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A Design Lover's Guide to Scandinavia's Under-the-Radar Art Cities

Some of Scandinavia’s most cutting-edge places for art and design lie outside the major cities, in the heart of the countryside.

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The galleries, design, and fashion of Scandinavian hubs like Oslo and Stockholm are much of the reason Nordic countries have such a reputation as leaders in the arts. The fact of the matter is design lovers could spend weeks touring the local furniture shops of Oslo, reveling in the galleries of Stockholm, and endeavoring to visit every high-end fashion boutique in Copenhagen, and still only barely scratch the surface. But delving further into these countries’ design offerings means leaving the major cities to explore under-the-radar artistic hubs. From southern Sweden to the far-out boroughs of Copenhagen, these lesser known Scandinavian cities offer authentic, cutting-edge design for locals and in-the-know travelers.

Here, our favorite under-the-radar art cities in Scandinavia:

Wanås, Sweden

Located on the grounds of a 16th-century castle and organic dairy farm in Skåne, Sweden, Wanås Konst features monumental pieces from Marina Abramović, Robert Wilson, and Jeppe Hein, to name a few. The art park was founded in 1987 by Marika Wachtmeister, a lawyer who married into the family that has presided over the rural estate for eight generations.

Today, it has a permanent collection of around 70 pieces, but it also hosts temporary exhibitions, artist talks, and dance performances. In addition, the property has a boutique hotel, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a design shop. But the highlight is still the art trail, which offers surprises around every corner, whether it’s the centuries-old stone wall into which Jenny Holzer has carved a different truism every few feet or Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s Alice in Wonderland– style tableau deep in the forest.

Umeå, Sweden

Umeå is where artists are educated and artists stay. Umeå Arts Campus, which encompasses Umeå School of Architecture, Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, and Umeå Institute of Design is arguably the epicenter of high-concept design in this northern Swedish city. The Arts Campus is the university’s most significant endeavor, the goal of which is to put Umeå on the global creative stage.

The must-visit art and design museum in Umeå can be found on the Arts Campus. The museum, Bildmuseet, is one of the most esteemed contemporary art museums in Sweden. Bildmuseet is a stunning architectural feat sitting on the banks of the Umeälven River. The seven-story building has abstract window placement capitalizing on the light coming off the river, and exteriors that include Siberian larch wood, which will deliberately fade to silver-gray as it ages.

Moss, Norway

A strategic shipping port dating back to the Viking era, the coastal city of Moss—just an hour south of Oslo—might seem like an unexpected place to discover world-class art. But for some time, it has been fertile ground for the creative class.

Edvard Munch moved there in 1913 and spent several years making some of his most famous paintings, including Workers on Their Way Home. These days, Moss is better known as the location for Momentum, the Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art, which highlights young Scandinavian artists. Previous themes include “Alienation,” with pieces exploring everything from the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Scandinavia to environmental issues.

Events for the biennial are typically held at Galleri F 15, opened in the 1960s. The gallery, which is set in a 19th-century farmhouse, is now part of Punkt Ø, an institution funded by the municipality. “I tap into the context of place, the landscape, and our history and architecture,” explains director Dag Aak Sveinar. For an Anish Kapoor exhibition, running until mid-October, Sveinar installed several pieces, such as Sky Mirror, outside, encouraging a dialogue with the landscape. “It’s not a white cube," he says. “It’s a habitat.”

Vesterbro, Copenhagen, Denmark

Vesterbro is technically part of Copenhagen, much in the way Brooklyn is a part of New York City. And yet, the most exciting boroughs of Copenhagen go unexplored by first-time visitors, simply because there’s so much to do in “K,” the city center. Vesterbro, as the name suggests, is the western borough of Copenhagen. Once an industrial district, Vesterbro is still considered the city’s meatpacking district, but is now also one of the most creative hubs in Denmark. You’ll find shared gallery and co-working spaces overrun by some of Denmark’s best artists and designers in this district.

Art lovers should visit V1 Gallery for their rotating exhibitions gaining global recognition, and Fotografisk Centre, a modern photography gallery. Both contemporary galleries radiate Nordic sophistication—with an edge. While gallery hopping in Vesterbro, design lovers should also be sure to pop into Gallery Poulsen and VESS.

Stavanger, Norway

An art city with industrial roots, Stavanger was a major player in the Norwegian petroleum industry. In fact, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum is still a major draw in Stavanger. This seaside city, the fourth largest in Norway, benefits from natural beauty and simultaneously offers a quaint Scandinavian town atmosphere and urban cultural relevance.

Sitting on Mosvatnet Lake, the Stavanger Art Museum is one of Norway’s hidden gems. First and foremost, the contemporary design of this museum is remarkable; visitors start in an enormous, clear glass dome with futuristic lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The 2,600-piece collection celebrates the art of noted 19th-century artist Lars Hertervig, and his work is joined by the talents of Edvard Munch, Kitty Kielland, and Christian Krohg. Don’t miss Broken Column, the permanent installation by Antony Gormley.

Bornholm, Denmark

A dot in the Baltic Sea between northern Germany and the southern tip of Sweden, Bornholm is a bucolic island of green fields, thatched-reed farmhouses, and gorgeous coastal cliffs. It is also renowned for its ceramics: Since the 19th-century, local artisans have been turning the island’s high-quality clay into terra-cotta vases and dishes at factories like the 150-year- old Hjorths Fabrik, still in operation and open for tours. You can also learn about the legacy of the Bornholm school—a group of painters who lived there in the early 1900s, inspired by the ethereal light—at the Bornholms Art Museum.

A whole new generation of artisans is now thriving, their creativity sparked by the island’s raw pastoral landscapes. There’s the recently opened Danish Ceramic Factory, a cooperative founded by 19 artists and designers, and Grøenbechs Gård, an exhibition space, and center for arts and crafts. There’s also a textile and glass-making scene, with emerging artists like Lise Eggers and Bente Hammer experimenting with techniques and forms.

Lappeenranta, Finland

It should first be noted that Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia. In actuality, Scandinavia only encompasses Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. However, Iceland and Finland are often associated with this area and visited in the same trip by virtue of geography. All this to say, Finland merits a presence on the tour of Scandi-design and art, and Lappeenranta provides a lot of historical context as a design destination. Lappeenranta is where artists create some of the country’s finest work, and it’s one of the Finnish destinations that attracts just as many tourists as it does locals.

Set on Lake Saimaa, it’s easy to understand why artistic inspiration strikes in such a naturally beautiful place. There’s a string of museums on Kristiinankatu, a street facing the water. Most notably, you’ll find the Lappeenranta Art Museum, housed in a neo-classical space built in 1798. Their collection starts in the 19th and first delves into the history of Finnish art, before demonstrating how old-world art has influenced Finnish contemporaries. While many of these under-the-radar art cities focus solely on contemporary Scandinavian design, Lappeenranta’s art is more rooted in Nordic heritage and the art that came from generations past.

Reporting by Gisela Williams and Maya Kachroo-Levine.


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