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Peter Opsvik — The Movement
Movement is the answer. But if changing positions is important in his design, Peter Opsvik remains un-wavered in his beliefs.
Peter Opsvik — The Movement

In the history of Norwegian design, the story of Peter Opsvik’s young son Tor, who couldn’t reach the top of the table from his chair, is well-known. In response Opsvik created the Tripp Trapp, a chair with two adjustable surfaces that allows the child to grow with the chair and, as Opsvik says, “sit at the grown-up’s table.” Since its inception, the Tripp Trapp has sold over 9 million copies, and is now considered a design classic that has become a part of MoMA’s permanent collection.

But the chair is only a small part in a larger quest Opsvik has taken into the field of sitting. Born in 1939, he’s closing in on 80 years, but he remains dedicated to what he believes should be the non-static activity of sitting.

The Chair

In 2008 Opsvik published the book Rethinking Sitting, where he declared his thoughts on the subject of the title. “They’re not studies, just observations and reflections,” he says, sitting in his studio located in the center of Oslo.

After graduating from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in 1964, Opsvik went on to work for the radio manufacturer Tandberg, presently recognized as a contributing force to Norwegian industrialdesign. In the 1970s he started freelancing under his own name and today he leads a team of designers.

“When I first started designing chairs, professors and ergonomists knew exactly how you should sit — which angles were best and which were the most important. My contribution was that I said they were all right,” he tells me. “I made seating furniture that inspired to alternate between these positions. And then you have your conclusion, which will make for a good headline: The best seating position is, after a while, always the next.”

He starts demonstrating: “If you’re at the movies and you sit down, 20 minutes pass and you want to do this, and this, and this,” he explains as he moves his legs and body, shifting as if he’s in an actual theatre. “And that is my contribution. If you just look in this [points at his book], there are all kindsof seating positions.”

Opsvik is reluctant to be interviewed; he’d much prefer that I quote from his book instead.

“Everything you want to ask, you’ll find the answer in here,” he assures me. “I suggest that you just use this, and all the photos are here—everything.”

He leafs through the book that inhabits his thoughts from the past 50 years. In one picture he is a young student, carving a chair from a block of ice. Other pages reveal unrealized designs, such as the shin support for hairdressers in the 80s, which allowed them to go into a semi-kneeling position while standing up. There are also sketches and observations in research for the Tripp Trapp, the Capisco office chair (1984) and the Garden chair (1985), all of which are some of his most known and awarded designs.

Opsvik prefers not to be interviewed, or have his objects photographed, withoutbeing in total control. He has been through these situations many times, telling journalists the story of the Tripp Trapp chair, or how he sees his work as “new functionalist.” “If you have to call it anything, call it new functionalism,” he says when I ask how he sees himself in the narrative of the so-called Scandinavian modernism. “If you look around, everything you see is on the outer limits of what we call Scandinavian design,” he declares matter-of-factly.

Tripp Trapp Chair


In his studio/show space, Opsvik feels at home being surrounded by design classics. But they are, as he points out, on the sideline of traditional Scandinavian design from the late 1900s, though he does admit that the modernistic motto of function is at the heart of his approach. “If I were to solve a problem or a challenge, it would be incorrect to start with how it should look and then try to put the function in. Function first,” he declares. “Perhaps the reason why they look a bit special, these products, is because they have function as their starting point.”

“You can’t see the chair you sit in, you can only feel it,” he tells me.

They do indeed have a peculiar aesthetic. Some of the chairs are quirky, some are even humorous. They are almost like Opsvik himself, who hardly sat still throughout the entire interview. He constantly shifts his body, he diverts his attention between objects and between the photographer and his grandson who he is babysitting for the day. “If you need to get something off a shelf, there is nothing you can use to stand on here. Everything moves, expect perhaps the Tripp Trapp,” he tells me.

Experimental seating

In the 1980s Opsvik started looking into what he called experimental seating, and in particular, shin and kneeling positions. Some of the research was, at the time, attributed to Norwegian inventor Hans Christian Mengshoel. Apart from Opsvik, designers Oddvin Rykken and Svein Gusrud also worked on the concept of new seating positions with Mengshoel. From there, he developed the Variable balans (1979), a chair that allows the user to rest their shins on the front, while sitting in a kneeling position where the back remains unsupported.  

“Mengshoel was looking into kneeling positions, and he brought on three designers. We worked separately with these ideas and it started an experimental wave. However, it turned out a lot of people had thought about chairs like that before him, but we he was the initiator here in Norway,” Opsvik explains. But he doesn’t see the inventor as having a large contribution to his work. “I experimented before that, but there was some extra momentum in the 80s. Only one of my products has been given this kneeling position, so it can’t have been that significant for me.”

The outer realms

In the corner of the studio, the chair Embracement (1986) sits. Its circular form gives the impression of the back of a woman, who seems to be stretching her hands into the air, pulling some of her hair with them. It’s a strange seating object, one that’s very different from the functional office chairs, or the rationally designed Variable. “When I come home, this chair reaches its hands into the air and says ‘Welcome home,’” Opsvik says about the object, which seems to be its main function. “I’ll sit there for two seconds while I take my shoes off. Functionalism is only important where people are for longer periods of time.”

Embracement Chair (1986)

Not all of his furniture is purely functional, though; some pieces also have symbolic value and are indeed intended to simply be expressionistic. “I designed the functional objects in order to make everyday life better for people. Then you have the completely non-functional things, like these cabinets and objects,” he says and points to constructions that line the room — wooden creations that seem to mimic faces and bodies, some of which also double as cabinets.

“I’ve made them in order to construct an expression — like a fine artist. These are at the other end of the spectrum. I am very seldom in the middle where products should be part usable, part easy to clean, beautiful, environmentally friendly. I am either on the functional side of things, or at the complete expressionistic side. In the middle there is too much already.”

Garden Chair

In the studio, the Garden chair is proving to be a source of delight for Opsvik’s grandson, who keeps climbing the construct. The chair itself is made up of branch-like arms that have circular cushions on top. Aesthetically, Garden seems to find itself somewhere in between the functional and the expressionistic works of Opsvik, becoming a symbolic object as much as a seating design. “If you think about our ancestors who lived in treed, they had no conventions,” he says. “When we sit in a chair or a sofa, we should forget about seating norms and just crawl into it. This chair is a symbol for that.”

Environmental concerns

In 2000 Opsvik donated one third of his company to the environmental foundation The Minor Foundation for Major Challenges (which he also co-founded). It was a move motivated by what he calls “the paradox of all professions.”

”When you look at the world in general, then what children sit on is completely uninteresting. We live in a world that is not very cheerful. So being interested in something as trite as what kids sit on…” He takes a break before exclaiming, “Children need love, clean food and water, a place to live. You can be occupied with changing the world in our wealthy part of the world, but that’s relatively uninteresting.”

But even if Opsvik declares himself a pessimist, he insists that I mustn’t misunderstand.  “If you first set out to buy furniture in the rich part of the world, well, it might as well be furniture that lasts. I think the world without my field would look even worse, because designers try to make things better.”

Every year, profits from the company go to the foundation. He has also been part of funding and starting the Norwegian organization Design Without Borders, a design program aimed at offering humanitarian aid to the developing countries. It’s the royalty interests from his products that make the charitable practice possible.

“The difference between me and other designers is that when I think about a product, I am in it, I am sitting in it, I am feeling it.”

Becoming the chair

As I’m about to leave his studio Opsvik has disappeared, though he wasn’t gone for long. He sweeps back into the showroom in full flight with a new design he’s been working on: An electric scooter. He stops the scooter and starts demonstrating the ways you can carry it around. “Here you can put the newspaper, and as you get on the train — look at how easily it folds together!” He seems struck by an almost child-like joy. Like all his designs, this one also seems to reflect his two polarizing personalities I’ve observed in our time together: The abrupt man who bombastically declared moments ago “Function first,” and the man who’s poetic when discussing his passion for designing, and of course, his passion for sitting. —

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