When visitors flocked to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May, there was no doubting that the star attractions came from Norway. Four of the Scandinavian kingdom's top designers - Fora Form, Varier Furniture, Aksel Hansson and Mokasser - contributed to the show, with their eye-catching, avant garde pieces drawing plenty of attention. While Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a GDP of US$247.4 billion heavily boosted by oil and gas production which accounts for one third of all exports, it is also making its presence felt in global markets with its creativity and human resources. Norway has not always enjoyed such fiscal pre-eminence. During the Dark Ages it was chiefly known in Europe for the raids launched by the Vikings, though these petered out when King Olav Tryggvason converted to Christianity in 994 AD. After being allied to both Denmark and Sweden over the subsequent centuries, Norway became fully independent in 1905. Its population numbers less than 5 million. However, more than a few Norwegians have made their mark in the world: Roald Amundsen was the first man to reach both the North and South Poles; Roald Dahl's books have delighted children and adults for generations; many regard Edvard Grieg as a truly ground-breaking composer, and Henrik Ibsen as an unparalleled dramatist; Edvard Munch's The Scream has become an icon of the expressionist school of painting, and Liv Ullman is an enduring icon of the silver screen. It was only in the 1960s when substantial oil and gas reserves were discovered in offshore waters that Norway started its rise to prosperity. The country exports more than 3 million barrels of oil a day, only being outstripped by Saudi Arabia and Russia. And while having decided in a 1994 referendum to remain outside the European Union (EU), Norway is still a member of the European Economic Area, and makes a sizeable contribution to the EU budget. Much of Norway's wealth is sunk into its social welfare system, financed by high taxes but allowing all the country's citizens free health care, schooling and many other benefits, while unemployment hovers at around 2 per cent. The top rate for income tax is 54.3 per cent, while value-added tax is assessed at 25 per cent. However, there are reduced rates for food, transport, cinemas, public broadcasting and hotel accommodation. While the average monthly pay is around 33,100 kroner (HK$44,000), workers are left with only a moderate disposable income after direct and indirect tax deductions. Both capital gains and corporation tax are rated at 28 per cent, while oil companies pay an extra flat rate of 50 per cent on income resulting from the extraction, processing and transport of oil. Large-scale state enterprises control key areas, such as petroleum, although the government is moving ahead with privatisation. Oil production peaked in 2000, but natural gas production is still rising, and the Government Petroleum Fund - valued at more than US$250 billion - has been invested abroad against the time when mineral reserves diminish. Norway's other major revenue earners include hydropower, fish, forests and minerals, which give rise to a solidly healthy manufacturing industry. Based in Oslo, Hydro is the world's third-largest integrated aluminium supplier to the automotive, transport and building industries. Its extensive capacity and know-how has allowed it to take pole position in such areas as car safety devices, delivering some 7.5 million aluminium bumper beams to carmakers worldwide in 2006. Hydro also manufactures the crash box, a major step forward in vehicle safety design. Both inexpensive and easily replaceable, crash boxes help prevent damage to a car's body in medium-speed impacts, which makes significant reductions in repair and insurance costs. Newspaper readers all over the world may not realise the strong possibility that the paper in their hands may have come from a Norwegian forest. Norske Skog runs 18 paper mills in Norway and around the globe, managing a newsprint and magazine paper market of about 60 million tonnes. The company's main Norwegian mill is the nation's largest producer of newsprint, and one of the most productive in Europe, using twin wire paper machines and modern thermo-mechanical pulping, which provide the paper with an increased range of brightness to printed images. More than 200 different species of fish and shellfish inhabit the waters off the 2,200km-long coastline, providing an estimated 27 million meals a day around the world. While fishing is a highly traditional industry, Norway has pioneered the development of modern aquaculture, with both the government and the industry itself fully aware that future growth in seafood exports depends on sustainable fishing and aquaculture production. Since the early 1970s, Norway has been a pioneer in salmon farming, with researchers improving genetic stocks, developing new types of feed and feeding technology, and investigating fish behaviour, health and well-being. Norway has also worked on developing and expanding the aquaculture market for cod, halibut, and a range of other marine species, along with tropical freshwater fish, such as tilapia, for farming in developing countries. One of Norway's most visible products is its knitted woollen sweaters, a tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years. The long, curling fibres of Norwegian wool are ideal for keeping out the cold, and enhanced by intricate patterns and designs, sweaters have become one of the country's most distinguished exports. One of the best known manufacturers is Dale of Norway, founded by Peter Jebsen in 1879, which started making sweaters for the Norwegian national ski team in 1956. Dale became an official licensee at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and its designs will be emblazoned on sweaters at the next winter Games in 2010 in Vancouver.