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Made in Oslo: My Time in the Design Capital

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I wake up to Oslo bleary-eyed; a starfish on a mattress in a sparse city centre loft. The sun is streaming through the curtains and my host is already bustling about, setting out tea bags in grey China cups while the kettle coughs steam. She knows she has a Brit to stay. Frida, my old flatmate from university, is the atypical Norwegian with her blonde curls and shiny blue eyes. Ever the atypical Brit, I grasp a teacup gratefully.

Frida moved into the flat a matter of days ago, and while its studio room is furnished modestly with a mattress strewn upon the floor and a white wood kitchen table for two, there are roses in the window in large ceramic vases. The pocket-sized kitchen is all whites and greys, clean lines, effortless symmetry. Space in the city comes at a premium, but you can guarantee an Oslo shoe box will ooze more style than the entirety of your sprawling, suburban semi-detached.

These first half-conscious glances seem to form a microcosm of the city outside. Design in Oslo is not superfluous or clichéd. It’s in no way reminiscent of that Anglophone association of Scandinavia as ‘a bit like Ikea’… design is fundamentally intertwined with the city; it’s how it runs, thinks and breathes.

The August sun falls hot on my neck as we stand at a tram stop in Frogner district, an affluent borough of Oslo. The street is beautiful, with its intricate facades in white, yellow and peach. It’s a mecca of colonial apartment blocks and shabby-chic corner cafes. An impeccably dressed queue forms behind me - women in silk blouses with Marc Jacobs tote bags, men in crisp open-collared shirts and aviators, wrapped up in designer nonchalance. Norwegians are as carefully tailored as the city in which they live. I flash a smile but receive only furrowed brows in reply. This is not the north; there are no communal commiserations on the weather or elaborate life-stories before the number 2 bus arrives. City dwellers seem insular, guarded, affixed within a beautifully mechanized metropolis.

 

Frogner District

Frogner District

 

The tram system in Oslo runs with clockwork precision, a system of arteries pulling commuters and tourist alike toward the pumping, cosmopolitan heart of the city. At the equivalent of £2.30 for a ticket valid for an hour within the city centre, the public transport system is perhaps the only aspect of Oslo without that notorious Norwegian price tag. 

Next to me, I notice Frida tapping away at her iPhone and I soon realize she’s buying tram tickets. The architecture of Oslo is pervasive; it slips beneath the concrete and the aesthetic into the elusive realms of cyberspace. There are apps for purchasing transport tickets, paying parking and museum entry. On Bogstadveien street near Majorstuen, high-end designers even offer interactive window-shopping; simply scan a QR code with your phone and find your purchase on your doorstep the following morning. It’s hardly surprising when Norway is one of the wealthiest countries per capita; these systems are efficient and accessible when your citizens can afford a smart phone as an extra appendage.

On the harbor front at Ayker Brygge, the pier extends an arm out to the glistening blue of the Oslo fjord, a quiet reminder of the country’s economic dependency on its natural resources. While Karl Johans Gate is considered the ‘main’ street of the city, it lacks the panoramic charm of the Ayker Brygge complex, with its avant-garde glass-front shops and bustling stylistic restaurants. In the outdoor bar we’re frequenting, Brygga, I order a tea. The waitress looks bemused. I wonder if waving a Union Jack would’ve been more subtle. She returns with a juice glass of hot water and a tea bag. I stomach a laugh. Norwegians don’t really do tea; they like their caffeine unabashed and to the point, black coffee, no fuss.

 

Ayker Brygge

Ayker Brygge 

Standing at the top of the Oslo Opera House I close my eyes and spread my arms out against the wind. While you can catch a performance of Carmen or an evening of the Oslo summer Jazz Festival, the best of the Opera House can be enjoyed without losing a Krone. The building is functional art, an angular roof unravels in fluid levels, unfurling into multi-layered plazas. At the summit, the city is a postcard. In one direction lies the undulate water, in the other an artistic muddle of lights and building tops.

Oslo Opera House

Oslo Opera House 

Elsewhere in Oslo, design goes underground. Ever the bumbling tourist, I stumble across a street tattooed in brash, cartoonish colours. Hausmania is an art commune located at Hausmanns gate 34. Its walls are emblazoned with emphatic political slogans: We know your capitalist paradise and Resistance is priceless. It offers cheap collaborative spaces for artists, musicians, writers and designers, distanced from commercial influences. Within one of the most expensive countries in the world, this structure is a rare reply to Norway’s state capitalism. Under a graffitied archway I spot student-types sitting with brows furrowed, the lilt of a fast, impassioned Norwegian dialect hanging in the air. I imagine they’re discussing questions of sovereignty, the emotional imprisonment of contemporary society, the intricacies of soviet history. But perhaps it’s simply what’s for dinner tonight? This bright outlandish building forms a stark contrast from the minimalist, contemporary architecture that dominants the city. Here design is communication, and condemnation too.

Hausmania

Hausmania

Through the woods of Ekebergparken I look down on the incessant hum of the city. In Oslo, nature stubbornly interrupts the grandiose cityscape. A free park built for the industrial working class in 1889 as a place of retreat, Ekebergparken grounds the city; it perches on the hill with a watchful eye as if to say remember where you came from. Beside me, I observe a woman urinating by a tree with wary regard. In her defense she is cast in bronze with a water feature affixed to her nether regions, one among many of the sculptures adorning the park. Like the squatting woman, Ekeberg is unapologetic and candid, it’s a monument to the everyman and woman, a corner of Oslo where history and art live and commerciality is left in the city below.

Around me, the Oslo skyline is set alight. The night air is feverish with the jabbering of a thousand languages and dialects, and the reverb from the speakers spills out into the city below. With its roof top Q lounge, Brooms & Hatchets on Kongens gate is a slice of the Scandinavian party scene. Norwegians are suckers for tradition, especially when it comes to the drinking habits of their Viking ancestors. Naively, I offer to buy a round of drinks. My compadres raise an amused eyebrow. Five JD and Coke’s later and I’m the equivalent of fifty pounds worse off. I stagger back to the party clutching at my friend’s shoulder, my bank account significantly bruised. But while extortionate, Oslo knows how to sell itself. Standing beneath the stars in the middle of this suave, hedonistic playground, I can’t help but smile.

There is a word in Norwegian that cannot bridge the linguist gap to English. Pålegg roughly translates as ‘whatever you decide to put on bread’. While perhaps crude, it reflects something vital about Oslo. To take the analogy out of the fridge, Pålegg signifies a distinct language of individuality and creativity, of building something out of something else. There’s a sense that with their relatively recent independence in 1905, Norway is shrugging on new clothes. 

In Oslo, design is the language of identity, it’s a declaration to the world: Oslo has arrived.

Travel pass provided by Eurolines.

 




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