günzler.polmar – a Crafty Design Duo

“A difference I’ve noticed between the fields of craft and design is that designers aren’t solely devoted to a chosen material. They know a little about a lot of things and they rely on others who know more than they do. Craft artists, by contrast, tend to devote themselves to a single medium”. 

So says Victoria Günzler, who along with Sara Polmar has established the design studio günzler.polmar. They belong to a growing group of creative people who find it easy to circulate in several arenas, to work with both craft and design and thus with both unique objects and prototypes for manufacturing.

Polmar and Günzler both studied at schools for design and schools for craft-based art. Nevertheless, it is not the objects in themselves that determine where the two feel at home. As a team, they have made objects that involve investigations of different materials. For the project they made a set of candles and plates. For they explored weaving techniques in collaboration with Røros Tweed. For – a narrow shelf, wall hooks in two sizes and two candle holders – they concentrated on the stone larvikite. And for the works and they experimented with porcelain. These projects have been presented at both design fairs and galleries. And as the duo confirm, they willingly adapt to different contexts:

“Of course the arena is important, the context in which the object is presented to the public, but the sort of things we’re presenting in Milan in April could just as easily fit into a craft context. We work with ceramic objects, we think of them as prototypes, but they could also have been presented as craft”, explains Polmar.

«We wanted to do a project geared towards both design and craft. So the project started one place and then branched out»

Victoria Günzler

In April günzler.polmar will present , prototypes for ceramic pitchers and basins, at the exhibition Structure – Norwegian Contemporary Crafts and Design, which takes place alongside the international furniture fair Salone del Mobile in Milan (12-17 April 2016). Structure is a collaborative venture between Norwegian Crafts, the design collective Klubben, which günzler.polmar are part of, and the paint manufacturer Jotun. “Over the course of the five days, 26 of Norway’s brightest stars of design and craft present an array of products, projects and prototypes, spanning furniture, ceramics, lighting, textiles and interior accessories”, says the press release. The primary visitors are manufacturers looking for designer products.

“Milan is a fantastic arena for mass-producers, maybe the best place to meet them, so it’s important to use the opportunity to show our work precisely in the place where we want to make a breakthrough, to create projects there where we see the potential to produce on a larger scale than at home in the studio”, explains Polmar, who will also be exhibiting a prototype for a chair.

About the same time, from 19 March to 8 June, the design duo will present craft at the exhibition in Moss. Curated by Gjertrud Steinsvåg, the exhibition directs attention to the fact that the crafts are experiencing a renaissance and that currents from the 1970s seem to be resurfacing amongst the new generation of makers. Maybe this has to do with functional art no longer being taboo, that the ideological aspects are less important, and that the difference between, on one hand, the functionality and production of design, and on the other, the ‘laying on of hands’ and meticulous research into materials (both are integral to crafts) are now seen as combinable rather than antithetical.

“Since we were going to participate in both and , we decided – as a logistical choice and based on experience with our processes – that we wanted to do a project geared towards both design and craft. So the project started one place and then branched out”, says Günzler.

“In preparing for the two exhibitions, it was both practical and interesting to work with processes, to see how a project can develop in different directions. The framing idea was that we wanted to work with ceramic pitchers, treating the material, surface and colour as central. We wanted to experiment with these components, to test out ideas, both to build forms and cast forms using moulds”, adds Polmar.

«What we’ve hopefully learned from working with crafts is to have a deliberate attitude to people’s feelings and the encounters they have with objects. »

Sara Polmar

For anyone involved in craft and design in Norway in recent years, Günzler’s and Polmar’s names will have become relatively familiar, even though the two only launched their design studio a few years ago. They started collaborating while doing bachelor studies in interior architecture and furniture design at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO). Both graduated from the school in May 2011.

As stated, both women have studied design and craft, albeit at different points in time and partly at different schools. Before Polmar enrolled in KHiO, she had already completed a one-year study programme called ‘Art and Dialogue’ at Oslo University College, a bachelor’s degree in teacher training in art and design, and one year of art school. Günzler studied design as Westerdals School of Communication in Oslo. After earning a bachelor’s degree at KHiO, she enrolled in the master’s degree program in visual art at the school, completing her studies in 2014.

Günzler worked primarily with ceramics at KHiO, and it was for her diploma project (a wooden shelving system filled with various functional ceramics in different shapes and sizes, made by herself and her designer colleagues) that she won the student prize from the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (NK). This prize is annually awarded to a graduating student – whomever the jury decides has produced the most exciting project.

The jury awarding the student prize that year consisted of NK’s director Trude Gomnæs Ugelstad, Galleri Format Oslo’s director Irija Øwre, and the undersigned. Ugelstad spoke on behalf of the jury at the official opening of the graduate show:

“Without knowing it, this year’s prize winner has created an avatar of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts – an improved and forward-looking rendition, just as an avatar as a representation can be.”

Ugelstad’s mention of ‘avatar’ referred to the exhibition’s curatorial strategy but also to how Günzler’s project pointed presciently to how craft and design now cross into each other’s territory. This we have seen more and more of with each passing year.

In their work günzler.polmar draw on their varied backgrounds:

“We have a mixed assortment of competencies that help us decide how we want to approach the field of design”, says Polmar, and continues:

“At teacher’s college I received a wonderful introduction to materials. We had design projects, ceramics projects, textile projects, wood and metal too. We got a taste of everything. So I was able to see that being a designer was a good way to combine the act of creating with a more pragmatic orientation than if I was making ‘fine’ art.”

“Since childhood I’ve had a more-than-average interest in my surroundings, also in the things others surround themselves with, and in inventing scenarios and putting myself into them, like roleplay”, says Günzler.

“Identity and how the rooms we occupy tell something about who we are and what we do, how we relate to objects, and how the objects contribute to how we relate to our surroundings – these factors are all important for how we think and work”, says Polmar.

The two describe their collaborative projects as design, but their approach shares many points of contact with craft:

“For me personally, there’s something important about the poetic and emotive aspects of crafts. What we’ve hopefully learned from working with crafts is to have a deliberate attitude to people’s feelings and the encounters they have with objects. The objects should do more than just fulfil a function, and you also have an experience when you come into contact with them. They give rise to feelings. So there’s something really good about working with unique objects”, explains Polmar.

«The link to tradition or history is like a red thread running through our projects, but we always give it our own twist»

Victoria Günzler

A recent project which the two designers mention is Solberg Weave, a collaborative venture between günzler.polmar and the Norwegian textile weaving factory Solberg Spinderi.

“We designed the prototype for BENKT blanket in collaboration with the weaving factory Røros Tweed, and in doing so explored two-dimensionality and graphic expression in textiles. This gave us some insight into weaving, and we realised we wanted to work with it more”, Polmar explains.

Weaving has definitely experienced a renaissance in recent years, but perhaps more within the field of art than in design. günzler.polmar therefore thought it might be interesting to study kitchen textiles or home textiles. The opportunity arose when they were presenting their work at the interior design fair in Oslo (now Oslo Design Fair). There they met an entrepreneur who had just acquired Solberg Spinderi and who was looking into the possibility of marketing the company as a maker of textiles for the home. The venture is currently at the pilot-project stage, but the hope is that the product will be in stores before the end of 2016.

Solberg Spinneri was founded in 1818 and represents one of the oldest extant businesses in Norway. In 1914 it expanded its activities and acquired a weaving studio. This history was brought into play when günzler.polmar started designing patterns for table cloths, dish towels and so forth.

“Solberg has a terrific archive, and at our first meeting with the company we saw books that were almost 200 years old. The company have a long tradition of producing both clothing and textiles for the home”, Polmar adds.

“It was like winning the lottery to open these books. Almost anything we saw there could be used as a starting point and turn out well. We could for example have re-launched old patterns in new colour combinations, but we decided to be inspired by traditional weaving structures and to come up with our own pattern”, says Gunzler.

“The link to tradition or history is like a red thread running through our projects, but we always give it our own twist”, she adds.

Collaboration between Victoria Günzler and Sara Polmar came about through what they themselves describe as “a sharing of ambitions”. The first project they did together was to design the café interior for the gallery Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. This was just after they graduated in 2011, and it coincided with ideas about starting a design cooperative along with others who needed arenas to work in. This resulted in the design collective Klubben, which today has 32 members.

Klubben creates exhibitions and participates in collaborative projects such as – an exhibition concept developed in partnership with Norway Designs and NK – and the afore mentioned – which will be on show in Milan in April.

On Klubben’s webpage, one can read that its ambition is to “promote Norwegian design, both nationally and internationally”, and to “contribute to creating arenas where fresh designers can show their ideas and their work”.

“It started with the idea of doing not-for-profit work – everyone should contribute to achieve something for the greater good. In the design world it’s uncommon for designers to help each other, and solidarity is an under-developed idea”, explains Günzler.

“We’ve gotten positive feedback from people in other countries – for coming together to help raise each other’s prospects, and for helping emerging designers establish their careers. Much of this is thanks to Klubben”, interjects Polmar. And Günzler concurs:

“We’re really proud of this. It’s generated something and has had positive effects.”

«It’s clear that designers and the public – also the design milieu in general – needed someone to organise exhibitions of works by young designers»

Sara Polmar

The first exhibition Klubben organised was (The State of Things) in 2012. Here objects were presented by designers such as Hallgeir Homstvedt, Kristine Bjaadal, Kristine Five Melvær, Siren Elise Wilhelmsen, Sverre Uhnger and Thomas Jenkins.

Klubben’s webpages describe the exhibition as follows:

“ (The State of Things) is a design exhibition about objects and their stories. A group of fresh and exciting designers show furniture and products [that have been] developed based on a given design brief, resulting in a wide variety of interpretations of the same theme.”

The curatorial strategy for the exhibition:

“The designers were given a box with carefully selected everyday objects, and were challenged to design a product or piece of furniture inspired by the box and its content. They could interpret the collection however they wanted, and the inspiration could be abstract and conceptual, or based on materials, surfaces, shapes – or something completely different.”

In partnership with Sverre Uhnger, Polmar and Günzler created a clear curatorial concept:

“We wanted the exhibition’s aspects to cohere and we wanted a narrative. It was an enormous project to curate. We eventually decided it should be about objects and personal treasure and how you collect and store your treasure at home”, says Günzler.

“We focused on fascination, curiosity and the pleasure people derive from the things they collect, even though they can’t quite describe that pleasure in words”, adds Polmar.

“We wanted to treat design as an experience. There were many exciting objects and it turned out to be a fantastic exhibition. There were maybe 1,000 visitors to the show, which was held in a courtyard in the Oslo neighbourhood of Grünnerløkka”, smiles Günzler.

“It’s clear that designers and the public – also the design milieu in general – needed someone to organise exhibitions of works by young designers”, concludes Polmar.