How Oslo adds a touch of style to the UN

How Oslo adds a touch of style to the UN

Views of the deep blue fjord and harbour can be seen from the roof terrace of Oslo’s newest museum, as well as the recently opened Munch Museum, with its sloping tower sloping over the Opera House’s white iceberg. All this symbolizes the transformation of the Norwegian capital – one of the fastest growing cities in Europe – into a cultural destination.

The £500m National Museum, due to open on June 11, is another striking addition to a city that tends to value modesty over self-promotion. Locals may call it a ‘bunker’, but Denis Hagerstromer, the senior curator in charge of designing the gallery, believes the museum’s sheer size and range of displays mark a change in Norway’s perception of itself: “The past The nation, considered the “little brother” of Scandinavia, now speaks in a completely different voice.

When Norway paid to renovate the Council Chambers 70 years ago, it had yet to discover the oil that would make the country rich

With a population of only 5.5 million, Norway has an excellent history of using cultural soft power as a foreign policy tool, Hagströmer said.

One of the design gallery’s exhibits is the blue and gold wallpaper used in New York’s UN Security Council chamber, dubbed “the most important room in the world”. Here, the Council imposes sanctions, dispatches peacekeeping missions and authorizes the use of force.

Norwegian textile artist Else Poulsson designed the wallpaper in the Council Chamber (Photo: Ivan Brodey)

Designed by Norwegian textile artist Else Poulsson, the pattern represents faith, hope and love and reflects the aspirations of the United Nations.

70 years ago, Norway decided to pay to renovate the Security Council chamber as the country was recovering from Nazi occupation and the oil that made it rich had yet to be discovered. Trygve Lie, the first UN secretary general and a Norwegian Labour Party politician, is said to have played a central role in pushing the project, which aims to demonstrate the effectiveness of design as a cultural ambassador.

Sarah Lichtman, a design historian at Parsons School of Design in New York, said: “Norway has elevated its status on the world stage and achieved outsized influence at the United Nations for such a small country ” She added that although it does not have a permanent seat on the council, Norway has built its identity into the room through its heritage of architecture and interior design.

The world we abandoned cannot just be erased, but a bridge across adversity can be built, from that journey to a new society

Per Krohg, the artist who created the Security Council mural

While other Scandinavian architects in the UN complex sought a sleek, modernist look in the Trust and Economic and Social Council chambers, Norwegian Arnstein Arneberg opted for a more classic, if not conservative, style. In a letter to Norway’s foreign ministry, he wrote: “This landlock must represent Norway in a valuable way.”

In addition to Poulsson, Arneberg hired his compatriot Per Krohg to paint a huge mural. Kroger, who was captured by the Nazis in World War II, turned his mission into an altarpiece of peace. “The world we have abandoned cannot just be erased, but one can build a bridge in adversity, from that journey to a new society,” he said of his mural, which measures 5 meters by 9 Meter.

The link between design and politics is further explored in the Design Gallery at the New Oslo Museum and in a separate exhibition, Scandinavian Design and America, showing how post-war Nordic objects were given democratic value. “Design played an important role in the Cold War, not only about bombs and missiles, but also about lifestyle and ideology,” says Swedish author Sara Kristoffersson.

Norway's recently redesigned passport

Norway’s recently redesigned passport (Photo: Catharino Caprino)

Scandinavian design is rooted in the egalitarian ideals of social democracy. Astrid Skjerven, a professor at the Department of Product Design at Oslo Metropolitan University, said ornate decor that placed one object above another was replaced by clean forms, craftsmanship and natural materials such as leather, wood and wool.

Shortly after the Council Chamber was built, Norwegian designers joined Danes, Swedes and Finns at the Scandinavian Design Show that was popular in the United States in the mid-1950s.

The Norwegians, who are the least known internationally, have benefited the most from a three-year tour, where the Manhattan store showcases their designs. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Japanese Emperor Hirohito have both purchased work by Norwegian designer Tobjorn Avdahl.

Norway’s neighbours have capitalised on the international demand for Scandi style by supporting their furniture makers through state funding, overseas promotions and a national design strategy.

However, despite creating award-winning mid-century pieces, Norway ended up being a “Nordic design loser”, according to Norwegian industrial designer Morten Hippe, who started a company called Eikund in 2016 to make Reproduction of Norwegian designs from the golden age of furniture. The market for these commodities was small in Norway, and the discovery of oil in 1969 meant that many artisans turned to more lucrative jobs.

Across the Atlantic, Norway’s soft power has left its mark on the halls of the United Nations. By 2006, the Council Chamber and other parts of the United Nations complex needed to be refurbished. The permanent members stipulate that the restoration work must maintain the original form of the chamber.

They also insisted on duplicating the room into a temporary space elsewhere in the UN building and replicating the Krohg mural with smaller photographs. Lichtman believes that the painting has become integral to the function of the room—“like Picasso’s Guernica Or one of the paintings with a didactic story that reminds people in the room of the horrors of war”. Norway provided $5 million for the restoration, which was completed in 2013.

Norway's mission at the United Nations, with rugs reminiscent of the country's forest floors and striking red chairs by Terje Ekstrom

Norway’s mission to the United Nations evokes the country’s landscape and showcases its designers (Photo: Laura Guerrero Almeida)

More recently, Norwegian diplomats have also realised that design can be used more broadly to convey values ​​and ideas. A new minimalist passport was released in 2020, reflecting Norway’s reputation for excellence in design.

When the country’s joint consulate in New York and the United Nations mission had to relocate, it was an opportunity to create an open-plan office that reflected the non-hierarchical structure of most private and public institutions in the country.

Corner office with the best view and a communal table that everyone can use. The design of the room echoes the log cabin, a typical weekend bolt hole for many Norwegians. The rug is like a forest floor, there are birdsong in the bathroom, and the futuristic “Extreme” chair by Terje Ekstrom is surrounded by views of Manhattan. Consul General Heidi Olufsen said visitors to the office were surprised when they discovered a small part of Norwegian life.

Olufsen’s official residence is simpler and more elegant. Mid-century dining tables and chairs by Fredrik Kayser are from Eikund, while Andreas Engesvik’s bright velvet Bollo chairs are considered by many to be the country’s top furniture designers. She said Olufsen hopes the décor will make guests “feel like they’re in modern Norway in 2022,” not just mountains and fjords.

However, Olufsen admits that there is still some way to go: “We still have more work to do to boost our self-confidence and provide more space for Norwegian design.”


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