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Odin Oyen collection

A page within Murphy Library

Carnegie Library, Mankato, Minnesota

The Wisconsin Historical Society, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and private collector Nicholas Passe have partnered together to make over 500 original designs and sketches produced by Odin J. Oyen and his firm freely available online. This digital collection demonstrates both the high quantity of the firm's work and its influence on interior design in the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century. In addition, Oyen's design process is documented not only through the presence of finished watercolor and oil presentation designs, but also by numerous ink and pencil cartoons, rough sketches, working drawings, transfer sketches, stencils, and other materials that were used to generate and refine artistic concepts and then to transfer the designs to the working surface.


Finkelstein & Ruben Theatre interior

Interior designer Odin J. Oyen was born in Trondheim, Norway, on May 21, 1865. After immigrating to the United States in 1870, the Oyen family settled in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1872. There, Oyen was an apprentice to a Madison artist, a Mr. Nelson, at the age of fourteen. In 1883, he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago and upon graduation settled in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 1888, Oyen joined Nelson's son Louis to form Nelson & Oyen. This association dissolved in 1890, but in 1892, Oyen formed a new business, Odin J. Oyen. During its heyday (1902-1917) the Oyen firm was in demand across the upper Midwest, employing between fifteen and twenty-five artisans specializing in buildings such as churches, hotels and clubs, hospitals, libraries, courthouses, schools, theaters, and breweries. The firm is perhaps best known for the murals and paintings its artists produced for such buildings. Image of La Crosse CourthouseAmong Oyen's best-known works are public libraries in La Crosse and Mankato, Minnesota; courthouses in La Crosse, Aberdeen (South Dakota), and Sibley (Iowa); and numerous theaters for the Finkelstein and Rubin chain. After Oyen's death in 1926, the firm continued under the management of his brother Louis and son Leighton Oyen, until Louis' death in 1931. The firm then continued under Leighton's management, but the Great Depression, coupled with changing tastes in interior decoration, caused the business to fold a few years later.


To learn more about the Wisconsin Historical Society holdings for Odin Oyen,  see the online finding aid.