Thursday, July 05, 2007

Norway's National Chair

The “most quintessentially Norwegian product ever,” at least according to the novel The Conqueror, the second in the Jonas Wergeland Trilogy by Jan Kjærstad, was not “Bjelland’s fish balls or possibly one of Frionor’s frozen seafood dishes” -- it was a lounge chair:
"It turned out to be a product made by Ekornes, the successful furniture manufacturers from Sunnmøre on the west coast. In this [television] programme Jonas Wergeland stated, not without a trace of irony, that Norway’s greatest contribution to the world in recent times was not the cheese-slice, nor the plastic keycard, but the Stressless chair, first launched onto the market in 1971 -- an invention worthy of a land of spectators and indeed one for which the national spectator mentality was an absolute prerequisite. Because the Stressless patent was -- and still is, I might say -- brilliant in all its simplicity. The innovative feature, no less than a revolution in the relaxation industry, was that you could assume different sitting positions merely by shifting your body. A lazy nudge of the hip was enough, a little wriggle. You no longer needed to stretch your hand down to a lever. The position was adjusted by the weight of the body itself."
Now, for all of that description, I pictured the Stressless chair as the famous Norwegian kneeling chair, called Balans Variable, designed by Peter Opsvik in 1979. It’s arguably a much more pleasing design, both ergonomically and aesthetically. No, the Stressless chair is much more mundane, and maybe that’s why the stoic Norwegians might think of it as the ultimate Norwegian product.

The Ekornes Stressless chair is a bent wood and leather lounge and ottoman set that has a recognizable circular base connected to two curving legs. The first time I can recall noticing one of these chairs was in the office of my favorite English professor in college. Compared to your typical La-Z-Boy, it looked light, modern, and expensive.

I looked for it in my trusty Design Directory: Scandinavia, but the chair and its manufacturer do not appear -- unlike Peter Opsvik and Balans Variable. My suspicion is that the Ekornes firm and its most famous creation are considered much too pedestrian for such a high-minded design guide. It has listings for Volvo, Nokia, Electrolux, and Ikea -- even Absolut vodka, but no Ekornes.

This might not surprise the company. The president of Ekornes’ American subsidiary, Kevin McGuinness, surveyed his customers in 1994 and found that they were not the wealthy design-conscious creative types he thought they’d be. An article from Norway.org, the country’s official U.S. website, described the findings:
Instead of being the very elite, the majority of Ekornes customers fell in what McGuinness calls the upper middle class. They were teachers, bankers, accountants, lawyers and some physicians. Instead of driving BMWs and Lexuses, they were predominantly driving Honda Accords, Dodge Caravans and Jeeps.
And maybe boxy old Volvos.

These chairs don’t conjure up the tradition of sleek Scandinavian design the way other products do -- just look at the Stressless’ bulky leather cushions. But they do epitomize another very Scandinavian ideal: modest practicality.

How do you define a national character? I wouldn’t try to do it with a chair, or even with housewares in general -- that may be more appropriate for a country like Denmark, which is better known for such things (Bang & Olufsen stereo equipment, furniture by Verner Panton and Arne Jacobsen, lighting by Poul Henningsen). We could talk about Denmark’s waning empire after the Viking age and its losing battle with Germany over the Schleswig-Holstein region in 1864, which all contributed to the little country of more than 400 islands becoming inward-looking, focused on coziness and comfort, focused on the home.

Sweden might be a sort of industrial Switzerland, cynically playing both sides for its own financial gain during World War II. Sure they saved some Jews, but they also helped the Nazis. “The story of Swedish foreign policy is summed up in the career of Alfred Nobel,” wrote Donald S. Connery in his 1966 tome The Scandinavians. “He began by inventing dynamite and ended by establishing a peace prize.”

This is a country that wanted it both ways. To avoid the fate of Denmark and Norway during the Second World War, they became “neutral.” They had been supplying, by some accounts, half of the Nazis’ iron ore. Did they have a choice? Not exactly. But it is this history of uninterrupted industry that gives us Saab and Volvo today.

Sweden is not what you think it is. Suicide is not a national problem, women are not easy or immodest. Sweden is uptight. The country’s greatest filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman was terrified by death and plagued by such irritable bowels that he built a private bathroom in the theater he ran. If you are given the choice to spend an evening with a Dane or a Swede, choose the Dane; the Swede will be more like a Minnesotan (not in a good way), the Dane more like a New Yorker.

The Norwegians are known, perhaps, more for their cultural contributions. They bring us the composer Edvard Grieg, the greatest modern playwright, Henrik Ibsen, the greatest Expressionist painter, Edvard Munch, and one of the earliest practitioners of stream-of-consciousness writing, the under-appreciated scoundrel genius Knut Hamsun. And all at about the same time in the late nineteenth century.

But maybe this isn’t fair. That was more than 100 years ago, and Norway hasn’t produced a truly great artist or writer since. And even if Sweden’s August Strindberg is half the playwright Norway’s Ibsen was, Norway had no Ingmar Bergman. Nor even an Ingrid Bergman. Or a Bjorn Borg. And Denmark had Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard.

My personal vision of the Norwegian character is trapped between the time my great grandparents came to America around 1900 and the times I’ve visited Norway 100 years later.

On the antiquated side, I have lutefisk, that awful lye-preserved cod that no one has eaten in Norway for at least 50 years. My family eats it every Christmas. Norway to us was ornate sweaters, Christmas decorations, lefse, pickled herring, and smoked salmon. It was a prayer we recited over Christmas dinner that no one actually understood.

When I was growing up my mother used to make Spanish rice. I loved it. She once told me, joking, that it was actually a Norwegian dish, and although I wasn’t a particularly slow child, I believed her. Maybe I wanted to believe it. That such an exotic, spicy, and well-known dish could be from the place my ancestors came from. That Norwegian food wasn't all bland and white like lutefisk and mashed potatoes. I internalized it, making sense of the idea that something called Spanish could actually be Norwegian. It began to make sense and I didn’t discover the truth until years later.

Years later still, I discovered the real, current Norway. This discovery was as sad as the realization that Spanish rice is Spanish. The real Norway is incredibly expensive, disappointingly provincial, and quite small. Fishing waters closed to foreign fleets and a windfall in North Sea oil money hasn’t affected the spare Norwegian lifestyle. A ten-ounce bottle of beer in a café will cost $10 and a meal for two at Pizza Hut will set you back at least $50. You can’t afford Norwegian food.

Edvard Munch’s paintings, like The Scream, have been easy marks for thieves in Norwegian museums like the National Gallery and the Munch Museum because they are run like backwater college collections and VFW halls, respectively.

But then again, Norwegian contemporary music from the likes of Erlend Øye and Röyksopp is innovative, danceable, and internationally known. And books like The Conqueror and its predecessor, The Seducer, are some of the best I've read in years.

Still, Norway, like much of its architecture, art, and literature, was best a long time ago. What does it have to offer now? What is the Norwegian national character? “All of Norway had become what it could indeed appear to be when seen from space -- a 1200-mile long granite grandstand packed with armchairs,” writes Jan Kjærstad in The Conqueror.
"Television was, quite simply, an invention eminently suited to a country which lay thus on the periphery, which was used to witnessing events at a safe distance. ‘The screen tricks us into believing that we don’t live a sheltered life,’ as Jonas Wergeland once remarked in a debate. The Norwegian word for television is fjernsyn -- meaning ‘distant vision’. And because the fjernsyn gave such a blessed illusion of beholding some distant vision, one could hold onto the blissful sense that one was merely a spectator and never an active participant."
Hence the middlebrow lounge chair as the product that exemplifies Norwegian-ness best.

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