Nicolai Gulliksen is a persuasive man. ‘The factory has to run. It has to do something!’ says the 36-year-old co-founder of Objekt, a furniture company which launched in April. He is talking from the company’s no-frills office in a former industrial area of the Norwegian capital – which Gulliksen describes as ‘Brooklyn without the beers’. Illustrations of Objekt’s debut collection – containing seven pieces, with a chair by Hans Brattrud and a pendant lamp by Jonas Forsman – line the walls.
Objekt is capitalising on the slowdown in manufacturing serving Norway’s dwindling oil and gas industries. Its output – ‘honest products for everyday use’ – isn’t revolutionary. Its model of swooping into factories, whose lifeblood is in tooling parts for rigs, extraction equipment and shipping, and twisting their arms to contemplate producing tiny runs of designer furniture, is far from the norm.
‘These factories don’t score big contracts with the oil industry anymore,’ says Gulliksen. ‘Before, factories said no to new customers, especially those wanting to produce small quantities, but if they’d said yes to the little guys five years ago, they’d have a really big customer today.’
So well honed is Nicolai’s persuasive patter that he makes taking a gamble on an entirely new – and far smaller – industry appear common sense. In some respects his prediction of huge growth would not have been wrong; the last five years have seen many Norwegian designers explode on to the international scene. But unlike its Scandinavian neighbours, Norway lacks brands, the effusive middlemen to harness this wealth of talent and make their designs saleable.
This absence stems from the lack of Norwegian factories willing to produce in the small quantities that allow a new brand to get off the ground. ‘In the last two years, I have seen around 20 new Danish brands launch. 20!’ says Gulliksen, eyebrows raised.
Neither Gulliksen nor his co-founders Preben Mehren and Kjetil Gudem were new to the furniture industry. Marketing master Kjetil worked in contract sales for 15 years, most recently building up Danish brand Muuto, in Norway. Preben, meanwhile, spent 13 years at Sandella Fabrikken, one of the largest independent producers of moulded foam (the substance often used as padding in sofas and armchairs) in Europe, and whose manufacturing expertise and networks are integral to translating designers’ vision into real products.
Gregarious and charming with a blonde quiff and sleek wire-rimmed specs, Gulliksen gathered the know-how to launch his own business while working in contract sales for Danish brand Hay. At Objekt, he’s responsible for spotting trends on the design horizon and crafting saleable products with a host of top talent.
Although he’s cagey about how his experience at Hay has shaped Objekt, there are clear parallels between how the two brands comfortably straddle the domestic and contract markets. ‘When I started with Hay I saw how they worked with their designers, how they sold furniture, how they grew from 25 employees to over 300 in just 10 – 15 years,’ he says.
Objekt launched without any investment, the founders ploughing their own capital into the project, making the necessity of small-batch production all the more real. ‘We’re taking it sale by sale. It’s actually like when you open a cafe you have to earn money from the first coffee you sell. We are on our own so we have to earn money to invest in new products,’ say Gulliksen.
To get Objekt’s debut collection off the ground – which they accomplished in just six months – the founders had to become experts in the capability of the machines currently servicing the oil and gas, shipping and automotive industries, in order to spot crucial gaps for their production processes.
‘We started visiting every factory so we could see the production lines, what kind of materials they work with, their machine parts, so that maybe two to three years later we’ll think, “Ah yeah, we can do the product there”,’ explains Gulliksen.
‘But in Norway people are scared to try something new. Factory bosses will say, “We don’t work with furniture”. Why? They work with steel. They have the machines,’ he shakes his head in exasperation. ‘We know people will contact us in the future wanting to work with us and we’ll point to an email from two years ago that they never answered.’
Objekt’s appeal to the technical prowess of these factory workers was, however, not lost on Sykkylven Stål, a large steel plant manufacturing parts for the oil and shipping industries based on Norway’s west coast. Objekt talked its owners into producing its Grorudstolen chair.
The design – a tubular cafe chair with a spoked back – is by celebrated designer Hans Brattrud, famous for the classic Norwegian Scandia chair. Gulliksen charmed Brattrud into giving permission to produce the chair, which had been left forgotten in the archive for almost 60 years. No technical drawings existed so Gulliksen had to track down two of the originals and send them to Sykkylven Stål, which turned around prototypes in two months.
Crafting a piece of furniture with heavy industrial machinery requires some adaptations, such as joining the spokes to the frame with the factory’s robotic arm. Crucially, a high-tech facility like Sykkylven Stål is well-placed to build the whole product in one place – from the steel frame to the lacquered seat. ‘They don’t have to outsource to another factory. That’s so important for a new business as moving products around add so much to cost,’ says Gulliksen.
For the manufacturers, having Objekt as a client has a big PR punch. Part of the brand’s USP is the very Norwegian value of transparency, to weave where and how a design was produced into its marketing story. Every product comes with a detailed narrative about its origins, and by the end of the year, Objekt aims to release films featuring every factory they use.
Having the respected Sykkylven Stål on board has had a domino effect on other manufacturers – Objekt even managed to convince its glass producer to reduce its minimum order from 25,000 to just 5,000.
‘Swedish industry welcomes us with open arms and brings positive energy into our projects,’ says Gulliksen. ‘They’re very professional and solution-oriented. In Norway they can be so slow that they never pick up the phone.’
Objekt aims to show that this kind of relationship can exist in Norway, and that through collaboration between small, nimble brands and large, high-tech manufacturers there’s an avenue for a new era of Norwegian design. ‘We hope that also we will grow and inspire also other brands to start up in Norway.’