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Exhibition Review: Norwegian Icons

A design exhibition in New York introduces a neglected genre.


By David Sokol
May 29, 2014
Photo © Sam Deitch/BFAnyc.com
Installation view of the exhibition, Norwegian Icons, in Manhattan.

Of all the places where modernism put down roots, Norway provided particularly fertile ground: with its union from Sweden dissolved as recently as 1905, a new international language signaled independence. Recovering from World War II occupation, the country harnessed the principles, technologies, and idioms of modernism to return to normality quickly and affordably.

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Modernism bloomed, but unlike the distinguishable and celebrated work of its 20th-century architects—think of the functionalism of Erling Viksjø versus Arnstein Arneberg’s conservatism, or the fame of Arne Korsmo and Sverre Fehn—notoriety eluded Norway’s corresponding design scene. In its heyday, furniture and decorative arts were lumped under the umbrella of Scandinavian design. Moreover, the discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1968 focused an entire nation on energy, to the neglect of other industries. By the mid-1970s, the native design community was running on fumes, local consumers neglected their recent material cultural heritage as oil catapulted them to wealth, and international collectors lacked the knowledge to seek out specific talent.

Norwegian Icons trumpets the long unsung period between 1940 and 1975. The third and final installation of the pop-up sales exhibition, on view at New York’s Openhouse Gallery only until June 1, features more than 500 pieces of furniture, ceramics, tableware, and jewelry conceived by 44 designers. Six-year-old café and design gallery, Fuglen, originally staged the show at its Oslo headquarters in January 2013 before sending the exhibition to its outpost in Tokyo. (Fuglen partnered with the venerable auction house Blomqvist to outfit Norwegian Icons with art.)

The U.S. arrival of Norwegian Icons not coincidentally corresponds with the conclusion of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and other events of NYCxDESIGN. If ever there were a season to forge a market for overlooked midcentury modernism, this convergence of interested designers and enthusiasts is it.

The strategic timing will please source-hungry connoisseurs. Arne F. Tidemand Ruud’s Holmenkollen puts a primitive spin on the classic Chieftains Chair (and at $8,150 the interpretation is a fraction of the roughly $675,000 that Finn Juhl’s masterpiece recently commanded at a London auction). Meanwhile, lounge chairs by Gerhard Berge and Fredrik Kayser more closely resemble the work of another Dane, Ib Kofod-Larsen, in look and pricing. Yet the Norwegian creations offer a cachet that, in certain circles, name recognition undermines.

The exhibition should be a boon to design collectors and historians alike, because the bargains and brag-worthy finds also suggest a trove of scholarship waiting to be conducted. Take the design vocabulary surveyed in Norwegian Icons. Although it seems to favor exposed construction and folk expression over, say, Swedish ergonomics or Danish lyricism, the exhibition does not reveal a distinct, unifying ethic. Determining the peculiarly Norwegian inflection of modernism is just one of many topics for academics to mine. While Norwegian Icons is an accomplishment of rediscovery and a love letter from Fuglen to its home country, as the first word on the subject, the exhibition defines a genre as much as it stokes curiosity about it.



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