The first houses in Egilsstaðir were built in the 1940s, but there is still no defined town centre for the 2,000 inhabitants who live there now. A decade ago an influx of new workers came to the area to build the nearby Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant, the site of the largest dam of its type in Europe, yet many newcomers stayed only to complete the project before returning home. The national financial crisis that began in 2008 abruptly ended investment in the area, and a newly built housing estate on the northern edge of the town lies largely empty.
Yet from 25 to 28 September last year, Egilsstaðir was the unlikely home to Make It Happen, a design conference where Icelandic and international delegates joined local people for a series of talks, workshops, and presentations about how design might create an alternative future for this East Iceland region. In Egilsstaðir, events took place in local workshops and the Sláturhúsið Cultural Centre – a former slaughterhouse – while each day also saw the participants travel by bus to visit other villages in the area. “We felt it would be much more interesting for people to actually go and see the places rather than present them on a screen,” says project manager Lára Vilbergsdóttir, from the organisers MAKE by Þorpið. “Þorpið means ‘community’. That’s what we’re trying to do here – build up the community of designers and craftspeople. There are only 10,000 people living in East Iceland and we need to work together.” One project, demonstrating this ambition is a workshop facility operated by MAKE by Þorpið in Egilsstaðir, a residency space where both international and local designers and craftspeople, are invited to develop and prototype ideas.
These initiatives are indicative of a growing belief in Iceland in the power of design. The 2008 crash of the nation’s banking industry is well documented, but less well reported is the subsequent rise of local design communities, or the development of an Icelandic design culture. Whereas banking was once seen as the future of the country, design now appears ready to offer an alternative. But it is not design intended for the international furniture fairs. Instead, it’s design as an attitude that’s being practised here, one that places it at the heart of communities, and ventures like MAKE by Þorpið and Make It Happen are examples of the grassroots movements that are increasingly common in Icelandic design.
Around 70km south from Egilsstaðir is Stöðvarfjörður, a small village where a former fish factory is being converted into an arts space by Mupimup!, a local design studio. Before its closure in 2005, the factory was the village’s main employer, and in its absence Stöðvarfjörður’s population has dwindled to around 200 people. Now, a lone fishing boat remains moored outside in the harbour. The factory’s restoration falls under the umbrella of MAKE by Þorpið and, in spring 2011, 15 design MA students from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design were invited to join the project. “It’s an interesting time for design in Iceland,” says Anne Odling-Smee, a lecturer at Central Saint Martins who led the students in Iceland. “A lot of design students in London are so saturated with the aesthetic of design that they’ve lost touch with the medium’s practical side. But Iceland is a real eye-opener; everything is focused on the community and applying design to practical contexts.”
That Iceland may now have something to offer international design is a significant development for a nation whose primary export in the 20th century was fishing. When Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944, the country’s Labour government invested in new fishing boats, tanning industries and sheep farming. By contrast, its neighbours from across the Nordic region invested state funds into developing and promoting their emerging design industries internationally. The Domus review of the 1951 Milan Triennale carried 14 pages of Finnish design to cover the multiple awards Finnish designers had received during the exhibition. At that time, Iceland did not have a word in its language for “design”. As the majority of goods were imported, there was little need for one.
In spite of this, a small-scale Icelandic furniture industry was able to develop in the 1950s and 60s, thanks largely to the country’s remote location in the North Atlantic Ocean. Iceland’s main airport is Keflavik, a facility built by the US Air Force during the Second World War, yet as late as the 1960s the primary route from mainland Europe to Iceland was a four-day journey by sea. In these conditions of partial isolation, limited competition from European design brands allowed Icelandic furniture manufacturers to gain a foothold on the island in the mid to late 1950s. At this time, the term “Hönnun”, Icelandic for design, began to emerge, coinciding with the country’s first steps towards industrial production.
“During this period, we had a strong industry, good machinery and workshops and the import taxes kept things competitive,” says Tinna Gunnarsdóttir, an Icelandic designer and the daughter of Gunnar Magnússon, one of the country’s most successful furniture designers. But in 1970, Iceland joined the European Free Trade Association, a trade bloc that removed trading restrictions between member nations, and the results proved disastrous for local industry. “When the taxes were removed everyone wanted Italian leather sofas and our furniture industry collapsed,” says Gunnarsdóttir.
The collapse was exacerbated by an existing trend in Iceland: a lack of students of design. During the 1950s and 60s opportunities to study design in Iceland were non-existent, forcing prospective students to travel to either Denmark to study furniture design or Finland for glass and ceramics. Even today, many students choose to learn abroad. “It's the Icelandic way,” says Gunnarsdóttir, herself a graduate of the Domus Academy in Milan.
There are, however, signs that the trend is changing. In 1998, the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik was founded, establishing a domestic institute where students can study design. Gunnarsdóttir leads the institute’s product design department and, since introducing a masters course in design in 2012, its international profile has risen quickly, welcoming visiting tutors such as Dutch designer Jurgen Bey and German designer Julia Lohmann. Yet, in spite of this international reputation, the academy retains a domestic focus. In recent years the school has launched a series of projects forging links with local industry, most notably Designers and Farmers, a four-year initiative begun in 2007 that was inspired in part by the Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason.
“In his book Dreamland, Magnason questioned why we can’t get really good locally sourced food while driving around the country,” says Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir, a professor of product design at the academy and one of the project leaders. “When we read this it seemed very simple, why not team up students with farmers?” The project encouraged designers to work with farmers to develop food products from local produce. “The biggest challenge was proving to the farmers’ community that the idea was worth considering and investing in,” says Sigurjónsdóttir.
The four farms selected to participate in the scheme included one in the highlands of Möðrudalur in Fjöll, 100km west of Egilsstaðir and 500m above sea level. There has been a farm at Möðrudalur for more than 900 years, playing into the project’s billing as a scheme uniting Iceland’s newest profession with one of its oldest. Working and living on the farms, the students learnt about the farmers’ daily routines and materials, while a business consultancy ensured that the ideas generated were economically viable. Two years after the project’s completion the resulting products – sticks of rhubarb caramel, skyr sweets, black- pudding cakes and rye-bread desserts – remain on sale in the farms and also in speciality shops around Reykjavik.
The project has informed much of Sigurjónsdóttir’s subsequent work. In 2010, she opened Spark Design Space in Reykjavik, a design platform focused on collaborations between designers and other industries. “Some people say that it’s difficult to be a product designer in Iceland as there are few manufacturing companies and we have hardly any raw materials,” she says. “But, in the end, I think this has turned out to be our advantage. It makes things much more interesting.”
This lack of raw materials is married to Iceland’s unusual geography. Much of the island’s interior is made up of tundra, lava fields and glaciers picked out with hot springs, volcanoes and geysers. “There’s so much vastness and in the winter it’s so dark because we’re so far north,” says Brynjar Sigurðarson, an Icelandic designer who graduated from Switzerland’s ECAL (École cantonale d’art de Lausanne) in 2011. “When you walk around in the wilderness you begin to sense something supernatural around you.”
This sense resonates in Iceland, a country where fables about the aforementioned Lagarfljótsormurinn worm, the Huldufólk of the Álagablettur, and the giantess Grýla remain part of the culture. “The darkness and unspoiled nature feed into a culture of storytelling,” says Sigurðarson. In place of natural materials such as wood or iron, Iceland’s storytelling heritage has become the resource that drives Sigurðarson’s work. Prik – a 2012 series of sticks decorated with leaves, hooks, and float rings – explores the traditional use of sticks as tools and weapons on the island, and references Sigurðarson’s 2008 trip to Vopnafjörður, a rural village in the north east of Iceland. Yet Sigurðarson’s most complete adoption of Iceland’s heritage is Borgþór Sveinsson, a fictional documentary exhibited in 2012 as part of Design Parade 7 at Villa Noailles, in the south of France. The film and accompanying installation told the story of an Icelandic hermit’s quixotic lifelong hunt for a mythological creature.
Sigurðarson’s approach is not uncommon. Katrín Ólína is an Icelandic designer who served as director of the Iceland Academy’s product design department between 2000 and 2004. Having worked in Hong Kong, London and Paris with designers such as Philippe Starck, Ross Lovegrove and Michael Young, Ólína returned to Iceland in 2007. “When I went abroad in 1989 to study, I didn’t have much idea what design was,” she says. “My interest was in the arts, but when I discovered design I thought that might be cooler because it involved production as well.”
Like Sigurðarson, Ólína’s design is informed by myth and saga. “If you have a factory working in steel or wood, the collaborative work between designers and that factory creates an identity,” she says. “But in Iceland, we don’t have that culture of production. Our identity, as a nation, lies in stories. It’s in our genes and that can be a great source for design as well as other creative disciplines.”
This story-driven and community-based work is being noticed abroad and as a result, several leading international design schools are organising projects in the country. Following Central Saint Martin’s to Stöðvarfjörður’s fish factory, Brynjar Sigurðarson visited the country in early 2013 with students from ECAL for a project to craft objects out of whalebone scavenged from Iceland’s beaches, the results of which will now go on display at Milan’s furniture fair in April. London’s Architectural Association and Royal College of Art have also joined the trend, both launching student-led projects in Iceland in 2012.
The Royal College project was led by the French designer Nelly Ben Hayoun, and organised by MAKE and the Icelandic designer and Royal College graduate Thorunn Arnadottir. The scheme asked students to reimagine themselves as the fictional Bureau Odyssey, an adventuring design collective tasked with working with native Icelanders to create new forms of leisure activities – such as shark hunting in the East Iceland Borgarfjörður eystra fjord, or expanding Nauthólsvík, a man-made geothermal beach in Reykjavik. The notion of a proactive organisation working with local communities also chimed with Arnadottir’s wider attitude towards design. “People in Iceland are so open to the idea of working with a designer on new ideas,” she says. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of holding on to local skills and small-scale production, as a part of a healthy economy, as well as being a part of an Icelandic identity.
These international projects are matched by an increasing domestic awareness of design. Iceland’s design week, the annual DesignMarch event in Reykjavik, which this year took place on 14-17 March, was founded five years ago at the height of the country’s financial crisis. Yet despite its relatively recent creation, government-funded research suggests that 85 per cent of the country’s population is aware of the festival and around 30,000 people attend each year, roughly 10 per cent of Iceland’s population. This awareness is thanks in part to the small size of the country. “There are few of us here and it feels easier to do something and go for it,” says Sigurðarson. “In a small country it’s easy to speak to someone and get help. Everything is more local, so it’s hard for an idea to get lost.”
This awareness has filtered upwards and a number of government funds and national grants are now available to designers. The Aurora Design Fund, overseen by the charitable Aurora Foundation, was initiated in 2009 to support designers with product development and marketing. Renewed in 2012, the fund is set to award 75m Ikr over the next three years and will soon be joined by an annual 45m Ikr government design fund.
“Design is seen as a really positive area at the moment by the government,” says Halla Helgadóttir, managing director at the Iceland Design Centre in Reykjavik. “We’ve been working on the design policy for the government in Iceland for the past two years and handed in the document yesterday. It’s sitting on the minister’s desk now,” she says.
While other Nordic countries have more established design industries, Iceland is demonstrating that it has a progressive attitude and the desire to establish its own legacy. Rather than pursuing large-scale manufacturing, its focus remains rooted in Iceland’s storytelling tradition; its output geared towards local design projects such as MAKE by Þorpið and Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir’s Designers and Farmers. While it is perhaps too soon to speak of an obviously identifiable Icelandic aesthetic, design is clearly in tune with local sentiment. There is an acknowledgement within Iceland that a wider cultural shift has taken place, in part a response to the seismic changes to the national economy. “The awareness of design in society has changed so much, any farmer you meet would know about that Designers and Farmers project,” says Sigurjónsdóttir. “When I graduated most people didn’t even know what a product designer was.