“If I had to say,” Harpa Þórsdóttir says, “the identity of Icelandic product design is in the materials: fish bone, fish skin, knitted wool. And it’s in the handicrafts we do.”
Harpa, who is the director of the Icelandic Museum of Design and Applied Art, points to the twined rope on “Húsgagn Nr. 2,” a storage piece by Brynjar Sigurðarson at the front of the museum’s gallery space. The rope wrapping its wooden coat hooks was made by hand with net-needles and nylon string, using a process Brynjar learned from a 70-year-old Icelandic shark hunter.
“Iceland is a country without much industry,” Harpa says, but one that has a “can-do attitude.” Just a decade ago, a question about ‘Icelandic product design’ would have only returned blank stares. Since then, international breakthroughs like Sigga Heimis and Katrín Ólína have paved the way for the growing number of young Icelandic designers, many of them graduates from the Iceland Academy of Arts product design department, which opened in 2001.
The museum’s latest exhibit, “Saga til næsta bæjar,” is an exploration of the unique materials, processes, and approach Icelanders take in a field that, in most other places, is wedded to a long tradition of product manufacturing.
WE CAN DO MORE WITH THAT
These days, the bones, hides, horns and other by-products of animal processing in Iceland are considered offal next to fish and meat. But it wasn’t always that way. Before the advent of plastics and imports, animal products were used in design on almost every level of daily life: eating, cooking, farming, playing—even building. What’s unique about Iceland is that this history is not distinct from living memory. When designers and artists reflect on their roots, they start driving.
Enter Brynjar Sigurðarson. The story of “Húsgagn Nr. 2” lies in the village of Vopnafjörður in north-eastern Iceland. After driving there from Reykjavík in 2008, Brynjar found himself awed by the functional forms of shark houses, fishing factories, and netting needles. For a designer, the question posed is one of synthesis: ‘What more can we do with this?’ Sketches and prototypes eventually led to wood planks fanned out as coat hooks, reminiscent of hooks used for rubber gloves in fish factories. The planks are tied with ropes handmade, and functionality is stacked with a mounted white storage bin. Taking in the coarse combination of materials used to assemble “Húsgagn Nr. 2,” you can almost smell the fish oil.
As Harpa explains, Brynjar is not alone. Icelandic product designers of the past decade have tapped into regular Icelandic life processes, tinkering with raw materials as diverse as fish bones, moss and chocolate to make jewellery, slick fish bone model-making kits, and volcano-shaped candies that don’t feel manufactured so much as created. Product designers are repurposing and refreshing handicrafts, and adding value. The sheer quantity of product innovations in 10 years’ time reflects what Harpa calls Icelanders’ unique willingness to “just dive in.”
FROM THE EARTH, FOR THE EARTH
The gradual emergence of Icelandic design has been shaped by an international awakening to “responsible design” that began roughly a decade ago. Recycling materials, setting conventional materials aside and finding ways to use other ones—these are all features of the concept.
At the same time, the ethics of responsible design have served as a reminder that art can be close to nature and close to the Earth. The museum’s exhibit includes Guðrún Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir’s “Inner Beauty”—a furniture piece made from layers of plywood flowers randomly assorted to evoke the depth of humans’ connection to nature. Cased with round-edged wood, the piece works variously as a low table, bench or stool.
Guðrún has also worked on “Birch,” a set of small birch branches dipped in silver. Pieces like these seek to enter spaces uncommonly reserved for art—the wall beneath a staircase, the centre of a table. Reminders of an earlier time before Iceland’s settlement, when birches were the only trees on the island; manifestations of the question: where else can product design get a foot in the door here?
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A WOOL BLANKET
Rough, warm Icelandic wool fuelled the trade for Russian oil and enjoyed high prices internationally through the 1980s. After cheaper synthetic fleece crashed the market, the soul-searching began: How can raw wool and simple blankets be turned into true artisanal products? Brands like Vík Prjónsdóttir emerged later to answer the question with ingenuity, stretching the boundaries of Icelandic wool and mapping them with pieces like “The Landscape Blanket,” a woolly take on volcanic topography in three dimensions.
Wool is the weave for Vík Prjónsdóttir’s designers, but the mythic ideas from which they source their work are lodged in the rich narrative lore of the North. Another piece included in the exhibit is “Hidden World,” a medley of blanket, cape, and “healing hands” that neatly folds magic into the world of product design.
Wool is being used now not just for haute production but for experimental repurposing. “Knitted couch” demonstrates the possibilities in stripping down older imitation furniture models and weaving a new story through their frames. Using Icelandic wool, Guðrún Gunnlaugsdóttir has knitted a new narrative for product design within Iceland.
“SAGA TIL NÆSTA BÆJAR”
The exhibit’s Icelandic title roughly translates to “something to tell at the next farm,” a phrase that hearkens to a period of greater isolation in Iceland. When people went out, they would travel from farm to farm. If they heard a story or came upon something of fascination, it would be something “worth telling at the next farm.”
For Harpa, who named the exhibit, the idea is simply that the nascent identity of product design in Iceland is something worth talking about. “This is a phrase that everyone’s heard before, but nobody has thought of in this context. Icelandic design has always existed, but designers and furniture makers have never had the same recognition as other artists,” she says.
Harpa references product design in a country like Denmark, where people know their designers by name and might pass down furniture heirlooms the same way Icelanders would jewellery. She hopes the exhibit will familiarise Icelanders with the resourcefulness and individualism of their own designers, their own materials, their own handicrafts. When the circuit completes and Icelanders’ faces light up with pride, she feels one step closer to reminding them of the old methods and capabilities stowed in cultural memory.
Harpa’s profession is multitasking: exhibiting, researching, collecting. She thinks that people are only beginning to be aware of this, the only design museum in Iceland, and too, the wave of great product design washing up on native soil. Describing her take on the museum’s progress, Harpa takes the same attitude of rough capability as the product designers she’s so fluent discussing.
“I told my friend before that I was working in a start-up,” she jokes. “My friend, who does not work in product design, said back to me: ‘No Harpa, what you’re working in is a green field.’ Nobody has done this before.”