The Norwegian museum redefining design

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On June 11, when 31 halls of design and decorative arts open as part of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo’s new 13,000 square meter port museum, they will form one of the largest exhibitions dedicated to design in Northern Europe. . The curators have a complex story to tell, not only about tradition but also about the future.

Seven of the rooms will be devoted to design from 1900 to the present day. Nearly 2,000 objects will be exhibited. The museum’s design curators want to go beyond the usual displays of mid-century furniture and promotional posters that visitors have come to expect from design museums around the world. Their message is that Nordic design is socially, culturally and technologically relevant today.

Some of Oslo’s most illuminating exhibits will focus on design from the past few decades, a time when those working in everything from furniture to fashion to product design reacted quickly to relentless technological change. Consumer technology design in Northern Europe has been particularly strong. Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson, for example, produced some of the most innovative handsets of the pre-smartphone era. Nokia had its own design department headed by Eero Miettienen, the Finnish industrial designer, between 1998 and 2009. The company launched one of the first widely available camera phones, the 7650, in 2001, six years before the first iPhone. from Apple.

The assembly of the design rooms took seven years. (The opening itself has been repeatedly delayed.) Denise Hagströmer, the museum’s senior curator and design historian, started with 50,000 design and craft objects from the former Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. of the city – one of many institutions in the city that have closed in the last decade to make way for the new national museum. The museum’s main mission is to house works of art for centuries, but Hagströmer also wanted to show how modern Nordic design, and technology in particular, has influenced the rest of the world.

His first job was to bring the old permanent collection up to date, consisting mostly of traditional objects such as fine china, fragile old textiles and silverware. About a third of the exhibits will be new acquisitions, some of which are furniture, fashion and textiles. “Craftsmanship has always been strong in the collection,” says Hagströmer. “But there hasn’t been the same attention paid to industrial, graphic and digital design. I didn’t want to just put an object on a pedestal, because there is a difference between a showroom and a museum. Every museum must develop its approach to exhibition. She points out that traditionally the purpose of a design museum was to define good taste, but in the technological age their purpose is less clear. “Today you might be wondering what the role of a design museum should be.”

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo cost over £50 million and took over seven years to build © Ina Wesenberg

Part of the answer lies in presenting the technology. But Hagströmer points out that doesn’t mean display cases full of cellphones and big plastic laptops. Good tech design is increasingly intangible – nowadays, with our addiction to smartphones, ‘design’ is about tactile user experience, haptics and interactivity – and displaying it in a way that explains his ingenuity is a perpetual challenge to curators.

A two-part room titled From Product to Service explores the relationship between tangible and abstract design. It starts with a new acquisition: the full workshops and studios of Terje Ekstrøm, the Norwegian designer best known for his futuristic 1970s Ekstrem chair – a conceptual piece that presaged the digital age, in that it looks like a tangle of primary color threads. within a printed circuit. (It’s surprisingly comfortable.)

The Ekstrøm exhibits sit alongside a new conceptual work titled Orchestrated Experience, an installation commissioned from London-based Norwegian studio Hunting & Narud. Hagströmer describes it as “immaterial design – when you make an appointment with your GP or order food online. These systems are service design – and there’s art in them.

Screen Time will be a gallery showcasing digital graphics. It explains perhaps the most instantly recognizable (at least to visitors who were there in the 1980s) example of “rotoscoping” – a video technique that creates animation on top of live footage to enhance naturalistic movement. . A huge screen will immerse visitors in the 1985 promotional video for “Take On Me”, the hit single by Norwegian pop trio A-ha.

National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design of Norway

Norway’s vast national museum of art, architecture and design opens in June 2022 © Annar Bjørgli

There is also hardware. Offshore industrial design such as underwater robots for example and meditations on pylons in landscapes. A featured exhibit is AV1, a contemporary robot designed by No Isolation, a Norwegian company, to be the eyes and ears of the class of sick children at home or in hospital. (It’s an example of so-called “hot tech,” a discipline that focuses on improving users’ quality of life rather than abstract systems.)

Hagströmer also brought in Norwegian specialties in other disciplines: fanzines, flyers and album covers related to youth subcultures such as black metal for example. When building the collection, she scoured record stores for album artwork from bands such as Mayhem. “I found records in a store in Oslo called Neseblod, which translates to Nosebleed,” she says.

Chairs are a preoccupation of northern European design (the Designmuseum in Copenhagen, which is about to reopen after a redesign, has illuminated through tunnels with them). The Oslo Museum has commissioned its own new chair design, by Andreas Engesvik, for use in the museum’s public spaces. The elegant blond wooden chair, called Portrait, manufactured by Herman Miller, is intended to “embodie the essence of Norway”.

There were many existing chairs from the heyday of mid-century Nordic design in the permanent collection. But the design curators of the new museum have gone further: chairs that express a Nordic fascination with technology and engineering. There are, for example, the millennial swing-like structures of Peter Opsvik, the Norwegian industrial designer (best known for the Stokke Tripp Trapp wooden high chair for babies, a ubiquity of the 2000s), and still more other chairs from the influential design group Norway Says, founded in 2002.

Hagströmer, who is Swedish-American, says her priority is to explain how Nordic design relates to the rest of the world: independent-minded and with vitality, but also with global appeal.

Grand museum openings are rare and the National Museum in Oslo, which cost over £500m, is long overdue. It will be similar in size to the National Gallery in London and larger than the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Hagströmer says a major curatorial influence has been the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “We call it the mothership,” she said.

Design is sometimes seen as less worthy of attention and resources than fine art, perhaps because of its ubiquity and practicality. But the new National Museum takes it very seriously. Among its first notable exhibitions will be a solo exhibition by Grayson Perry, the British artist, which will include ceramics, sculpture, tapestries and embroidery.

The Nordic region is made up of five countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, but its design industries share aesthetic elements and a certain heritage. But what characterizes a Nordic designer? “Designers and museums communicate with each other across borders and this is reflected in the collection,” explains Hagströmer. “It may be a collaborative perspective.”

She hopes that in these new galleries, exemplary design will be more than just a prescription for good taste and graceful living. The goal is to bring it to life, with the best of modern ingenuity.

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