Austurland: Designs from Nowhere


26 April 2014

Austurland is the easternmost region of Iceland. It's a rugged area, but this is hardly surprising – all of Iceland is rugged, formed as it is from lava fields, geysers, glaciers and tundra, and surrounded on all sides by the North Atlantic Ocean.

Throughout the area there are mountains and fjords, punctuated by occasional fishing communities, each tied to a particular inlet. Austurland has an area of 20,000km2, yet a population of just 12,500. It means there is one Icelander for every 1.6 km2 of land. By contrast, London houses around 5,000 people per km2. But Austurland is a spartan region with spartan resources, labour among them. Even simple materials like wood are relatively rare: the region's Hallormsstaðaskógur forest – Iceland's largest at 1854 hectares – only began serious reforestation in the 1950s.1

Austurland is not an obvious site for design to develop. Yet a project displayed during Iceland’s recent DesignMarch festival ran counter to this thought. Austurland: Designs from Nowhere, was an examination of the region’s design potential. Still showing at Reyjkavik’s Spark Design Space – and featuring contributions from international designers Thorunn Arnadottir, Max Lamb, Julia Lohmann and Gero Grundmann – Designs from Nowhere is both a display of product designs and a research project into the production capacity of a region beset by ghost towns and deprived of traditional raw materials. It is a sizeable undertaking.

Even getting to Austurland there can be difficult. To reach the region you travel along the Route 1 ring road – Þjóðvegur – in Icelandic, which encircles the island. It is a two lane carriageway, with numerous sections that close in winter due to poor weather. Even in clement weather it takes around 10 hours to drive between Reykjavik in the southwest and Egilsstaðir, the largest town in Austurland. It's easier to fly.

Egilsstaðir is rugged like its home region. Despite its status as Austurland’s largest community, it has just 2,265 residents. It's a small number, but nonetheless an increase on the 1,637 citizens who lived there in 1998. What is surprising is that the town has grown at all; many nearby communities have shrunk. In the 1980s and 1990s Austurland had a reputation for craft, but this identity has long since faded, stripped away by large-scale projects like the construction of the region’s Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant. The scheme encouraged migration to the region, but the trend reversed sharply after the 2008 economic collapse. Depopulation is now a major problem, with many young Austurlanders moving to Reykjavik at the first chance. The capital’s 121,230 citizens now account for just over a third of the nation’s total population. There is little to tie people to the east.

Max Lamb exploring the area around Djúpivogur

This is the context in which Austurland: Designs from Nowhere took place. Initiated by the British curator Pete Collard and visual artist Karna Sigurðardóttir, the project invited designers Arnadottir, Lamb, Lohmann and Grundmann to collaborate with craftspeople in Austurland. Each designer was asked to develop production pieces using the area’s native raw materials and industry, works that would then be manufactured by the local communities and sold by Spark in Reykjavik.

Crafted from netting, stone, seaweed, antler and driftwood, the finished objects range from train sets cut from reindeer antler, to fishing rope skipping ropes. They are small scale products, yet nonetheless provide an indication of how Austurland might diversify beyond its traditional fishing industry in the future. "Design is a commercial enterprise and this is trying to reflect that on a very small scale," says Collard. "We’re not going to revolutionise the industry of the area, but this was a mapping exercise and we hope it’s a catalyst. We hope it makes people look around them and consider including design in planning for the future.”

“East Iceland used to be called the cradle of craftsmanship in Iceland, but there have been a lot of changes,” says Sigurðardóttir. “ The departures after the dam construction finished left a scar and this project is an experiment and a hypothesis about what the future of the place is. Is this meeting point between the community and design possible? I think it’s exciting as an idea, but there’s a long way to figuring out what that actually means. I think these experiments help us imagine what kind of shape and reality this region could have in the future.”

Gero Grundmann foraging on the beach at Borgarfjörður Eystri

Each of the participating designers were paired with craftsmen working in the towns of Eskifjörður, Vopnafjörður, Djúpivogur, Norðfjörður and Egilsstaðir. The designers spent 10 or 11 day residencies with their collaborators, sourcing local materials that they subsequently worked into production models. "I grew up in rural Germany and was brought up with this idea of making the most of everything. You gather, hunt or harvest,” says Grundmann, who collaborated with the Þorpssmiðjan prototype workshop in Egilsstaðir to carve driftwood and reindeer antler into toy trains that run along Brio tracks. "I think there’s great potential in this way of working," says Grundmann. "People are happy to improvise, they’re ingenious and there’s great interest in using what they have in the region. There is commercial potential.”

Such potential – at least in the short-term – varies across the projects. Lohmann’s wider work with seaweed carried over into her Austurland project, and continuous production of the kelp lampshades and jewellery that she created in Iceland is likely to be slow while the Icelandic craftspeople2 come to terms with the material.

A similar situation is true of the architectural blocks Lamb developed from stone gathered from mountains around Djúpivogur. "We took some of Max’s samples to Reykjavik stone yard to get a sense of the materials' potential and they looked at one and said they’d never seen it before,” says Collard. "That demonstrates how that mountain in the far east has a unique material. Nobody has ever thought what could be made with it before.”

Thorunn Arnadottir working in the Egersund Island net-making factory

By contrast, Arnadottir’s project made use of the industry already present in Eskifjörður. Working with the Egersund Island net-making factory, Arnadottir used traditional fishing knots and rope to create a series of children’s bags, skipping ropes and hula hoops. "I knew net-making involved craft, but when I came in to the warehouse I was blown away by all the materials and how much handcraft there actually is," says Arnadottir. "I thought it would be big machines, but they make these massive nets, kilometres long, by hand. They’re just tying it together into shape.”

Arnadottir’s collection, titled Skip Ahoy, makes use of the techniques and materials already employed at Egersund Island, while its focus on play is a reference to the way in which net making skills are taught in the area – children are trained to knot bags and other items that they can use. "In the beginning it was just the workers there teaching me the techniques, stopping by, seeing what I was doing and giving me advice on how to do things,” says Arnadottir. “But they really thought about the aesthetics as well. There was practicality in the techniques, but they were also thinking about how it would look nicer; about what would make people want these items.”

Such an emphasis on commercial realities is relatively virgin territory for Austurland. The main driver of the region’s attempted design-led renaissance is Make By Þorpið, an east Icelandic design development platform with which both Collard and Sigurðardóttir are associated. Since its foundation in the late 2000s, the platform has helped to organise east Icelandic projects led by prominent international design schools such as Central Saint Martins, Design Academy Eindhoven and the RCA; it was also the body behind Make It Happen, a 2012 travelling design conference hosted in Austurland at which Arnadottir, Collard, Lamb and Sigurðardóttir were in attendance at discussions over how design could revitalise the region. "That conference is really the key experience for this project,” acknowledges Sigurðardóttir. "It was that idea that a meeting point between design and local makers could help to create job opportunities.”

Julia Lohmann working in the Þorpssmiðjan prototyping workshop in Egilsstaðir

Alongside this theoretical basis, Make By Þorpið has production experience. Northeast 10 was a 2011 project in which a group of Icelandic designers worked with reindeer leather, rock, felt wool and wood, combining these materials with aluminium from the smelting plant at Reyðarfjörður in Austurland to produce products such as bags and containers. While some of the resultant projects are now in production, the original intention was for the Northeast 10 projects to result in prototypes alone. "Designers often have real problems calculating and figuring out if something is realistic and how much it costs to make something," admits Sigurðardóttir. “Which means that a prototype often doesn’t make any difference beyond sparking ideas. So if we want Make to have any effect in the east it needs to take it one step forward from prototypes."

“Designs from Nowhere certainly wasn’t a case of come and make a prototype and then go away, with nothing ever happening,” continues Collard. "The net factory for example is making these pieces; Thorunn made her prototypes and the factory will reproduce them and, we hope, carry on making them in the future. The idea has to be that these designers have left something behind that can be made and sold. And East Iceland is actually suited to that. Things can happen very quickly because of the low population. It’s very easy to get and disseminate information, whereas in a bigger community like London that process is quite overwhelming.”

Community involvement in the production process of the Austurland objects is essential to the scheme and runs throughout all aspects of the project. It is even explicitly referenced in its title, a nod to artist and designer William Morris’ News From Nowhere, a utopian, socialist, pastoral text from 1890 that championed the effect that creativity can have in uniting communities. A central tenet of Designs from Nowhere is the idea that designer and community can be enriched through interaction.

Lamb grinding stone taken from the mountains of Austurland

Arnadottir’s work with Egersund Island is the most striking example of this symbiosis. The factory is based in a remote community, yet is also part of the Egersund Group, an international company that provides fishing equipment to trawlers and the global fish farming industry. Its workers reflect this. The factory is not a site used to bespoke projects or artisanal work; its staff have a business to run and do so efficiently. "It’s hard to get into a production that’s been doing the same thing for years because they have a certain vision. You come in there as a designer and have to be considerate of what they want to do,” says Arnadottir.

The results of such collaboration, while difficult, can be impressive. Knotting and ropes have introduced a new dimension to Arnadottir’s working practice, providing her with a chance to design with a material and techniques hitherto alien to her. Meanwhile, the realities of Icelandic industry means that it is better suited to experimentation than the manufacturing bases of other countries. “There aren’t many people in the net factory for instance and it’s easy to develop new products with them because they can do a few pieces,” acknowledges Arnadottir. "There isn’t a minimal order.”

Similarly, the designers feed back into the communities. The Designs from Nowhere objects provide exposure for the craftsmanship that exists in Austurland, while also presenting development options for the region. "You might not save the community, but you are giving an example of possibilities,” says Arnadottir. “You’re setting an example. If people get used to that, they see it’s possible to use the net factory for something other than net making. Design doesn’t have to be something you design on your computer and then send to China. You can work within a community."

Such an ethos is appropriate for east Iceland. Austurland’s population and geography mean that it is never likely to develop a manufacturing heartlands or to become a centre for industrial design. It is simply not suited to it. But this does not mean that it has nothing to offer international design. What it could provide, if projects like Designs from Nowhere have their way, is a template for the development of a species of design that is integrated with the communities it serves. It would represent a break from conventional thinking on product design.

Arnadottir's Skip Ahoy collection made use of net-making knots

The early 20th Century presented a utopian template of product design, with movements like the Bauhaus conceiving of the designer as a person uniquely positioned to improve the world through products. Design and industrial development were the method by which people’s quality of life would be enhanced and it was a view exemplified by American designer Henry Dreyfuss. ”If people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient —or just plain happier— by contact with the product,” he wrote, "then the designer has succeeded.”

Yet by the end of the century this vision had degraded, worn down by environmental concerns, material shortages, economics and conceptual critique. Writing in his 1985 book Design For the Real World, radical designer Victor Papanek summed up the mood: "by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.” The idea that product would save the world had broken down.

Rather than parachute in highly-designed products to improve a community, the Austurland project therefore argues that improvement in the Icelandic communities it concerns itself with is only likely to come about by engaging those same communities in the design process. Furthermore, it serves as a timely reminder that design rarely takes place in a vacuum. Even within the hermetically sealed worlds of trade fairs, where glossy products are packaged and presented as slick ideas generated by a single, big-name designer, the reality is always more complicated than it seems. "In the context of Iceland, you might speak of things like 'community design’, where you’re not just talking about a designer working on their own, but drawing on the expertise of a community,” says Collard. "But that’s just representative of how design is.

"Design doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens in the context of a big framework of people contributing. It happens with the support of any number of people and practitioners. Go to Milan and you’ll see an emphasis on named designers – 'Designed by X, Y or Z.' But those people will have been a part of a team of 20 or 30 people who worked on that project. All product development is a system of mini-communities and we’re trying to deal with that ecosystem in Austurland. 'Community design' is a good phrase for Austurland, but it’s something that’s relevant to all design projects.”

It is this fact that is most telling about Austurland: Designs from Nowhere. Despite being set in a heavily depopulated region, it is a reminder of the collaboration needed for any design to happen; a paean to the value of engagement with communities in the development of ideas and innovations. Its objects bear the mark of all those involved in their creation, from the named designer who developed them, to the craftspeople who manufactured them, and the natural Icelandic materials from which they are crafted. They are inseparable from the circumstances of their conception. What the project shows is that designs don't come from nowhere.