As the winter passes its nadir and the days start to grow lighter, a bright fixture on Iceland’s cultural calendar once again approaches. Every March, Reykjavík bursts into a celebration of the sprawling and multi-faceted emerging industry of Icelandic design. Whether “speculative design” that predicts and guides the city’s architectural future, or the latest developments in Icelandic ceramics, graphics, textiles, jewellery and fashion, the DesignMarch festival offers a glimpse into the galleries, workshops, studios and minds of a dizzying range of local talents.
This year’s programme boasts over 130 events, held in spaces from Reykjavík’s 101 district to outlying boroughs like Garðarbær and Hafnarfjörður, where interested locals can rub shoulders with international professionals in a four-day feast of exhibitions, seminars, product launches and parties. At the heart of it all is the small but dedicated team working out of the Iceland Design Centre, housed in an eye-catching little building daubed with a brightly coloured Siggi Eggertsson mural.
The team is led by Sara Jónsdóttir, who recently took over as festival director. “This will be the seventh festival,” she says, cradling a hot cup of coffee on particularly chilly February afternoon. “But I’ve been involved for just a few months. It’s my first time as director.”
Out of the ashes…
Sara arrived well-equipped, coming from a background of marketing and business training, and on-the-job experience that bridges many aspects of the festival, from project management to advertising, graphic design, interior design and production design. She’s watched the festival grow over the years, albeit from the sidelines until now.
“DesignMarch started just after the crisis,” Sara recalls. “The Iceland Design Centre was founded in autumn of 2008, when the various designers’ unions wanted to make a festival. Despite the crisis, they pushed ahead. I’ve heard it said that economic crises always lead to more artistic and design-oriented projects—people get more involved in culture at these moments. Somebody once said ‘never let a good crisis go to waste,’ and I think that’s a great viewpoint.”
Since those rocky times, DesignMarch has flourished. This year will mark its biggest edition to date, with a great range of work on show, and more overseas professionals present than ever before. “It’s grown a lot,” Sara says, “and the quality has increased too. We have more international attention now, from the media and also from buyers and foreign designers wanting to come and exhibit and mingle with the Icelandic designers. We also run the DesignMatch—that’s a day where buyers from the Nordic countries, and now Germany and France, come to meet with Icelandic designers. We’ve seen some good projects coming out of that.”
Almost everything you own was designed by someone
It’s easy to forget just how broad the discipline of design, taken in the widest sense, can run. From the clothes we wear to the houses we live in, to the furniture we sleep, sit and work on, the fonts we read and the phones and computers we use to communicate, design is everywhere. And here in Iceland, it’s no different.
“Icelandic design has a very broad spectrum,” explains Sara. “The Iceland Design Centre was formed by nine unions: architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, product design, clothing and fashion, graphic design, ceramics, jewellery and textiles. We have people and companies from all these fields taking part.”
But whilst there’s plenty of networking and business taking place, DesignMarch is about more than industry. Sara notes that international visitors to the festival often pick up on how relaxed everything is by comparison to similar overseas events. “DesignMarch is the big promotional platform for Icelandic designers, but it works on many levels,” she explains. “It’s very accessible to the public, partly because all the events are free—you don’t have to buy a ticket. And it takes place all over the city, so it’s not in a closed-off fairground in an exhibition hall. People who come to DesignMarch from abroad love this element—it’s more personal and relaxed, which maybe allows people to think outside of the box.”
In fact, almost one in every ten Icelanders will partake in DesignMarch in one way or another. “Every year, 30,000 people participate in DesignMarch,” Sara says, “so it raises awareness of Icelandic design across all fields. It’s very important that we continue to involve people like this. Icelanders are very proud of quality Icelandic things, and before DesignMarch came about, people would often be surprised and say ‘Oh, is this Icelandic design?’ So this event lets them become more involved with what’s happening here.”
Scratching the surface
The widespread nature of the events is also a factor in getting local people involved with DesignMarch. The event happens all over the region in many different neighbourhoods, and Sara rattles off a large number of events off the top of her head.
“There are hubs all over the city,” she says. “On Skúlagata for example, in the old Nýló building [by KEX Hostel], there will be two exhibitions. We have a big exhibition in Hafnarhúsið, about the future of Reykjavík. It’s a multi-disciplinary exhibition with people from all kinds of backgrounds. We have a show in the City Hall, some architecture and Finnish ceramics. Sigga Heimis is an Icelandic designer who’ll be showing her new Ikea lamp there also. Hannesarholt will be another one of the hubs for product design, and there’ll be things all over Grandi—we’re for instance throwing a ‘farmer’s ball’ down there. There’s the design museum in Garðarbær, they’ll display the Design Awards and ‘Designs from Nowhere.’ Hildur Yeoman will be showing some new work, and in Sundhöllin, there’ll be a one-off installation with ‘Float,’ the swimming gear designer, fashion designer Eygló and graphic designer Sigurður Eggertsson. There’s also a lot going on at Epal, the product design store… There’s so, so much happening. This is just scratching the surface, really.”
As well as these myriad exhibitions and events, DesignMarch also includes a series of seminars held in Harpa (learn more elsewhere in this very DesignMarch pullout). Each year, the DesignTalks day has a theme, with various prestigious speakers invited from overseas to share their ideas with the throng. The theme for 2015 is “Play Away”
“We have some great design thinkers speaking about their way of working,” explains Sara, “whether in the sense of using childish play, or play as in experimentation or working outside of the box, or coming up with a totally new way of thinking; all our guests this year speak of play in some form. I think the theme has coloured the festival this year. We told everyone about the theme at a designer meet-and-greet, and I think a lot of people have responded to it with what they’re showing.”
And as the world has noticed in beacons of Icelandic music, play and creativity is where ideas are born, and something Iceland is good at in many different media. “We don’t have this huge history of design like some of the other Nordic countries,” says Sara, “so we’re not bound by that weight of history here. We can see the identity of Icelandic design developing now—there’s a lot of humour in it, and it has a playful and experimental nature. And Icelandic designers often think of materials differently because of the scarcity of natural resources here—they use the materials in an interesting and original way.”
Don’t Miss These!
So you probably just flipped through the DesignMarch schedule and you’re like, whoa, there are so many events. I can’t possibly see them all? What on Earth should I see? Well, you’re in luck because we consulted with a handful of our more design savvy friends, and they have some recommendations for you.
Slowly Changing Course
Have you ever walked around Reykjavík and thought, ‘huh, that’s kind of a weird building?’ Yeah, well, it wouldn’t hurt to think more about that kind of stuff, you know, before it’s too late. And that’s exactly what the people behind Slowly Changing Course have been doing. Designers, scholars, scientists, psychologists, architects, and economists—they’ve all been thinking about what we want Reykjavík to look like in the future, considering everything down to where we will raise our Chihuahuas. We hear they’ve come up with something great!
Where: Reykjavík Art Museum, Hafnarhús
When: Throughout DesignMarch
Flóra means flora, and it describes Design Awards winner Hildur Yeoman’s show particularly well. She is exhibiting a collection of photographs and illustrations featuring Iceland flowers and herbs from some kind of Icelandic sorcerer’s recipe book. Oh, this is no Sabrina, the teenage witch kind of stuff…
Where: Vörðuskóli, Frakkastígur 27
When: March 12, 21:00
MAGNEA x AURUM
Fashion/knitwear designer Magnea has teamed up with jewellery makers AURUM to debut a jewellery collection. If jewellery made from wool and other unconventional materials strikes your fancy, go take a gander!
Where: Aurum, Bankastræti 4
When: March 11, 18:00
Infinite String Quartet
Composer Úlfur Eldjárn—in collaboration with graphic designer Sigurður Oddsson and programmer Halldór Eldjárn—introduces The Infinite String Quartet, an interactive music composition. Says Úlfur: “The listener creates his own version of the music through an intuitive graphic interface on the web or mobile app, by looping and layering recordings of an actual string quartet. The possible versions of the piece are infinitely many.” This sounds way cool.
Where Gallery H71A, Hverfisgata 71A, and at www.infinitestringquartet.is
When: March 12, 17:00