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Embedded In Kids’ Toys, Questions About National Identity

Commissioned by Denmark’s legendary Louisiana Museum, these toys pack a conceptual punch.

When he was a student travelling through the Mediterranean, Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn made a note in his sketchbook that even the light was different in homeland. “Long shadows,” he wrote, “a flickering, sensitive light. Architecture is frequently invisible, enveloped in mist.” In Scandinavia, architecture and design have always been closely tied to cultural identity. But at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, the region’s most interesting designers are examining whether that relationship is still intact. “Is there a Nordic identity?,” ask the curators of New Nordic: Architecture and Identity. “Does the Nordic Way exist?”

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At Louisiana, answers to those questions come in varying degrees of specificity. Dozens of architectural models fill the galleries, while a group of 30 small dioramas give artists and designers a chance to be heard. The contents range from paper-cut landscapes to errant pieces of crispbread and adorable videos of dudes knitting. Young Oslo product designers Permafrost have gone in a different direction in their diorama, designing a set of children’s toys that reference a less PR-friendly aspect of Scandinavian heritage: the shipping and oil industry.

“The toys depict modern day industrial icons,” explains the twelve year old company, “while at the same time honouring traditional Nordic craftsmanship.” There’s a helicopter, with a poppy red blades and matching “H” signage. A circular base fits into the deck of a shipping barge, or the platform of an oil rig. The choice to address Scandinavia’s industrial heritage via toys is clever, and it offsets the weighty topic.

The project mixes the region’s twee, friendly public image with its formidable shipping and energy prowess. It’s a potent and unexpected combination. Scandinavia’s prosperity is based largely on its shipping industry–to say nothing of oil, of which Norway is the world’s third largest exporter. The country’s oil industry has been embattled of late, narrowly averting a massive strike and weathering a bitter dispute with Russia over arctic resources. But in sanded wood and lacquered paint, what could be more harmless?

New Nordic is on view until October 21st.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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