Norwegian Design Students Create Rehabilitative Prison Furniture

BERGEN, Norway — Watch out Ikea! Some young Norwegians are making headway with a captive audience that the popular furniture empire has yet to consider — inmates.

As part of a showcase in the Stockholm Furniture Fair this past February (2017), design students from the prestigious Institute of Design at the University of Bergen in Norway created chairs, lamps, beds and other elements with a practical emphasis on inmate comfort and relaxation, which aligns with the Nordic nation’s rehabilitative approach to corrections.

The students’ innovations continue to reverberate through design circles and are leading many to question how environmental factors such as furniture design ultimately impact the inmate experience and whether or not it can help reduce recidivism.

The penal system in Norway differs from that in the U.S. thanks to a mandate to adhere to what the Norwegian government terms its “principle of normality in the Correctional Services,” which includes the provision that “during the serving of a sentence, life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible,” according to the Norwegian Correctional Services website. In Norway, the number of people released from prison who re-offend within two years is 20 percent. In the U.S., within three years of release, 68 percent of released inmates are re-arrested, according to the National Institute of Justice.

But can a design-centric couch really reduce recidivism? Norway’s Correctional Services thinks design makes a difference and asked the third-year design students to produce furniture uniquely suited for use either in prison facilities and transitional housing, or based on manufacturing techniques that could be achieved by the inmates themselves within prison workshops.

The results became something of a cause célèbre with many international design publications cheering the students’ efforts as both aesthetic and functional triumphs. Among the breakout designers was Frid Smelvær Høgelid, whose Nami daybed features a bench-like sleeping surface with a movable cushion that creates a curved, S-shaped space to accommodate the lower back and raise the legs.

“The designers instilled the notion of rehabilitation into their furniture design,” wrote Ivanha Paz in her blog for design trend consultancy PSFK. “Even the chairs meant for halfway houses or correctional facilities take into consideration that re-entering society after a long stint in prison is a difficult process that can generate high levels of anxiety and pose a means to decompress.”