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Together We Are Stronger!

In Scandinavia, there is a secret ingredient in the design ethos. It’s a certain modesty - a lack of ego if you will – that derives from what they call... ‘Janteloven’ or the ‘Law of Jante’. It’s a cultural norm that encourages co-operative working and striving for the success of the collective, over the pursuit of individual glory.

The long tradition of Janteloven was first defined in writing in the 1933 novel by Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose: ‘En Flytning Krysser Sitt Spor’ (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks), where the ‘Law of Jante’ (with ‘Jante’ being the ‘every town’ in which the protagonist finds himself) is defined by 10 core rules:

  • You’re not to think you are anything special.
  • You’re not to think you are as good as us.
  • You’re not to think you are smarter than us.
  • You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
  • You’re not to think you know more than us.
  • You’re not to think you are more important than us.
  • You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  • You’re not to laugh at us.
  • You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  • You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

To the British eye they must seem like harsh diktats with which to grow up, but they are second-nature to Scandinavians and have a huge influence on their ability to work in partnership.

Norwegian designer Vibeke Skar certainly insists they are beneficial:

‘Janteloven is very important in our culture – it’s in how we think and act, which means we [Norwegians] are very good at collaboration,’ she says.

‘A collaborative approach has many benefits. You don’t stand out as a person, but as a group: together we are stronger.’

A glance at Vibeke’s portfolio, which features products created in collaboration with fellow designers Ida Noemi and Jens Praet, proves her point, as does her focus on working in close partnership with Norwegian manufacturers and sourcing her materials from local producers.

The Scandinavian and Nordic education system may also take some credit for the current crop of design partnerships and co-operatives emerging onto the international design scene. The region has some of the best design and architecture schools in the world, with Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Oslo School of Architecture and Design, and Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm being notable examples. They facilitate and encourage group working in ways that are far less pronounced in the British system.

‘From a young age working in groups is prioritised over individual achievement,’ says Birgitta Ralston of Ralston & Bau, a design studio that even describes itself as ‘partners, from a network of creative professionals to our local community Dale i Sunnfjord, where our headquarters are located.’

Explaining the benefits of this collectivist approach, Ralston says:

‘Design is a ‘ping pong’ of ideas. Our diverse backgrounds enrich our work. We analyse concepts from different viewpoints, so we are forced to extract the best from each other – a weak design simply would not stand up.’

There certainly seems to be a contrast between the UK, where the bright young things of design tend to be individuals (such as Thomas Jarrold, Tom Dixon and Bethan Gray), and the Nordic countries, which have recently reclaimed their status as a design powerhouse, churning out award-winning partnerships such as Färg & Blanche, Front, Morten & Jonas and Spark Studio.

With the encroachment of Scandi-cool into all aspects of UK lifestyle – see the rise of fashion retailers like Acne and Cos on the British High Street, and the prominence of Nordic Noir in bestsellers lists and TV schedules - and the keenness of Nordic brands to work with British designers, it might be that a little Janteloven will start to rub off on home-grown designers too.

En Flytning Krysser Sitt Spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks) images: Aschehoug Agency
Vibeke Skar image: Confessions of a design geek