December 13th, 2021
December 13th, 2021
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Gunvor Catherin Røkholt is one of Norway’s most significant interior designers. An active champion of the UN’s developmental goal no. 11.4 – ‘Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage’ – in recent years she has designed interiors for some of the most exclusive hotels in the country, establishments run by visionary hosts whom we at Up Norway are proud to call our partners.
Gunvor’s attitude to preserving Norway’s rich cultural heritage by keeping it in use, rather than treating it as an untouchable museum piece, is reflected in the people and places she chooses to work with. Her design concepts are based on personality and re-using resources. In autumn 2021 she released the book Fargerik Kulturarv (Colourful Heritage), which features some of the projects she takes the most pride in and the stories behind them. Over lunch, she shared her perspectives on her life and work.
'What better way to preserve our cultural heritage than to actually live in it?’ Gunvor exclaims. At Sjøholt by Knutholmen, a brand new boutique hotel in a completely renovated waterside house in the fishing village of Kalvåg, the rooms are wallpapered and painted in a style that evokes an early twentieth-century aura, while furnished and fitted with distinctly modern amenities. A stay in one of these rooms invites guests to reflect on historical personalities and stories from the area, reanimating local cultural history.
So what is cultural heritage, really? ‘Think of it as the traditions and objects that leave their mark on a place. For example, the way a sheep’s wooden drinking-trough can be reappropriated as a wash basin in the public restroom. Its history is there without having to be explained, and that strengthens the experience.
More than just pure material indulgence and excess, for Gunvor ‘modern luxury’ is primarily about personality – the feeling you get when you arrive at a destination and instinctively feel that people put a great deal of thought behind the presentation. Modern luxury is about spending quality time with anyone you want, and indulging oneself with minimal impact on the environment and climate. To be present both physically and mentally. To find spaces that inspire (a word that derives from the Latin for ‘breathe life into’).
‘I look at a place,’ says Gunvor, ‘ and try to come up with a clear concept that grasps its specific essence, and what the owners want to present. I love pondering over how I can emphasise the personality of a place and its people, and pinpoint that in the interior design concept. I also look at how it can work from a commercial standpoint; the clearer the concept and the more aligned with the place’s identity, the easier it is to strengthen the experience and make it stand out.’
At 29|2 Aurland, for example, guests are invited to stay in an old family farm converted into a tranquil eco-lodge with exquisite historical details and a luxurious feel. The hosts, Tone & Bjørn, have made it their life’s work to pass stories on to their guests that communicate particular values and enrich perspectives. Staying in places like this is not just about a bed for the night and a roof over your head.
Many more Norwegians than usual were forced to holiday in their own country over the past two years. Far from being a restriction, this has been a great opportunity for Norwegians to discover much more of their country’s exclusive selection of owner-operated historic, boutique and independent hotels. ‘It’s embarrassing that Norwegians know so little about their own country and culture’, Gunvor exclaims.
But now, for the first time, many are starting to understand why the number of international travellers to Norway has increased steadily over the last ten years, and what Norway has to offer if you investigate beyond chain hotels and restaurants. There’s usually a very good reason why smaller independent hotels tend to cost more per night than a chain hotel run by seasonal foreign staff. Experiencing a place from the viewpoint of the locals, hearing their stories and rediscovering roots allows you to recognise your own culture and identity.
As travel curators, we try to add value to our guests’ journeys through our expertise, knowledge and passion for Norway. Gunvor is seeking to do something similar through her interior design. In terms of protecting and safeguarding Norway’s cultural heritage, we all still have a long way to go. ‘I believe Norwegians know more about certain foreign cultures than their own. The value of using an expert for travel planning, is to be introduced to one's own culture in new ways that one had not thought of’. This is a way of harnessing the fresh perspectives we gain from new environments, a part of the 7 top emerging travel trends.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index (2019), Norway’s score on ‘Cultural resources (& business travel)’ is the lowest of all indicators measured. Whereas France is ranked #2 on this indicator, Norway ranks #46. Why? It’s not that we don’t have rich cultural resources; just that they are under-commercialised and under-promoted, making them less easy to discover. In fact, many of Norway’s stave churches, historic roads and buildings are staffed and maintained by volunteers on very limited budgets.
So there is no doubt we need those fiery souls whose values motivate them to breathe new life into our cultural heritage and find ways to keep it alive.
Gunvor wants her work to make a difference – and she feels she is starting to see things turning around. She wants her gravestone, she tells me, to be inscribed with the word ‘Presence’. She wants to live in the present, and her clear concepts are designed to help people become more conscious, more aware. Her next job is a three-year art project which is all about presenting poetry in spaces you wouldn’t expect – through music and dance. I’m imagining a huge community project and a performance in Bergen prison, for example, she says with a clever smile. Even though we might not get to be there for that event, we’re excited!
Norway is a treasure trove brimming with pristine places to visit, unparalleled adventures to experience, and remarkable people to meet. We know where the gems are hidden and we’re eager to share them with you.
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