Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Internship: Peter Opsvik AS, Oslo

This will be a very different sort of post. Today I'm going to talk about the internship I completed in June this year with Peter Opsvik AS in Oslo. The internship was organised by the German-Irish Chamber and their sister organisation the Nork-Tysk Handelskammer (Norwegian-German Chamber of Commerce). It is part of an EU Lifelong Learning Project called Strengthening the Capacity of Managers. This is a Leonardo DaVinci Mobility Project which involves the interns travelling to another country and culture to practice the use of their acquired language skills and immerse themselves in the culture of that country. The project sends people to Germany, Spain and Norway, searching any of those titles brings you plenty of links should your want to learn about any of them. Sufficed to say the project is funded through the EU and organised by the organisations I mentioned above.

All of that out of the way lets talk about designing chairs in Norway, making movies and how to decorate ping-pong balls! When I was offered the chance to work with Peter Opsvik as my host company I was extremely excited about it. If you do not know Opsvik you probably still know some of his chairs and may have been lucky enough to sit in a few. The two most famous chairs are the Variable Balans and the Tripp Trapp which have both been in production for a few decades and remain very popular today. If you've ever spent some time in a Scandinavian household chances are you've seen the Tripp Trapp. This is a height adjustable chair that allows kids of all ages to sit at table height along with the rest of the family. It's a very simple concept but behind simplicity usually lies a lot of effort and consideration.

The Variable Balans is a kneeling chair and was the first chair of it's type. Taking cues from research by an ergonomicist and medical professional, A.C Mandal and Einar Stranden respectively, the chair allows better posture and movement while sitting and even improves the blood flow. This meshes really well with the work of Galen Cranz from UC Berkely who I was lucky enough to hear talk last year in NCAD in Dublin. A video of this talk is available here on youtube and is well worth a watch as she's a really engaging and knowledgeable speaker on this topic. Her work investigates how variable posture chairs and perch seating can improve not just blood flow but also the use of musculature to avoid atrophy while in turn also keeping your internal organs healthier. As a final point on this Peter Opsvik also published a book on this subject called Rethinking Sitting which is illustrated beautifully and gives a great overview of his design philosophy and examples of how this research has influenced his furniture designs.

I arrived in Oslo at the beginning of June and was immediately impressed by the atmosphere in the city and friendliness of the people. I was placed with a host family for my stay who were extremely accommodating and really made me feel welcome in their home. Immediately after arriving I was taken on a tour of the area around the home, this included Ekeberg Sculpture Park and Kongshavn Videregående Skole near where Edvard Munch is said to have done much of his painting. We then went down into the city to Aker Brygge where I got to see the famous Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta and got a tour by boat around the coast of Oslo and the surrounds, a vantage point which I felt really lucky to be able to partake of.

With all that to take in I began working the next morning in Peter Opsvik's offices. The office was an open plan space in a converted industrial building that had a showroom entrance, some smaller offices and a kitchen opening up to a large open plan office with an attached wood and metal workshop. One of the first things I noticed about this space was that it was adorned with the fruits of the companies labour with every workstation having access to a variety of the task furniture they've designed over the years. The environment was informal but with overhead task lighting and large open workstations it was clearly a space designed with a sense of purpose. The work I done in my time here was immensely varied and challenging in many regards but I enjoyed this variation and really appreciated the responsibility I was given in my short time with the company. My first day began with a project that bookended my work here. I was given the job to decode the controls on the new camera that would be used to create product demonstration videos. Having a little experience investigating camera technology from my final year project I found this job quite manageable. After showing the rest of the staff the features of the camera and how to use it I decided to record this information in a technical document which  I wrote up in Norwegian. I also began working with one of the other designers, a very affable and talented Swedish designer called Mikael, to complete building a presentation prototype of a new personal transport product the company were working on.

Over the rest of the two weeks no two workdays were the same. I done metal-work on the prototype, spray painting, web design, concept sketching, and 3D CAD in solidworks. On one occasion I helped decorate ping-pong balls with naturalistic patterns for an art installation the company was setting up for Peter Opsvik, who is also an accomplished professional artist. I was also invited to work with Per Olav the chief designer and Markus a freelance designer and solidworks expert, on a 3rd world waste handling project they were doing on behalf of a charitable organisation with whom the company is involved. The workdays though not typified by regular activities to do with work did have a sort of routine. Every morning the staff would gather around a large table in the middle of the studio area for coffee and an informal chat. After this they would split into groups or work individually on the various projects that were ongoing in the studio. Again lunch was a communal activity with a different member of staff, regardless of position, setting out the lunch table each day. Lunch was provided by the company and among breads spreads, meats, fish, chesses vegetables, tea and coffee was a few Norwegian foods like 'fiskepudding' (a white pudding sausage made from fish, similar in texture to Irish white pudding but eaten hot or cold) and the love-it-or-hate-it 'brunost' which translates as brown cheese (a caramelised sweet cheese with a very distinct flavour). This was a really nice event each day and fit the atmosphere of the office very well.

By the end of my short tenure here I had been given so many challenges that I had completed or contributed to that I have to say my personal confidence in my own skills had grown immensely. The generosity of the company in the variation of tasks and level of responsibility aided this and I felt incredibly lucky to have worked with designers and staff of their skill and accomplishment. One of the final projects I worked on was creating a product demonstration video using the prototype I had been working on during the week with Mikael. This involved filming the product in use all around the city including jumping on and off the trams, going around public buildings such as the central train station and public library and interacting with local shops. A very atypical work day, even for this office, mildly exhausting but really quite a lot of fun.

The purpose of the internship was to develop language skills and engage in the social and business cultures of the host country and host company. With regards to language skills I wrote a technical document for the camera, which I had checked by one of the other team members and he concluded there was only one change to be made. I also learnt a few features about programming in HTML and CSS for other languages and how to ensure correct recognition of that language for browsers and web services. Furthermore, the host institution the Norsk-Tysk Handelskammer (Norwegian-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce), who were incredibly helpful any time I needed advice, invited me to their annual garden party, which just happened to fall during my stay. At this event I spoke with Norwegians and Germans and had my first conversation entirely in Norwegian (oddly enough with a German), a mildly terrifying but ultimately very gratifying experience.

As regards engaging in the local culture, despite the relatively small size of Oslo City there we're unending places to explore and I didn't get to half the places I would have liked to go to. Some of the few I got to visit during my time here were the Munch Museum and Botanisk hage (botanical Gardens), the folksmuseet (Folk Museum), the incredible views of the city from St. Hanshaugen parken, DOGA (the design & Architecture Museum), Slottsparken (the Palace Park) and the city centre architecture including the barcode project, the Opera House and the historical Askershus. I was also fortunate enough that the timing of my trip aligned with the annual Musikkfest, where Oslo city becomes the venue for 40 stages and hundreds of music acts ranging from folk to jazz to rock and reggae music.

Finally as for engaging with local business culture I would say that the office I was in was probably a combination of typical and atypical in some respects. Design as an industry lends itself to casual workspaces, which in recent times has been somewhat overblown and contorted in many ways with 'creative offices' and the lure of ping-pong tables, beanbags and garden shed offices. I appreciated both the casual approach of the workspace in the company and the comfort that afforded to being honest and having fun while working. However, I also appreciated the acknowledgement that design is not a frivolous pursuit by providing the appropriate environment to get some serious productive work done.

An so I conclude, it was with genuine sadness I had to leave Oslo but with huge appreciation for the orgainsation that sent me, the German-Irish Chamber, and recieved me the Norsk-Tysk Handelskammer, my host company Peter Opsvik AS and the wonderful and generous host family I was placed with. The input and effort of all of these combined to make the work placement a really enjoyable and fruitful experience. I guess with regards to learning I mostly gained insight on the culture and people I met there. The general atmosphere in Oslo and the openness and friendliness of the Norwegian people was a real delight. I also developed professionally by having an opportunity to practice numerous skills I hadn't used in quite some time. My language skills definitely improved while I was there also, I went with a very low opinion of my own skills but as I mentioned earlier was able to hold a conversation by the time of the Garden Party. I've stayed in contact with some of the friends I made over there and would greatly relish and opportunity to return again in the future. I hope there are opportunities and I am and have been exploring ways of returning. I guess I'll have to wait and see how this works out.

John O'Shea

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