After a few days wandering around Oslo in the middle of winter, I felt as if I’d hit upon the city’s essence. In a frenzy of reductive resolution, I decided that the Norwegian capital is best described as a city of winter sports-crazed jocks.
My evidence: the many locals who made it abundantly clear that they couldn’t wait to drive to their cabins in the mountains for a skiing weekend. That and the absence of the sort of local design scene that characterizes the other continental Nordic capitals. Jocks and design are sort of opposites, right?
Other Nordic countries are leagues ahead of Norway as recognized sources of contemporary design. Norway doesn’t have the design heritage of Sweden, Denmark or Finland by a long shot. Even Julie Ann Seglem, the charming proprietor of a shop called Mitt lille hjem, bemoaned the absence of a stronger domestic design scene in conversation with me. She sources many of her shop’s items from Denmark.
On my February visit to Oslo, I studiously walked the streets of Grünerløkka, Grønland, and central Oslo looking for evidence of contemporary design. I found some cool stuff, certainly. The most interesting blocks of Oslo, retail-wise, are along Markveien in the commercial heart of Grünerløkka, where second-hand stores and cute personality-driven boutiques make for a distinctly local atmosphere.
Standouts here include Brudd, a collective-run shop that sells handicrafts, some very beautiful, by Oslo-based artists. Especially captivating, I thought, were the delicate cups by Sara Skotte. Markveien is also home to Chillout TravelCentre, a small chain that started in Bergen. Chillout covers lots of ground. It is a travel gear shop, a bookstore, a café, and a branch of Kilroy Travel. It’s an exciting store concept, one I’d love to see replicated elsewhere. And there’s also the aforementioned Mitt lille hjem, which pursues an attractive vintage cottage chic approach to home decor.
But there was no sign of a shop with an aesthetic powerful enough to seduce visitors with its very vision. This was no big deal. I was already convinced that Oslo, a city of snowmobiling jocks, was operating with something of a design deficit.
And then I chanced completely randomly upon Fuglen and I realized that I hadn’t quite gotten things right.
Fuglen is a café and furniture store in central Oslo. Every last detail has been worked out, from the modernist logo on up. The café so successfully replicates an early 1960s den that it was recently hauled into service as a backdrop for a Mad Men-esque photo essay featuring Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister.
Fuglen was originally opened as a café in 1963, though its current hybrid cafe-shop incarnation only dates back to 2008. It has three proprietors: Einar Kleppe Holthe, vintage furnishings expert Peppe Trulsen, and barista/bartender Halvor Digernes.
Fuglen serves fine pastries and very fine coffee drinks, and the lounge areas of the café spill out across several rooms. The space transforms into a cocktail lounge on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.
The furniture and the objects on the walls, mostly very beautiful vintage pieces, are for sale. Most interestingly, a huge number of the outstanding items on display were created by domestic designers. Norwegians Birger Dahl, Fredrik Kayer, Cathrineholm, Arne Halvorsen, Erik Pløen, Torbjørn Afdal, and others receive their due here. The Norwegian design legacy, it turns out, is quite a bit more impressive than the attention it receives.
And yes, there are hipster ladies at Fuglen chatting softly, wearing big glasses and looking not unlike their compatriots in Portland or Hackney. And hipster gentlemen looking aloof and pulling off their trick of managing to look neither straight nor gay at the same time.
So where does this leave the city of weekend jocks? Might Oslo be the sort of city whose jocks also enjoy snapping up vintage enamel ashtrays to crown their Alf Aarseth dining tables? Whatever the answer to these questions, there is no debate around the recognition of Fuglen as a design beacon in Norway. In fact, just today, Fuglen received special recognition in the form of an award from the Norwegian Design Council.
[Images: Eirik Sand Johnsen for Fuglen]