We met with Henrik Haugan in Oslo, in the luminous Snøhetta headquarters inside an old building in the waterfront area. Born in 1962, previously a professor at the Art Academy in the Norwegian capital and a creative director for important Scandinavian design agencies, Haugan has been the senior brand designer of Snøhetta since 2013.

Because the famous Norwegian design team, winners of the Innovator of the Year award in 2016 assigned by the Wall Street Journal for their visionary projects, does not focus only on architecture, but also on books, exhibitions, ad campaigns, communication projects and even banknotes.

“We did the new graphic design for Norwegian currency (in use starting this year, ed.), hailed as the ‘world’s best money,’ and we are very proud of the project,” Haugan says. “Money passes through the hands of so many people.”

Mr. Haugan, why does an international architecture firm with big projects all over the world decide to also focus on brand design and visual identity? 
I think the most important aspect is that of ‘transposition,’ or the possibility we have in the Snøhetta team to constantly swap roles. In a context like ours, approaching projects also on a much larger scale, a designer can get inspiration and support from the architect in the creative process. And vice versa, of course.
After all, it is hard to find the borderline between a design project and architecture: just consider the exhibitions we have designed for many museums in recent years, and you will see that the layout, namely the design of spaces, and the graphics, i.e. the design of communication of content, are two sides of the same coin. You simply have to integrate different fields that actually have many points in common.

Which project intrigues you most?
Undoubtedly the competition we won (together with the Metric Design studio, ed.) for the new banknotes of Norges Bank, which had extraordinary visibility. But the project we all cherish a bit here in the studio is the book Living the Nordic Light created for the Austrian lighting company Zumtobel.
It is a study on how light is experienced in the Nordic countries, in a geographical context where the sun never sets in the summer and is always under the horizon in the winter. Do you see the large photograph on the wall, in the back of the room? It is the portrait of the four centenarians in the book who narrate – in a very touching way, I must say – what it means to live your whole life near the Arctic Circle: to pass, that is, from a situation of total light to one of total absence of light.
We all got involved in this project, especially thanks to the moving story of that elderly woman who passed away just one day after having seen her contribution to the book…

This volume, the communications for Norway National Park, and the project for the visual identity of the Olympics in Oslo in 2020 are just a few of your recent works. The link with Norway is very strong: is it a way of expressing your connection to the Norwegian territory and Norwegian culture?
Let’s say that in general we tend to attract jobs that have to do with social responsibility, in one way or another. Where the national dimension is concerned, in the projects you have mentioned, it depends on the fact that the designers in the studio work more with local clients than the architects do. We have already done several projects for international organizations, though, like the OECD, and for various clients outside our national boundaries: one of our goals is definitely to implement internationalization in this specific sector of the studio as well. The fact remains that our typically Scandinavian ‘faith’ in an egalitarian society will always be the foundation of everything we do, and of the way we approach every new project.

But Snøhetta is an international studio, with offices outside of Norway: how can national identity be safeguarded in an age of globalization?
The unifying factor is the ‘culture’ you can absorb here, in our studio. In other words, it is our particular working method: I am referring to a horizontal organization that calls for putting the desks of the founding partners next to those of all the others, without hierarchy. Working side by side, using processes that are open to all, where the clients are also directly involved.
Whenever a project begins, composite teams are put together, where people of different nationalities, backgrounds, ages and genders can work together. Naturally we do not forget our Scandinavian roots, though we try not to limit design options in any way. Because the goal is always to avoid narrow perspectives, also from a geographical and cultural standpoint. We have never thought about closing ourselves inside the borders of a city, a region or a country.

Article Laura Ragazzola – Photos courtesy of Snøetta