideas coming together to create something greater than what the individual elements would be if they had existed merely by themselves.

“We each have knowledge of different materials and can tell each other about the possibilities they hold”, says Brekke.

“For instance, the Emne series combined clay with sixteen types of wood. That was Per Tore’s idea, I had no idea he had so many types of wood to work with. I would never have come up with that, and I thought it was a wild idea. So in terms of projects growing out of the materials themselves, we complete each other in a nice way.”

She says that because Per Tore has worked in a workshop all his life, he is better than she is at giving a product a beautiful finish.

“He makes me go that extra mile”, she says with a smile.

Most days, she works in a studio in the basement of their house, just a short flight of stairs from the kitchen where they are seated. Every other week she works at the VOX artist studio in Bergen as a creative project leader, not quite letting go of city life.

“There’s an open art scene in Bergen, and there are some days when I miss sharing a studio with other artists. Being there every other week means I can still take part in that. On the other hand, when I work at home, I have a greater focus on what I’m doing. In Bergen there are many distractions. And it’s only two hours away, so it’s always easy for us to go into the city if we want to attend a seminar or something”, she says.

The world of Barmen & Brekke is, as it turns out, much larger than Stord and Bergen. When they go to Milan a second time, their horizon will broaden even more, paving the way for even more collaboration. It seems to be their main focus now.

“With Barmen & Brekke, we wanted to test our ability to work together and the possibilities that exist in combining the materials we work with”, says Siri.

“It’s been a positive experience in every way, which of course motivates us to explore it further. At the same time, we are still individual artist with an on-going curiosity within our separate fields. Being able to continue to evolve as individuals is equally important.”

Barmen & Brekke: KVEIK (ignite), 2015