Nordic design has been trendy for years, but what makes it so appealing? Irija Øwre with Galleri Format Oslo joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to speak with host Sharon Berman about the history of design in Norway and how Norwegian crafts differ from those in other Nordic countries. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to be talking with Irija Øwre from Galleri Format in Oslo, Norway. Irija is an art historian who is passionate about Norwegian crafts. She has a strong background in the fine arts gallery business, which includes jewelry, and she has overseen the transformation of Galleri Format Oslo from a public gallery to a more commercial and international platform for contemporary crafts. Irija, it’s great to have you here.
Irija: Thank you for having me.
Sharon: I’m so delighted. Tell us about your career path. You work in a very interesting world, and you’ve worked internationally, and I’m sure we’d all like to hear about what journey led you to where you are.
Irija: As you already mentioned, I started with artistry, and during my studies visited New York. I was thinking, “O.K., the gallery business is definitely something that I want to do.” So, after my studies, I started working for Gallery Brownstone, which is one of the biggest fine arts galleries in Oslo. I worked there for six years. They only did contemporary fine art and suddenly I got a call from the head of the board of Art Galleri Format, where I am now, wanting me to apply for a position as a director. I was surprised because I had never worked in the glass field before, but it was interesting, and they were going to undertake a huge restructuring of the gallery and a renovation of the premises, which we are in now in. So, I thought, “O.K., I’ll go for it and I’ll try it,” and now I’ve been here for eight years.
Sharon: We met each other through art jewelry and jewelry in general. Was that something that interested you for a long time? Was it something the board wanted to do?
Irija: The gallery is owned by the Norwegian association Botch and Crock, so it’s important that we show the whole range of the field. We show glass, ceramics, textiles, wood, metalwork and art jewelry. I must say, I had an adequate knowledge of the field before I started here, but during my eight years here now, I’ve had a new interest in the field and felt more intrigued by this versatile field. Art jewelry is one of the main components of this field and is a very important aspect of the gallery.
Sharon: What does the name Galleri Format mean? Does it mean format like in English?
Irija: It’s the same definition as in English. The gallery was established in 1991 and the name was established at that time, so I’m not quite sure. It’s before my time, but format is some form of description or arrangement of something, so the focus is on form and setting. That’s what they were looking for, I think.
Sharon: Oh, that’s interesting. In the states here, when we look at the support that Norwegian crafts has from the government, it’s amazing and it makes us envious. What can you tell us about contemporary craft and how it’s viewed in Norway? Was it always this way, in terms of the level of interest and the support you get? Does that differ from other northern European countries?
Irija: We’re very lucky to have this strong support from the government and that the government is so focused on using a good percentage of the budget for cultural institutions and projects in Norway. We’re really lucky to have this type of support, and also the artists enjoy great support via stipends and other aspects that can help further their careers. That is a great thing about the Norwegian model. I also think you have this good support in the other Nordic countries, , but Norway is one of the strongest with this type of public funding of the cultural field.
Sharon: Has it always been that way in Norway, or was that something that’s become stronger in the last few decades?
Irija: I’m not that into cultural politics many decades back, but it is an important aspect of promoting and sustaining Norwegian culture because we are a young nation, as you know. We were under Sweden and Denmark for many, many years, so I think promoting Norwegian culture is very important for us as an individual standing nation. I assume that it has been like this for many decades. As long as I’ve been in this field, I remember that this has been a strong aspect of the Norwegian government.
Sharon: So, what about art jewelry in northern Europe and in Europe? You go to a lot of shows. Can you tell us about where it might be more popular or what trends you might be seeing?
Irija: Now with Nordic design being so popular, I think that we definitely see many, many strong trends from the Nordic jewelry field. It has been this way for many years, especially in the Netherlands with many of the art jewelry galleries there that have a stronghold. You see promotion of Korean art jewelers. We see a lot because they also have a strong public support there from the foundation.
Sharon: I didn’t know there was government support in Korea. That’s interesting.
Irija: There’s a Career Craft on the Korean Design Foundation and as far as I know, they are very actively supporting Korean art jewelers. They had a collaboration with the VNA in 2017. It was a workshop with Korean jewelry artists. I also know there’s an art college in Korea that’s established a collaboration with a gallery in the Netherlands. So, it seems like they’re really working hard in international licensing of their jewelry artists.
Sharon: I know that you have a bird’s eye view because you travel a lot. You go to a lot of the shows and you do see what’s coming out and what’s fading. You must meet a lot of artists, whether it’s in person or online. What makes you decide to further explore an artist? What are you looking for?
Irija: The restructuring in 2011 made it possible for us to have a more exclusive and selected artist base. We are not member-based in that sense, so we show our own artists and what we find interesting. It’s me with an art advisory board establishing the gallery program and who we take to the fairs. We try to show good selections so it’s a wide range, but still high-quality work from well-established and younger artists.
Sharon: What is it that catches your eye? What is it that makes you say, “Hey, that might be worth looking at?”
Irija: In this field, there is a lot of focus on materials and technique compared to conceptual art, for instance, so this is an important factor when we consider artists. It’s important that they have a great understanding of material and form, and the conceptual side is, of course, just as important. So, it’s about this balance that we see great technique and understanding of the material, but also that it has an interesting narrative. It’s a little bit abstract in a way, but it’s very important that we see both these sides in the work that we look at.
Sharon: So, it’s not just, “Wow, look at how detailed that is” or “How did they do that,” but it’s also, “What were they trying to say?”
Irija: In a way. It’s important to get a deeper meaning of some of the pieces at least, whether there is some sort of storyline or that we find it interesting. It’s an important aspect of it that it has also this conceptual side.
Sharon: How do you find your new talent?
Irija: We get applications all the time that we look through, but also, I’m always looking at what the younger artists are doing and where trends are going. I’m also talking to the professors to see what their views are and looking at different venues and what the younger artists are showing. It’s just keeping my eyes and ears open.
Sharon: A question that always comes up among those of us who enjoy jewelry or art, when people want to collect, what do you advise them? What should they look for?
Irija: First, the visual knowledge is very important, but you see a lot when you go out and use your eyes. Then you experience and you get more of an understanding of the different objects and artists, so I think that’s very important, that you build a visual knowledge in a way. But it’s also important to follow your heart and go for what you find interesting and what gives you meaning, not thinking that I should buy this because this is trending now. It’s more important to follow your own style so you build a unique collection. Finally, resistance is good in a way. If you find resistance in a piece, it can have more longevity than more instant gratification within a work, I think.
Sharon: What do you mean by resistance in a piece?
Irija: It’s that everything doesn’t have to give you instant, positive aesthetics. Sometimes it’s good to have a balance that is not just beautiful, it also has something that you can’t quite decide upon, if you know what I mean. You feel that you have questions, or there’s a meaning of this element in the piece that you can’t figure out.
Sharon: So, something that makes you think a little bit more.
Irija: Yes, definitely.
Sharon: I like the thought about looking at a lot of things. It makes unusual pieces stand out more when you’ve already seen a lot.
Irija: Definitely, so this is the very tip of what I hear from experienced collectors. They started by looking, going to shows, seeing objects and going to fairs, just getting as much visual information as possible before they buy and decide in what direction their collection is going to go.
Sharon: That’s very good advice. What kind of crossover do you see in terms of art and art jewelry or arts and crafts jewelry? Do you see people who are coming in to look at the crafts and then say, “That’s an interesting necklace,” or do people really stick with one or the other?
Irija: I would say the latter. There aren’t many people who are very interested in a specific material and they come here and want to explore more artists within that material, but we try to show both the knowledgeable audience and the public coming here. We try to show them more objects that are not what they are usually looking at. To the more curious people coming in to have a look, I might show the whole range so they can see how versatile this field is and how many different materials are going into the processes. It’s a very wide range. We try to show them different styles and different artists, so they can broaden their horizons in terms of the quality in Norway.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense, if somebody is interested in ceramics or wood or whatever, the different pieces that are made in those media. My perception is that people in Norway are more aware of crafts and design. What’s going on there as opposed to other places in the world? We hear so much about Norwegian design. Is that just good PR?
Irija: It’s definitely trending in the Nordic countries, but this is a term that’s for all the Nordic countries combined, so I would say there’s a difference within the Nordic countries. The art jewelry field in Norway is very strong, I think. We have many strong artists in this field in Norway, and sometimes when we go abroad, I hear that the Norwegian scene is more—they don’t fit always into what you look at as a Nordic design. You have, for instance, Denmark and Finland, which are very strong design nations and they have a long tradition, but in Norway, we do not have this same type of long tradition. We tend to make it more conceptual and more expressive in a way. I’ve heard that many who look at Norwegian design from the outside see us as a little bit different, so that’s very interesting. I’m really glad that we have this strong jewelry community in Norway, but it’s also a very interesting and wide range within the field.
Sharon: It’s wonderful. When you say expressive and conceptual, are you saying in terms of their passion for crafts, or are you saying the artists themselves are more expressive and conceptual?
Irija: I’m thinking more of the objects. It comes across as freer in a way, I have heard. I’m not sure this is 100 percent correct, but I understand what they’re saying, that we are freer. Maybe with the old tradition of Denmark, you see that many people are very bound up to this tradition and they have many beautiful works, of course, and artists that know how to develop this tradition, but still I think that there are some artists in Norway that work more conceptually and expressively in terms of aesthetics, because they maybe are a bit more free of these traditions.
Sharon: That makes sense. Well, thank you so much. This has been very interesting. I was so pleased to be able to get to your gallery, and I hope that others who are listening get to see it and meet you, whether it’s at a fair or at a Norwegian crafts conference or something similar. Thank you so much, greatly appreciated.
Irija: You as well.
Sharon: We’ll have your contact information in the show notes for those who want to get in touch with you. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much.
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