Traditions: Inhibiting or liberating?

In this article Julia Døhlen Edin talks to designers, makers and artists about materials, aesthetics and geographical identity

- You’re Norwegian. Nobody employs Norwegian designers. You don’t have traditions or roots, so Norwegian companies would rather hire us Italians.

So said my professor at the Art Academy in Milan at the beginning of my studies in industrial design. He often travelled to Norway to design for Norwegian manufacturers. His comment laid the ground for a tough year of study, a year where I had to constantly strive to convince my teacher otherwise. He had summarily dismissed me as a talented designer-to-be, simply because the country I came from lacked a tradition in design and art. It wasn’t in my blood.

But now, 15 years later, it is Norwegian craft and design making headlines at the furniture fair in Milan. And it is Norwegian designers, craft artists and artists who are sought after by collectors, museums and manufacturers the world over. What brought about this role reversal? Do we in fact have a traditional foundation that can be seen in our work? Or is it precisely because we don’t have this that we are freer to innovate?

Anderssen & Voll
Anderssen & Voll: Saga Chair from the Ariake Collection
Hallgeir Homstvedt

«In today's design scene, there isn’t anything called Scandinavian design. Everything is influenced by what is happening in the international arena»

Hallgeir Homstvedt

Around the world

Torbjørn Anderssen was a member of the design agency Norway Says which brought the attention of foreign manufacturers to new Norwegian design in the early 2000s. He currently works for Anderssen & Voll. He explains that their influence at the time was not in the Norwegian traditions themselves but in how international designers had interpreted the language of Scandinavian design from the middle of the last century. This wasn’t due to the lack of good Norwegian design, but rather that it was poorly communicated in study programmes.

- Over the past 20-30 years, Norway hasn’t had a strong finished goods industry, says Anderssen.

– However, we have built up a strong body of young designers. Having a strong national industry can be a double-edged sword. If you look at Sweden, I think you can see that designers make products that are very much in tune with their own industries. But, in Norway, designers have had to seek out international manufacturers in order to establish themselves. And, to a great extent, this has enabled them to develop their own strengths and interests, thus making the Norwegian context rich and varied.

Anderssen receives support from furniture designer Hallgeir Homstvedt.

- In today's design scene, there isn’t anything called Scandinavian design. Everything is influenced by what is happening in the international arena. That said, there are many who draw inspiration from the Scandinavian legacy.

Homstvedt points out that there has also been a growing interest in collecting Scandinavian furniture from the 50s-70s, both at home, in the USA, and in Asia.

Hallgeir and Hege Homstvedt: Fauna, a series of animal figures inspired by and created from rocks in the Nordic countries.

A sporting and outdoors nation

- Norway is less of an arts-and-culture nation, than a sports-and-outdoor nation, says jewellery designer Sigurd Bronger. Even though he has a traditional goldsmith’s education, he distances himself from certain aspects of the commercial side of the trade.

- For me, the Norwegian goldsmith tradition is about making and selling trinkets in large quantities. It has more in common with design than art, whereas the contemporary art jewellery I work on is aimed at an entirely different audience. Generally speaking, I have little interest in the traditions of Norwegian goldsmithery, with the exception of a few important works at the National Museum. It generally has more to do with a commercially successful business than taking a creative and artistic approach, says Bronger.

- The goldsmith tradition is usually concerned with the production of wearable, decorative pieces. Whereas I work with contemporary jewellery art, which is more concerned with art and creativity.

«Carrying devices» is the term he uses to describe the more absurd and peculiar objects he makes, such as Carrying Device for Balloon that can be filled with air through a valve so that the wearer can adjust the size of the object. Or Carrying Device for Gallstones – a technical construction that bears his mother's gallstones. Bronger draws a lot of inspiration from the modern visual arts on display in major European museums and institutions.

- The objects should offer something more than just ornament or decoration. My work has its roots in the more modern European jewellery art that began in the Netherlands in the 80s, he says.

«My work has its roots in the modern European jewellery art that began in the Netherlands in the 80s»

Sigurd Bronger
Sigurd Bronger: Carrying Device for the last gallstone, 2013
Sigurd Bronger: Carrying device for a goose egg
Sigurd Bronger

Innovation in traditional frames

It is, perhaps, in the museum where we find the clearest indications of tradition. Curators can acquire an overview and place different works in an historical context - a context in which artists aren’t necessarily able to place their own works. The museum can also provide the space to showcase innovation, in contrast to tradition. Consider, for example, the designer Admir Batlak, who, in recent years, has held his shows in various Norwegian museums. He builds on tradition, with references to fashion and art history, without directly referring to or commenting on the geographical boundaries of «Scandinavia».

- An important agenda in my work has been to expand the show formats and to remain open to new ways of interpreting clothes, says the renowned clothing designer.

At a time when many aspects of fashion have become so democratized as to be idiotic, it is more important than ever to praise the work. I don’t really see any difference between my process and the processes of my colleagues who work with crafts or painting, even though the results of my work are usually presented on the body.

When Batlak showed his collection AW17 at the Munch Museum, the models wore ribbons with words such as Unorsk [Un-Norwegian], Hverdagsintegrert [Everydayintegrated] og Postfucktuell [Post-fucktual].

– The collection was a response to and a satirical celebration of integration policies at the time, he says.

– I worked thematically independently of the show space, but I was quite aware that it would be particularly effective in the space. Munch’s greatest desire was to provoke.

Admir Batlak
Admir Batlak: from collection AW17
Admir Batlak: from collection AW17

«The collection was a response to and a satirical celebration of integration policies at the time»

Admir Batlak

Materials with roots

The internationally renowned artist and ceramicist Torbjørn Kvasbø works in clay – a material with a long tradition.

How does the history of this material affect you?

– Clay is a plastic material with a unique property. You exist with it when you work with it. As did those who worked with it 2,000 years ago. All the knowledge and information that ceramicists have handed down over the years are a fantastic springboard when I come to making something new. At the same time, I am also the first who is doing that, at that moment.

With such an historical starting point, do you ever sometimes feel that working with clay becomes a kind of straitjacket, where you have to hold to and respect the traditions of the material?

– No, not at all. The traditions of the material present no restrictions or guidelines. Nothing is entirely innovative, and nothing is entirely bound in tradition. There is a space that lies somewhere between. It is something that moves between the break of day and yourself.

«Nothing is entirely innovative, and nothing is entirely bound in tradition. There is a space that lies somewhere between»

Torbjørn Kvasbø
Torbjørn Kvasbø: Rørskulpturer (Tube sculptures), produced in Jingdezhen, China, 2016.
Torbjørn Kvasbø

Norwegian materials

The artist Ann Cathrin November Høibo uses her surroundings when she works with weaving as a starting point for her installations.

– I can’t get away from being Norwegian as I was born and brought up here. I have also moved to Kristiansand, which means that I am even closer to my origins. I am affected by the meteorological conditions, with the dark winters, light summers, the archipelago and the sea. The Scandinavian style is very dear to me, and had I lived somewhere else, I might have worked with completely different colours and materials. And if I had been born in China, it’s more likely that I would have woven delicately in silk, but now I use wool in a pretty rough way.

– Wool and wood isn’t primarily a Norwegian tradition, says Torbjørn Anderssen. In spite of the fact that he and his colleague Espen Voll often work in what can be seen as “Norwegian materials” in his furniture design, he doesn’t entirely share this view.

– If you look at laminated wood, for example, this is something that they do just as well in Italy as in the Nordic region. When we made our own prototypes 20 years ago, we tried to compare the industries as best we could. However, we have now had a period where the imperfection in the handmade has been worth something in itself. To what extent this relies on Norwegian traditions, the individual designer must answer for themselves. But I believe that it comes in part from a bigger, shared sense among the younger generation, something that we can also see again in the maker-movement. And partly because gaining entry into the industry is tough. In an industry-dependent design practice, it is unquestionably easier to work in traditional materials such as wool, wood, or ceramics than to start with expensive plastic moulding, or other resource-hungry techniques.

Bronger agrees that a wave of traditional materials is returning, such as wood. He teaches at the Oslo Academy of Fine Arts and becomes very animated when I ask him about crafts and materials.

– Generally speaking, Norwegian students have little experience of craftwork compared to students from other European countries.

«The Scandinavian style is very dear to me, and had I lived somewhere else, I might have worked with completely different colours and materials»

Ann Cathrin November Høibo
Ann Cathrin November Høibo
Ann Cathrin November Høibo: Untitled (36), 2016

Norwegian identity?

Bronger, whose buyers of his carrying devices are primarily foreign, isn’t greatly concerned with national identity.   

– I feel completely free to make what I want to and therefore have no need to follow any traditions or trends, says the jewellery artist.

For Kvasbø, art is neither national nor international. It is universal. But it can of course carry the marks of where it has been made and who has made it. He uses the example of his fascination with bamboo joints when he is in China, and how he creates similar joints in his ceramic and sculptural works.

In the design field, it is perhaps a little different. Torbjørn Anderssen cites the Swedish-Italian designer Luca Nichetto to explain how design and identity are intertwined.

– The designer is the father. The manufacturer is the mother. Together they have a child. The child is a synthesis. We are just as concerned with making beautiful things as with innovating in the traditional sense or being tradition bound. We are Norwegian designers, yes, but our products live first and foremost through manufacturers in Italy, Denmark and South Korea.

Sigurd Bronger: Wearable device for gallstones, 1998. In the collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Tradition to inspiration

There is much talk in the media about the Norwegian wave, and how the export of Norwegian design and Norwegian furniture is increasing faster than seafood. Perhaps there are traces of the Norwegian traditions of crafts that make what is Norwegian more attractive than before? My impression is that our traditions, in most instances, aren’t quite strong enough to feel limiting or guiding. I feel that we have a tradition which is both strong and weak enough to serve as a modest backdrop in the work of our leading designers and craft artists. A backdrop that provides the space to cultivate traditions or free oneself completely.

For November Høibo, it is a strength to come from Scandinavia.

– I don’t think the interest in Norwegian design, art and crafts is a passing fancy. It isn’t for me, in any case. It’s a life project. The more I learn about where I come from, and which traditions I belong to, the greater the room it gives me to move away or investigate it even more, she concludes.

This article is also published in Kunsthåndverk 2/ 18. 

Translated by Jonathan Scott-Kiddie