Sometimes, the phrase “carving out a national identity” is to be taken quite literally. Lars Kinsarvik, the Norwegian woodcarver and designer, was working in Norway in the early 20th century. This was a time when the country was asserting an independent status from Sweden which had controlled Norway until 1905 (Denmark had reigned over Norway before Sweden for about 400 years). Working mostly on commissions, Kinsarvik’s inimitable elaborate carvings and palette helped change the landscape of Norway’s churches, homes, restaurants, hotels and furniture.
Born in the western district of Hardanger in 1846, Kinsarvik studied drawing at the renowned Bergen school. A man of many passions and skills, he was also a poet, musician and goalkeeper. His talent was met with a severe interest (and, an urging by the state) in local, rural culture that wasn’t influenced by the countries that had ruled over Norway throughout the centuries. In particular, Kinsarvik utilized the motifs and references of Viking culture, inspired designs that conjured seafaring, exchange, myth, and legend. He was a champion of the Norwegian campaign to assert its own history and awaken a subdued national consciousness.
On display at Galerie Franck Laigneau
at this year’s Design Miami/ Basel
in June will be one of Kinsarvik’s carved and painted armchairs in the Viking or “Dragon” style for which he is acclaimed. Circa 1905, the year that Norway gained its independence from Sweden, the chair epitomizes Kinsarvik’s masterly shaping of interlacing geometries in low-reliefs, dragon-heads on the back stiles, and a sea-inspired polychromatic paint job.
The armchair reflects a time in Norway and throughout Europe where artists and statesmen were defining modernism. Industrialization was beginning to ramp up and there was growing concern regarding depersonalization and other negative aspects of the burgeoning modern world, a concern that existed parallel to the assertion of newly independent nations. The turn to nationalism across Europe meant a look to the future but also, a turn to the past: vernacular traditions were studied and extolled as key signifiers of coherence, unity, and uniqueness for each nation-state.
In Norway, the excavations of Viking ships in Tune, Gostad, and Oseberg in the latter half of the 19th century contributed greatly to a rediscovery of the country’s past and came to have a significant symbolic value. One can see the influence of these ships and their animal heads, entwining foliation, and totemic, mysterious figures on Kinsarvik and his armchair. Arguably more than anything, the Viking ship as an artifact recalled a history of courageous discovery, influence, and strength for the Norwegian people. The robustness of the chair is complemented by a design aesthetic that mixes these lost-and-found traditions and stories.
A similar model of this chair was shown at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. The chair serves as a mystifying object on its own, but it also illuminates an often neglected facet of modernism: the return to folk images and narratives that came with it, a return that propelled the art and craft movements across Europe as the modern world was first hatching.