Small island, big heart: The rise of design on Iceland
Wraparound blanket designed by Vík PrjónsdóttirGudfinna Mjöll Magnúsdóttir, one of the founders of the Icelandic knitwear producer Vík Prjónsdóttir thinks the reason behind this is fairly simple. “It´s such a short time since we were a very poor farmers’ nation. People were just trying their best to survive in the harsh nature, being cold and hungry… Sorry it’s a bit of a depressing answer.” But being a small population also has its upsides. “It´s easier to connect to people. Shorter ways to things. You can also spread the word faster and have an impact on society. I would also say it´s a benefit (as it can be a challenge) that we do not have a longer design history. We do not have any label so far on Icelandic design,” continues Gudfinna Mjöll Magnúsdóttir.
Glass heart by Studio Sigga Heimis for Vitra Design Museum. Studio Sigga Heimis is a small design studio that aims to collaborate with colleagues in other parts of the world.Halla Helgadóttir, Managing Director of Iceland Design Centre explains how the term design came about in 1950: “The word hönnun comes from old Icelandic/Norse and is drawn from the name Hannarr that means “the skilled one”. Icelandic design is fairly young as culturally we are a nation that has based its livelihood on fisheries, farming and later geothermal energy. The nations that have been most advanced in design have in common that they have little natural resources, good craftsmanship and creative approaches in production and business like Denmark, Holland, Italy and Japan.”
Close to natureThis lack of natural resources can of course be a drawback. There are no endless supplies of wood to create furniture from like in Sweden and Finland. But the Icelanders have turned this lack of materials into something positive, a need to work with what you have – like this table made from lava from Bility. Other solutions include working with fish-skin and bones, local wool, and recycled plastic and paper. The ecological thinking is central to many young designers, and the lack of new materials instead a welcome challenge. “Yes, the lack of materials and having a small population can be challenging, but also a benefit, says Guðrún Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir from design consultancy and online shop Bility. “You use what you have and are then more inventive with the possibilities and resources. Iceland is not that far away so we can always reach out for materials. Also if you need to manufacture something locally it is very easy to contact the local factories/craftsmen to make things.”
Posters in Reykjavik welcoming visitors to the DesignMarch event“Iceland has been developing its design scene for the last 10-20 years,” says managing director Halla Helgadóttir. “The foundation of the Iceland Design Centre is one feature of the flourishing of Icelandic design today. This is largely attributable to the establishment of the Iceland Academy of the Arts in 1998, and shortly afterwards its Faculty of Architecture and Design, which has produced designers whose influences are closer to Icelandic reality than previous generations, who studied abroad. So Iceland now has an abundance of promising young local designers, who have imbued the design environment with new life, characterised by curiosity, optimism and daring.”
Visitors to DesignMarch check out upcoming trends“There has been quite a change since the Iceland Design Centre started in 2008,” continues Halla Helgadóttir. “All the design disciplines work together here and that makes our voice much stronger, architects, fashion, graphics and products all united. DesignMarch has grown to become an annual international event, but even a year after it was started (in 2010) up to 30.000 Icelanders partook.” Put in the perspective that there are 332,000 people on Iceland, that is a substantial part of the population that is interested in the design business and practice.
Casa G vacation house by Gudmundur Jonsson Architects.Photo: Bragi thor JosefssonBut what about the architecture? How do people on Iceland live? Architect Gudmundur Jonsson who works both in Norway and Iceland says: “The living conditions are rather good in general but there is a class-difference mostly defined between the younger generation and the older generation. This is mainly due to the bank crisis in 2008. Younger people have difficulties in coming into the real estate market.” Taryn Hall and founder Sigfinnur Fannar Sigurdsson from ísARK Studio in Austin, Texas explains why single family housing is unusual in the capital Reykjavik. “Land is precious and valuable. At the studio we more likely to work onsingle Summer homes outside the capital region than a single family primaryhome.” As can be seen in the Casa G vacation house above, huge windows are popular, something that can be explained by the low energy costs – Iceland is cold, but with geothermal energy, heating the house and water is comparatively cheap. ...
Vacation home on Iceland by ísARK Studio“Heated floors and open windows are specifically Icelandic,” says Taryn Hall. “Energy is cheap(er) in Iceland due to water power and a fresh breeze through the home is very important. The Icelandic water facets in every home also has two different sources of water – the glacial run-off (drinking water) and the naturally hot water (temperatures are regulated though). The hot water has a distinctly sulphuric smell, in fact people from around the world come to treat skin ailments with it. Hot tubs and swimming pools are very important in Iceland but every community has one so most people don’t put one in there homes. Despite it being a cold place, people are not insular or closed off.”
Farmhouse near Akureyri in the north of the island, set against the grand Icelandic nature. The financial crisis of 2008 hit Iceland particularly hard, but even this some of the hardy islanders have turned into a positive. “I would say lack of tradition can be a huge benefit, being young and free of big names gives designers here a clean canvas to work with,” says Halla Helgadóttir. “In the atmosphere of the financial crisis in 2008 the interest and focus on design, creatives, startups and innovation became very strong here. So like someone said: ‘Never waste a good crisis’.
Artwork promoting the Design Festival held in Reykjavik in March 2016So when will the next big name in the design world have plenty of umlauts and unexpected accents? Judging by how internationally outlooking young Icelanders are we won’t have to wait long.“The world today is international. Of course when you live in Iceland you are a bit isolated but thankfully we are well connected through the internet and people travel a lot,” says Gudfinna Mjöll Magnúsdóttir from Vík Prjónsdóttir. “I think it´s great that young design students go abroad to study, but I also think it’s really good for students to be able to study in their home country so they understand the main challenges and opportunities in their closest environment.” Something this island excels in, and could well teach the rest of the world valuable lessons about.