Of all the pieces in this year’s Handmade show, few were as literal in their desire to transport worshippers at our temple of divine design to a higher plane as the mysterious ‘Portal’. Bringing together award-winning Norwegian architects Snøhetta with Erik Jørgensen Møbelfabrik, one of Denmark’s most iconic modernist manufacturers, and aided and abetted by dynamic Norwegian duo Marius Myking and Martin Nichols, of creative agency Everything Elevated, ‘The Portal’ is a sculptural piece designed to be a literal representation of a path to the infinite beyond.
The project was a true collaboration between these three Scandinavian outfits. Their very secular approach to sacred spaces invoked spiritual drama with a combination of exceptional craft, clever design and striking simplicity. The prime directive for this particular piece was to draw the eye upwards and inwards, showcasing Erik Jørgensen’s attention to detail without the object getting lost in the exhibition space.
‘Erik Jørgensen’s CEO, Niels Jørgensen, came to us for a workshop in Oslo,’ says Snøhetta’s Stian Alessandro Ekkernes Rossi. ‘The company had already been thinking about the project for a while.’ Initial suggestions sought ways of translating Erik Jørgensen’s sublimely elegant seating products into some kind of hallowed hideout. Snøhetta and Everything Elevated worked with the manufacturer on a more abstract way of incorporating craft and materials into a piece that fulfilled the brief, as well as making a suitable statement in our Handmade space in Milan’s Mediateca Santa Teresa, with its high ceiling and columns.
We all wanted a vertical contribution to this lofty building – after all, encouraging people to look up is a fundamental aspect of any religious structure. Erik Jørgensen, Snøhetta and Everything Elevated had other ideas, namely a way of implying the infinite in an object that could also be taken in at a glance (and was easy to ship). Niels Jørgensen spoke of the importance of ‘creating something simple’, and so the most universal means of ascending – the stairway – was deployed, but with a twist.
The rungs of the ladder are made from black-stained oak, while the virtical bars are upholstered in black cohiba leather. Photography: Jan Søndergaard
‘The Portal’ is a metaphorical gateway to something, a ladder trapped between two voids, each represented by a circular mirror affixed to a circular plinth. In between the mirrors, one experiences the classic ‘infinity’ effect of reflections stretching away into the distance. Yet from without, the object is sculptural, monolithic and just a little mysterious. ‘The idea for the portal arose out of ways to approach the brief without being too explicit,’ says Rossi, diplomatically. ‘We also wanted to show handcraft and detail.
‘We began by thinking about the specific site in the church,’ he continues. ‘Again, it wasn’t about a specifically religious approach, but it needed a slightly “holy” appearance when you approach the piece. Also, it really stands out by being elevated.’ Rossi adds that the idea of going up and down, escaping into another dimension or simply marvelling at the depth of the journey, was a driving force behind the design.
Helping to get the project off the ground was Everything Elevated. Based in Oslo and New York, the creative agency already had an established relationship with Snøhetta. ‘They have a very open working environment, so they invited us to help create something magnificent in this very tight time frame,’ says Nichols. ‘We have a strong strategic approach and sometimes that’s the most important thing in a project.’
Everything Elevated helped to bridge the worlds of architecture and furniture. ‘We quickly went to 1:1 scale and Everything Elevated helped us with renderings and visualisations,’ Rossi says. ‘It’s the way we work in architecture as well.’
‘The Portal’ was made in Erik Jørgensen’s workshop at its Copenhagen headquarters in Pakhus 48, a new design zone in Freeport, by the same talented craftspeople who assemble the brand’s furniture. ‘We supplied detailed drawings,’ Rossi says. ‘It has its own carpenters. We spent a long time talking about materials.’ The end result is refined, elegant and with the same detail and quality found in one of Erik Jørgensen’s chairs. The rungs of the ladder are in black-stained solid oak, with the vertical bars upholstered in black Cohiba leather featuring a prominent and precise central seam of stitches. Thus, the piece repays close attention as well as drawing you in from a distance.
Ultimately, ‘The Portal’ spans the realms in which Snøhetta currently finds itself operating. ‘It deals with the multi-tasking nature of both product design and architecture,’ says Rossi. ‘We’re increasingly drawn into the world of product design. The things that really catch our attention at the moment are installations that are more than just furniture or just architecture.’ Snøhetta’s current portfolio is certainly striking out from a straightforward architectural practice. From exhibition design through to interiors and even branding, the firm is now a global concern. Key projects include New York’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the multi-faceted gem that is Oslo’s Opera House and the recently opened Lascaux IV: The International Centre for Cave Art in France, as well as masterplans, sculptural landscape projects and even designs for Norwegian banknotes.
In contrast, Erik Jørgensen Møbelfabrik is a classic example of modern design rendered faithfully, truthfully and with utter precision. Founded in Svendborg, Denmark, in 1954 by the saddlemaker and upholsterer Erik Jørgensen, the company now has a roster of modernist classics in its portfolio, including chairs by Hans J Wegner and Poul M Volther, as well as numerous collaborations with contemporary designers. This core of Scandinavian functionalism is never far from the immaculate surface of ‘The Portal’. ‘The whole piece is mountable with just two or three screws,’ says Rossi. And although timings for finishing and transportation to Milan were inevitably tight, he admits that ‘we managed to get in a small photo session before it left’.
So will there be more portals in the future? Both Snøhetta and Everything Elevated seem happy for it to remain a oneoff. ‘It’s great that there’s only one,’ Rossi says, adding that this singularity enhances the spiritual qualities of the piece. ‘We all agree that making the piece transportable was vital – wherever it pops up, it looks fantastic.’
After Milan, ‘The Portal’ returned to Copenhagen, where it took pride of place in the Erik Jørgensen showroom. Its next port of call is Singapore (as part of Wallpaper* Handmade On Tour), where it will bring its fusion of form, craft and mystery to a whole new audience. Onwards and upwards.
As originally featured in the August 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*221)