Proof of Beauty. In Conversation with Shinji Nakaba

Published: 01.01.2019
Shinji Nakaba, photo by Takehi Shindo. Shinji Nakaba, photo by Takehi Shindo.
Makiko Akiyama
Edited by:
Edited at:
Edited on:
Shinji Nakaba. Brooch: How dare pearl!, 2019. Carved pearl, stainless steel.. 4 x 1.1 x 1.3 cm. Photo by: Shinji Nakaba. Shinji Nakaba
Brooch: How dare pearl!, 2019
Carved pearl, stainless steel.
4 x 1.1 x 1.3 cm
Photo by: Shinji Nakaba
© By the author. Read Copyright.

On a chilly and rainy afternoon in November, I visited the studio-cum-house of Shinji Nakaba, the jewellery artist. He and his wife, Noriko, sat together at a kitchen table and we started our conversation. Among the questions I had prepared, the one I really wanted to ask was, what does it mean to be an artist in an uncertain time such as now? Certain kinds of things need to be retold again and again at different times and in different places and I believe that Shinji’s answer to this question is certainly one of them.

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You are known for carved pearl skulls but you use various materials as well, such as aluminium, iron and plastic bottles. Today, Id like to ask you what your idea is behind your artistic practice.
Shinji: To me, designing and making means working hard to get what I want. I feel more energetic when I work for myself rather than for others. In elementary school, I was told by teachers to weed a school ground or clean the classroom with other kids. I couldn’t stand it and really wanted to go home and play. This quality has never left me. When I grew up, I looked for work that would enable me to utilise my strength to have fun every day and live freely. The idea was rooted in the selfish part of me, which is the greatest source of energy. In other words, it is an ego, isn’t it?

You have just mentioned ego, but you said in one of your past interviews, I think ego could ultimately be beneficial. This remark left a strong impression on me.
Shinji: It is an important point for me. Although ego is often associated with being smug, it can be beneficial in the end. If I make something that I really want, there could be a person or two who really wants it as well. Who knows, the world is wide. It’s a positive way of seeing it, isn’t it? After all, I am trying to utilise my weak points instead of conquering them. To me, it means driving the nail home when I’m determined. I would paint hundreds or thousands of paintings if I wanted to be a painter.
And I might have been overvaluing myself, but I wondered what an odd body like me, with good taste and manual dexterity, would be like if he grew up in a hideaway and left amazing and innovative works that amazed people… This story looked appealing and I thought I might be able to make it come true. 

I think your creations have actually amazed people
Shinji: If so, I may have succeeded (laughs). But as I look back, my earlier pieces of jewellery lacked originality. I was wondering how long it would take to find my own voice.

Fairy Skulls, hand-carved pearls, various size, 2014, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

And you successfully achieved this, didnt you?
Shinji: As a kid, I was already interested in art and crafts and wanted to be a painter or sculptor. And my mother said I would need to study at the art university to make it come true. But it was too hard for me to give up something fun and study hard for it. I was really bad at preparing for the future and I still am. So when I was in high school, I shifted my focus to fashion, as clothing and crafts were my other interests. At that time, my mother was working as a dressmaker helping Kansai Yamamoto, a renowned fashion designer. I occasionally visited his studio as a delivery boy right before a runway show and saw the hustle and bustle. I was overwhelmed because it looked like an athletics club. Perhaps it was particular to Kansai, but it weakened my determination.

Thats why you decided to go to a beauty college?
Shinji: Yes. I entered a beauty college as I wanted to do work that would connect fashion, art and manual work together. But all the classroom learning and practical training were packed into one year so it was just like an apprentice system, which took me by surprise as I had expected more freedom. I finally graduated but it required an extra three months.
At that time, I just wanted to become rich, lead an easy life and attract girls, so my motives were impure. Later on, I came to think it was fine because I learned from my many experiences and books that if you pursue your desires, it is a good way to discover what you really need. That’s what a book on Buddhism said as well. Being selfish and having strong likes and dislikes can bring you extra troubles, but everything turned out alright in the end, so I’m glad I kept on making and exploring, even though it stemmed from impure motives and nonsense.

You have been entirely honest to yourself. It sounds ideal if you and your work are accepted as a result of it.
Shinji: I wouldn't be so sure about that… because when I found out what I really wanted, I quit my job the next day. What do you think about such a person? Anyway, in terms of how people accept my work, it looks promising to me. In the past, it appeared that only about five out of five hundred people liked my work, but now I feel that half of them do. It is encouraging. I wonder how and why people’s perception has changed like this over the years.

Skulls and snakes appear quite often in your work. There are people who are uncomfortable with these motifs but some say that the ones in your work are exceptions. It is weird to ask you this, but can you tell me why your work attracts these people?
Shinji: I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I don’t like cameos. And some customers say they don’t like cameos either, but they like the ones I make. My intention, however, is not to carve cameos but to create wearable sculptures. Initially, cameos were girlish depictions of a maiden’s profile to me or cheap souvenirs. However, I was impressed when I first saw antique cameos. It was 1974 when I started jewellery making at Hiko Mizuno College of Jewelry. I began to look at antiquities and this opened my eyes to antique jewellery as well. I was amazed by techniques which I’d never seen before; for example, how pine resin filled the back of a hammered thin metal brooch and how rivets and bolts were used to fix small parts. They were thought-provoking and made me wonder, Is it okay to make it like this? or Does it work?

Face Ring, carved Rock Crystal, 18K gold, 2003, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

Do you mean you found both unexpected and unfettered expressions in antique jewellery?
Shinji: I saw a lot of them and knew the variety of techniques and materials, as well as unfettered expressions. They were completely dissimilar from the mainstream jewellery of the time, namely platinum or gold conventional jewellery set with precious gems.

To me, the supreme carver is Carl Fabergé from the Tsarist period. I’ve never seen his work in person, but I felt a strong sensation when I first saw his mastery in a book. I thought This is it! He made animal-shaped sculptures along with jewellery. It is said that his source of inspiration was Japanese netsuke, but the rich details put his opus in a class of his own. I was not impressed with a carved crystal Buddhist statue I saw at Yamanashi, but I could feel the potential of glyptic in Fabergé’s work. It became my goal to make glyptic jewellery as a result and it motivated me to study further. I went to Yamanashi to see gem carving there and walked around second-hand bookstores for publications about glyptic jewellery.

It looks like a push-back against traditions and conventions, combined with a respect for an antiquities and craftsmanship. Isnt that a contradiction for you?
Shinji: I want both tradition and innovation and it is not a contradiction. It is widely said that new ideas are born when we look to the past. Instead of going to an art university, I went to libraries and pored over the pages of various styles of art. I’m interested in styles from the Greek era, the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Rococo. In a way, they are all forms to stick to. Otherwise, you would look irrelevant. In Art Nouveau, doing something new within the style is important. Working in a vacuum and just trying to do something bizarre can end up as just a shallow expression.

As I studied each period’s style, I realised that working within a style empowers an artist to achieve twice or three times more than they could by sticking to their own skill. It amplifies your innate talent and enables you to make something enduring. Solely discussing an individual artist from a certain period of time doesn’t make sense, because the artist owes their success to how his/her approach resonates with the period style.

I learned these things visually through pictures and antique markets. For example, I started by collecting the images of Lalique’s and Gallé’s works and then learned their names later. People usually learn their names and the year of the event, but there is little point in this because every movement or practice follows the same path. After the initial excitement and mannerisms, it ends up in a quarrel. The most important thing is to wonder why and how such beautiful objects were made. The initial intention could be nonsense, but all the works stem from the excitement of the artist, who believes the creation will have the power to solve problems and make everyone happy. That’s how new masterpieces are born and then stay with us.

Can you define any movement in this era?
Shinji: This might be what everyone says, but I think we are in a design age. But, among the other art sectors, I see the greatest commitment to contemporary jewellery.

Pearl Boy ring, Carved pearl, 18k gold, urushi, 2018, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

Which aspect of contemporary jewellery makes you think that way?
Shinji: It constantly progresses and has an attitude that communicates a certain value. A baton was successfully passed from the Bauhaus advocators and modernists to artists, such as Herman Jünger in the 60s and 70s, while also broadening perspective and awareness, which is outstanding. I think contemporary jewellery has grown and is now comparable to the Arts and Crafts movement.

For a long time, there have been examples of jewellery that emanated from mainstream fine art. It is a form of applied art. But now the opposite is happening – contemporary jewellery can influence painters, sculptors and architects. It has positioned itself in specialist galleries, but now there are different ways to look at it, and I’m not sure if these galleries will need a new strategy as a result. Yet, contemporary jewellery is now influential and acknowledged as an art form, despite its small scale.

Jewellery is an excellent way to communicate and spread a new view and way of thinking. In other words, a new culture. My father used to buy jewellery with the latest design for my mother and it would excite the entire family. In that sense, jewellery can be the first contact that many people have with a new culture. Jewellery resides in both museums and the world of commerce. This aspect interests me because the duality embodies how jewellery combines both the sacred and the profane.

I think a lot of contemporary jewellers have a complicated feeling about it.
Shinji: I think everybody has a complicated feeling about positioning themselves between working with museums or galleries for artistic expression and building your career in a market. Some prioritise the former and others the latter, and more and more makers are doing both. Also, contemporary jewellery artists have started to promote and revitalise the field. I think it is very nice.

How do you position yourself?
Shinji: I started jewellery making because it is the sector where art, fashion and craft all crossover, and artists can handle the entire process alone. On top of this, I thought it would enable me to make a living, which was my top priority. In other words, I was looking for an unfettered way of life. It was the late 60s when the hippie movement was arising and young people were eager to be independent, rather than be part of the establishment. This climate motivated me to make and sell jewellery myself. Although this looked to be out of step and uncommon in contemporary jewellery, I regarded myself as an artist. To me, these two aspects are compatible.

Carved Body Parts jewelry. Work in progress. photo: Moto Nakaba.

Carved Body Parts
jewelry. Carved shell (helmet shell), silver 925, various size, 2015, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

How did you ensure that you had sales outlets at that time?
Shinji: After graduating from a jewellery college, I sold my jewellery through my acquaintances’ shops. One of these shops was my mother’s client and…

Noriko: He found me there (laughs). I was a salesperson.

Shinji: That’s how we first met. After getting married, she continued the job for a while but eventually…

Noriko: I started to sell Shinji’s jewellery. I’ve been doing it over the decades.

Shinji: She has compensated for what I have lacked. Without her, I wouldn't be who I am now. 

Noriko: After all, I absolutely love his work. Probably, that’s why I could do it.

Shinji: When I was working with various jewellery shops after graduation, I handled all kinds of commissions, making gold and platinum jewellery, as well as silver rings with given stones. I worked like crazy.

Noriko: It was in the 70s and the beginning of the 80s.

Shinji: It was the days of my jewellery making spree and I had no time to think. A lot of the works then were conventional jewellery and had nothing to do contemporary jewellery. I came to sell my works directly to customers only after I got married.

Noriko: I became his salesperson when our daughter turned four. I was sure his works would sell. I brought them to Tupperware parties and, in fact, they sold well. At that time, people were more eager to get something interesting and different than they are now.

Shinji: We continued this until 1992 and then concluded that it was important for me to have my own shop so that I could sell what I want – jewellery with a new vibe. I showed my work to several gallerists but their primal focus was craftsmanship, so every single part needed to be perfect. On the other hand, jewellery that used discarded products was starting to be seen all over the world.

Le Serpent Noir ring, hand forged & carved stainless steel, 2016, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

That's how you started to use alternative materials?
Shinji: Yes. In 1992, I began to use pierced plywood, wires and irons, as well as aluminium and iron cans. My first aluminium can piece was a flower petal. It was a test piece for silverwork, but it looked better than the silver one. My goal is to make something stylish that goes well with today’s fashion. In other words, I am constantly looking for fresh beauty. After I had used both metals and alternative materials, regardless of their monetary value, I realised that treating them equally was the key to creating the beauty that I wanted.

This idea can be found in contemporary jewellery. But my belief was slightly different because I thought my mission was to provide evidence that jewellery can make people happy, enrich our lives and renew ourselves. Providing theoretical knowledge doesn’t work. You really need tangible and visible evidence that a single piece of jewellery can make it impossible to return to your old self. For example, a person who came into my shop in an old coat looked completely different and new when she wore my piece. I don’t deny the power of words because they can make a piece look and sound much more attractive, but I believe that physical evidence beats any theory.

That’s my mission. I don’t think I’m an aestheticist but beauty must come first. To me, beauty needs to be fresh, and if it has a certain principle, it can move people. To go further, I suppose that the works of artists contain an epitome or blueprint that shows a way to make us happy. Perhaps that’s why a work of art never ceases to exist. It has never been a mere visual pleasure.

I remember Yoko Ono once said that art is a way of survival. I don’t know what that really means but art to me is a guidepost for human survival. I saw the development of contemporary art and noticed that the horizon had broadened and now people were finding beauty in what they had hitherto regarded otherwise. It may be an odd way to put it but, for me, it meant that what had not sold before was now selling. Like I said earlier, as the number of people who appreciate my work rises from one out of a thousand to about five hundred out of a thousand, I can make it my job. What people value is constantly changing.

Therefore, from my experience, I can say the good side has increased more than the bad side over the years. If a society or economic system hits the wall, there should be the next phase behind it. Then, breaking the wall creates a real sensation that makes us believe we can survive. How we interpret and apply this to society is a different matter, but I believe we first feel beauty intuitively. And that’s what I meant by saying beauty is a guidepost for human survival. In that sense, I think beauty is needed in order to overcome various obstacles in society, such as the economic issue, divisions in society and coexistence.

Carved pearls (work in progress) on the artist’s workbench, 2018, photo: Makiko Akiyama.

The artist working at his workbench, 2018, photo: Makiko Akiyama.

Therefore, can you say that art is needed most in turbulent times like now?
Shinji: Yes. To me, art shows us a way of overcoming and surviving the obstacles or of creating a society where the younger generation can bring out their real strength. People might be using the word art without realising these things. Even so, paintings and sculptures with fresh beauty can inspire us and give us clues. I became convinced of this belief after seeing various kinds of artworks.

This is another reason why I want to have both the sacred and the profane in my work because I believe that something essential is supposed to combine both of these opposing qualities. Problems arise when we try and separate them. I don’t intend to encourage people to do something bad by saying this. Through my jewellery making, I want to know what brings pleasure to us as animals and creatures. I occasionally use erotic motifs for that purpose. I want to reproduce an attractive part of the body, as well as leaves and flowers. I want to make things which should not be made public or things that are problematic to me. Capturing the astonishing beauty that is found in the penis or butt and making it into a piece of art requires ingenuity as I need to avoid misconception. But I admit it is a part of me.

Its problematic because the feeling is intuitive, not logical.
Shinji: Exactly. And this act also provides evidence, as I mentioned earlier. Making works that are free from conventional thinking and standards, realising a new type of beauty, pleasure or taste, going beyond a fixed notion, or coming to see the world in a different way – all of these acts might look unacceptable at first, but I think that’s what art is about.

I might be stretching the concept too far but making nice jewellery from trash or waste is the same thing as developing someone’s talent. A kid can do poorly at school but you can find value in his/her other strengths. This attitude is desirable and necessary for school teachers but nowadays they are too busy and can easily flunk students if they don’t show progress in a year. They regard the student as being lazy but they should, instead, find a way to cultivate the kid’s skills. He/she might have the potential of a gold mine or an oilfield. But I cannot make myself understood by only saying, ‘Hey, my work will make a better society’. I need to provide something concrete, visible and believable.

Giving financial support for art education and projects is said to be decreasing worldwide.
Shinji: It is not just about losing hopes or dreams. It means the end of the nation, as it inhibits the possibility of unique products, new designs, and innovations. I think experts should give a warning about this. A human being is calculating and needs to rely on the economy, so you need something tangible that proves, for example, how innovations can secure a hot bath for a lot of people. Spending money on art may look like an extravagance but people should know that not doing so will destroy the country. Jewellery can carry this message. An author of a book on modernist jewellery said that jewellery can communicate a new culture and value, which led me to think that my jewellery should open up innovation. It is nice to see my work in museums, but it is more important to push the limit of jewellery in the world of commerce.

You said earlier that you had your own shop. I suppose it was a perfect space to both communicate your value and place your work into the world of commerce.
Shinji: At that time, my work sold well but I was getting bored of my working method. Instead, I wanted a way to show something new with a different value. Also, I realised that owning my own shop would enable me to explain the jewellery-making process to my clients in person. For example, sometimes I left the backside and edges unpolished because perfecting these areas can double the price. Generally, this was unacceptable but I could explain it in my shop, and if the client was fine, it was fine. It was a reasonable solution because it made the work modern while keeping the prices low. This approach matched my aim, which was to fit in with the times and look nice on the streets. I had regular clients who were happy to accept this idea. One day, I came up with an idea for a brooch in the morning and finished it in only a few hours. When I brought it to my shop, one of my clients immediately found the brooch and bought it as if she’d been waiting for it.

Noriko: Running a shop was very hard, though; just finding a space for it involved a lot of work as we needed to look around locations. But I enjoyed it very much – it was like doing a solo show every day for six years.

Omnia Vanitas neckpiece, carved pearl, stainless steel, 2017, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

I learned that you regularly took part in an antique bazaar after closing your shop in 1998.
Shinji: A department store in Tokyo called PRINTEMPS GINZA used to hold a quarterly antique bazaar. I was not sure if modern work would be accepted there but I asked the person in charge anyway.

Noriko: We owned antiquities ourselves and thought that working among their dealers would be interesting.

Shinji: In the end, they permitted us to participate on the condition that we notified people that the works had been made now. Among these works, I created a ‘collaboration’ between antique jewellery and me — for example, I reworked a cameo with a damaged edge and set it with a newly constructed frame. At first, we thought that antique dealers would not accept us but it turned out these people liked my works very much.

Noriko: They became our customers. We were happy because they had a good eye for quality. Their reaction encouraged us to move on after we'd closed the shop.

I think it is rare for contemporary jewellers to have an experience of taking part in an antique jewellery market.
Shinji: My career may have been different because my goal was to make a living. Some people recommended that I work with galleries but their audience is limited. PRINTEMPS GINZA afforded me the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life who you wouldn’t find in contemporary jewellery.  

Noriko: At a department store, shoppers who were browsing through the floor could become long-time customers. We still invite them to exhibitions and they actually come to visit us. We continued to engage in the quarterly market, and a while later, one of the dealers invited Shinji to go to New York. It was September 2001.

Shinji: I walked around the entire city for about 10 days and saw a number of galleries. But I couldn’t find one for contemporary jewellery, so I was about to give up. The initial return date was September 12. And the day before, I was heading to Soho when the disaster happened. I didn’t witness the actual site but saw the survivors who were all white with dust. And when I got on a bus, passengers were calming down a woman who was crying and saying her sister was in the building…

I needed to stay longer in the city. When I was idling in Central Park, I suddenly remembered that a friend of mine had advised me to go to a certain area on Madison Avenue. As I arrived there, I immediately spotted a window decorated with wearable arts and clothing. It was Julie: Artisans’ Gallery. Upon seeing my works, one of the gallery staff said, “Incredible!” and they asked me to come back the next day so that Julie Dale, the gallery owner and author of Art to Wear, could see my works. Unfortunately, she closed the gallery in 2013. She decided to stock my works but they didn't sell for several months due to the city’s disastrous situation. But, finally, in May 2012…

Noriko: Julie told us Shinji’s works had sold!

Aluminum KIKU brooch, aluminium, stainless steel, 2017, photo: Shinji Nakaba.

Shinji: It was great news. Somebody in New York liked what I'd made. A while later, I visited Julie with my new collection, along with some aluminium flowers. The latter was meant to be a gift because the flowers had sharp edges and I thought they would be unsellable under the strict product liability law in the United States. So I was surprised when she said she would stock the flowers and actually sold them. The same piece was unmarketable at PRINTEMPS GINZA, though it was favoured by some. But people in New York were ready to invest in bold jewellery if the piece was cutting-edge and matched their own fashion style as a self-expression tool. In that sense, the city helped us a lot. Even a huge aluminium brooch sold. Compliments are encouraging but the sustainability of artistic creation really depends on the sales.

In 2005, I couldn’t see there being any further possibility in the antique bazaar and so I decided to do a solo exhibition twice a year from 2006. But I retained face-to-face communication with the visitors and that probably enabled me to stay in business. If you leave everything to a gallery, you don’t know who buys your work. Conversations with visitors and customers have always encouraged me to think more, think bigger and be more interesting. It has probably been my driving force. I don’t deny that working with galleries has a beneficial side to it. And so I started to work with a gallery in Boston after Julie closed her space. It afforded me an opportunity to participate in a group show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston because its curator found my cameo in the gallery and decided to include it in an exhibition that was scheduled for 2017.

Noriko: The exhibition ran through to August this year.

Shinji: Yes. It continued for an entire year and traced jewellery’s history from ancient times to now by juxtaposing both past and modern works. For example, it featured David Bielander’s python necklace to show how the snake motif has developed. And my cameo was introduced as a successor to the tradition of Greek sculpture.

That’s how I paved my way. Currently, most of my works are made-to-order. I check my email in the morning and start to work in my studio at around 1 pm and have no holidays. But the fact that I can keep making it to this day and that my work continues to delight a lot of people is… 

Noriko: Amazing. Especially, given the fact that these orders are coming from all over the world.

Shinji: They are email orders. The Internet is an ideal tool for makers. The online transaction has now replaced the bank transfer and check. And the amount of information has increased remarkably.

Noriko: Online tools have made contemporary jewellery visible to the public.

Shinji: I see a great awareness that enlivens the field. A large number of artists are using SNS, such as Instagram, to promote this kind of jewellery. Until recently, galleries handled everything and that was considered usual, so artists couldn’t be bothered to promote themselves. Now the situation is completely different. I think it is vital for young people to develop their skills through a new way of self-expression.

Shinji Nakaba and Noriko Nakaba, Exhibition MATERIALISM 2013 at Hiko Mizuno Jewellery College, Photo: Zoher Miha.

Currently, it looks like an artist is required to show their works themselves, including what kind of person he/she is.
Shinji: Of course, there is a negative side. Too much information entails the risk that people will consume everything without digesting it. However, we cannot go back to the world without computers and it has surely made the world more enjoyable. At the same time, you need to be resolute because you might be tempted to copy something when you see a good design. Having said that, I copied like crazy when I was young…

I guess you did it as a part of your learning process.
Shinji: Yes. I would copy the best part and expression of the best historic cameos to master glyptic. It is the quickest way to learn. Mastery can’t be achieved in a vacuum and you need to learn from your forerunners. But now, mere copies can go public. Makers should first achieve an original expression through copying before they present their work to the public. Copycats, however, can be easily spoilt because plagiarism can earn a lot of "likes" on SNS if it is done under their names. I don’t see it in the field of contemporary jewellery but I have my doubts about this tendency.

Information circulates more quickly and widely on the Internet and SNS, which is convenient for copycats.
Shinji: That’s right. That's why they don't understand what they are doing is wrong. Nonetheless, I personally think the positive side of this is greater than the negative side. Although some people say too much information can confuse you, the benefits overweigh the negative aspects. It connects people who have the same ideas and provides an opportunity for dialogue. That’s what you brought here today and why we are having a conversation like this. It was nice talking to you in person.

Thank you very much.

Moon Cat ring, hand-carved acrylic block, stainless steel, 2012, photo: Shinji Nakaba.


About the Interviewee

Shinji Nakaba. Born in 1950, Kanagawa, Japan. Started jewellery making in 1974 after doing fashion(design & dressmaking), hairdressing, shoemaking and graphic design. Makes jewellery as wearable sculptures and has participated in exhibitions, including solo shows. His recent exhibitions include Past Is Present: Revival Jewelry (2017-2018, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a solo show, and Black Garden (2016, Lucite Gallery, Tokyo). His materials range from precious metals and gems to everyday objects, such as aluminium beer cans, plastic bottles, discarded materials. He treats all materials equally, regardless of their monetary value and brings out their potential and beauty in order to give them a new life as jewellery. His ongoing artistic practice is based on his daily study of his passion, glyptic, one of the oldest jewellery-carving techniques. His work is included in the collections of various institutes, such as The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

About the author

Makiko Akiyama. Writer and translator. Born in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. In 2013 launched a newsletter for Japanese readers featuring translated articles about art jewelry. Contributing writer for klimt02, Current Obsession, Art Jewelry Forum, and Norwegian Crafts.