At first glance, the gallery appears full of staid bunads, the traditional Norwegian costume that exudes all things lefse. But no, these are made with damask, gilt lace and hand-painted stenciling — more Versace than Velkommen.
Then when a blood-red Louboutin spike heel shows up in a painting with traditional Norwegian patterns, it’s clear that Norway House has something more than homage up its hardanger-stitched sleeve.
Norway House is akin to the American Swedish Institute or the Danish American Center, both of which champion Scandinavian heritage. But the (curiously) Ikea-blue building on E. Franklin Avenue is no sumptuous mansion, but a remodeled credit union across from Mindekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church.
It officially opened to the public in June, with its first cultural exhibit a pairing of modern festdrakter, or fest dresses, by Lise Skjåk Bræk and haunting, yet calming paintings by Anne Langsholt Apaydinli.
The exhibit, in place through October, epitomizes Norway House’s mission of linking America’s Norwegian heritage with modern Norway, said Linda Brekke Mona, who organized the exhibit and was a past board chair of Norway House.
“We wanted this to be a link, a bridge, to contemporary Norway without giving away our immigrant roots,” she said.
This goal is evident in the center’s location in the Chicago-Franklin neighborhood, where Norwegian immigrants settled generations ago, and where immigrant communities still find their footing.
Abdi Warsame, the city council representative for Ward 6 and a Somali-American, spoke briefly at opening ceremonies about how the neighborhood now is home to the nation’s largest East African population, and welcoming this latest wave in revitalizing the area.
From commerce to trolls
The project was 11 years in the making, spurred in 2004 by Royal Norwegian Consul Thor Johansen, who wondered why Norwegians here didn’t have something like the American Swedish Institute, given that there are more than 865,000 Minnesotans who claim Norwegian ancestry.
Formally called the Norway House Education Center, at 913 E. Franklin Av., the building includes an art gallery, coffee shop managed by Ingebretsen’s, the East Lake Street Scandinavian market, and a gift shop, or gavebutikk, stocked with rosette irons, horned Viking helmets, trolls and lingonberries. (For gallery and store hours, visit www.norwayhouse.org.)
The second floor includes office space for Norwegian-American organizations and other community groups, along with the Telemark Trade Office, representing business interests in Norway.
Norway House’s contemporary tone is set with its first gallery exhibit, “Norwegian Threads.”
Textile artist Lise Skjåk Bræk was a costumer for the Olympic Games when Norway hosted in 1994. In researching the cultural history of the traditional bunad, she brought a fashionista’s mind-set to the future and began reworking the designs with leather, brocades, hand-stenciled designs and ribbons. The difference is subtle, and stunning.
And, apparently, accepted.
“I have never been attacked by the bunad police,” she said, laughing. “I rather expected it, but it never happened. It is always important that traditions move on. As I always say, democracy is crawling forward very slowly on its knees, but culture walks on stilts.”
Still, some things never change. As people streamed in for the recent grand opening ceremony, one of the women behind the bakery counter turned to the other: “I’m going to put on another pot of coffee.”