The island of Iceland has a population that clocks in under 350,000. 80 per cent of its harsh, beautiful landscape is uninhabitable. Perhaps it’s not exactly what you might think a global design destination might look like. But perhaps it’s time to think again. The country has been nurturing an exuberant design scene that has grown and grown in the years since the economic crisis hit in 2008. Each spring, Reykjavik celebrates this with DesignMarch, a festival to showcase the country’s best and brightest designers and artists. Here are some of the designers worth watching this year.
Product designer Theodora Alfredsdottir studied at London’s Royal College of Art and is still based in London. Most recently she explored the role of the mould in product design, with the question in mind: can we extend the active life of a simple mould, past the point of the casting process? The result was Mót / Mould, a series of sets of moulds made to be desirable, valuable objects in their own right, beyond the manufacturing cycle. The various individual pieces can slot together, and can be painted in bright, Memphis-like colours, becoming decorative, beautiful objects that can stand alone, function as book-ends, or even provide a pleasing receptacle for highly Instagrammable summer fruits.
Ragna Ragnarsdottir splits her time between Philadelphia in the US and her studio in Borgarfjörður, “a long flat fjord in the southwest of Iceland, that lies between glacier and sea,” as she explains. “It used to be filled with farmers but now, it’s mostly big, empty fields.” It’s a fruitful location for Ragnarsdottir’s work, which includes sculpture, furniture and home objects. Combining traditional techniques with more modern processes, Ragnarsdottir works without needing to rely on complicated and high-tech machinery. Recently she exhibited a range of objects – some created on site by pouring layers of resin into latex moulds – in the washroom of a commercial car rental in Reykavik’s industrial Old Harbor area. The objects are unquestionably beautiful, but also strange, unfamiliar and even unsettling, arousing a deeper curiosity within the viewer. Showing the process of making was important to Ragnarsdottir. “I feel that way too often, people only see the end result,” she explained. “If we are to get people more interested and aware of what they are buying, we need to introduce to, and sometimes involve them in, the whole process of how the objects are made.”
Based in Reykjavik, fashion and textile designer Anita Hirlekar sells her wares from AM Concept Space, a small shop she shares with Magnea, another local brand. Hirlekar, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2014 as one of the final group taught under Professor Louise Wilson, works predominantly with hand-painted textiles and felt. Throughout her collections, there is an emphasis on craft and handwork, echoing, she says, the history of craft that she saw growing up in Iceland. Since her time at CSM, she has worked with embroidery as well, adding elegant flourishes to beautiful coats, bold dresses and colourful separates. There’s a strong backbone of versatility that runs through Hirlekar’s work – these are clothes that you and your personality wear, rather than clothes that wear you.
Multidisciplinary designer Hanna Dis Whitehead graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven in 2011 and now works from a studio in Austur Skaftafellsysla, in the south-east of Iceland. It’s a remote area where she spent 13 consecutive summers during her youth in Reykjavik. “I love it there,” she says. “The isolation gives me good peace to work, and I have a great atelier there for hands-on projects. Reykjavik, although 500 km away, is actually just 50 minutes away by direct flight.”
One recent exhibition of jewellery-like sculpture, Illikambur, was made in collaboration with Reykjavik fashion label Milla Snorrason, based on a steep hill of that name at the start of a hike into Kollumúli in Lónsöræfi highlands. Those highlands are populated by volcanic mountains in colourful liparite, part of what makes Iceland’s landscape so striking and unusual. Using a combination of digital printed plastic, wood, ceramics and metal wire, Whitehead made wearable sculptures inspired by the natural and colourful stone environment near her own studio.
Another exhibition, titled Another Dialog, presented a family of ceramic objects where the exact use is left up to how the viewer decides their role in her daily life. To guide the deesigns, Whitehead collected stories from people who visited her previous exhibitions and used them as a starting point for a new range of objects, inspired by that ongoing visual conversation between designer and viewer.