It may seem absurd, passing by Iceland’s largest aluminium smelter in the mountainous Eastfjords landscape to visit an exhibition that celebrates creative thinking, small-scale production and local know-how in culturally relevant activities. Yet, there it is—under the steep mountains of Eskifjörður, just like that smelting plant—the latest recipient of the Icelandic Design Awards: ‘Designs From Nowhere.’
There it is, at the end of Nowhere, nestled in a building that serves as the local community’s church and a concert hall. After making its way through various locations in Europe, the exhibition is finally returning home, to its place of origin. The exhibition is meant to provide an overview of the conceptual framework behind ‘Designs From Nowhere’, placing special weight on the facets that take place within Eskifjörður and its neighbouring Norðfjörður. It tells the project’s story, and provides a glimpse into the experiences it has triggered, providing space for the participants to examine why this community-centred endeavour wound up receiving a prestigious award and travelling the world. The work on display reinforces the initiative’s goal, which is to establish and suggest longterm community projects that underline hidden and unexplored opportunities in the area.
‘Designs From Nowhere’ has been steadily growing and developing since 2012, and this autumn, after a year of achievements, the project enters yet another phase, heading forward at full force. A new phase is commencing, with hands-on development of the second generation of products from the renowned participating designers. Having secured funding for ongoing development, the project is growing, adding designers as well as creating new opportunities for local talent.
The project’s main strength seems to lie in its adaptability to circumstance, and in response to growing public interest; its next stage will be more commercially focused. This development is in part inspired by recognition from the Icelandic Design Awards, and is further driven by the idea that it is a vital part of an ongoing branding campaign for East Iceland as a creative community. With a number of artisans, companies and institutions partaking, the project portrays and celebrates the collaborators’ input and the community’s participation.
The multifaceted endeavour initially set out to explore the production potential of East Iceland, and to that end four renowned designers were invited to East Iceland in 2013 to work in close collaboration with the locals. The focus of the current exhibition in Eskifjörður is on the work of Þórunn Árnadóttir (IS), who worked with a local company and craftsman, and the works of Max Lamb (UK), which are produced by the neighbouring stonemason in Norðfjörður. The two will be participating in further development for the project’s second phase, along with a slew of new participants, a mix of internationally acclaimed designers and local talent.
We shape our environment
It may have come as a surprise that the first ever Icelandic Design Award was handed to a project operated out in the middle of nowhere, far from the Reykjavík design hustle and bustle, run by a bunch of design scene nobodies. However, a glimpse at the exhibition should demonstrate clearly what the project is about, and provide hints as to where it’s headed. Curator Karna Sigurðardóttir is hopeful for the turnout to the workshops this autumn, as the project committee aims to raise the commercial potential of the products with independent exhibitions, along with a tour of European Design Weeks in the coming year.
“It was clear from the beginning that we are not making ‘souvenir’ items for tourists to pick up on their way,” says Karna. “We want the designed objects to represents East Iceland, the materials, the myths and the value of creative thinking. This is not the first time Icelandic designers take Iceland’s culture and materials as a starting point for their work, but it is also interesting to see how foreign designers approach it. That is one part of the ‘Designs From Nowhere’ philosophy.”
As the exhibition attests, the works all have roles or significance beyond the obvious. “All objects bear a meaning of who we are, we shape our environment with the things we create, want, buy and use,” says Karna. “The idea is not only to design products with reference to old traditions, stories and knowledge, but also to strengthen an infrastructure for creative thinking and production of artistic work in East Iceland. The design process and its products help people to assess and better understand the environment in which they live, as well as the opportunities that lurk therein.”
She continues: “In this way we investigate what kind of reality the community wants in the future. Hence, internally the project and its objects play a complex role within the setting of East Iceland, and the pieces are also a part of a much larger context. As they travel the world on exhibitions and in retail, they spread the values of the East Iceland community and tell the story across further afield.”
Austurland: Designs from Nowhere and the Icelandic Design Award 2014 — Exhibition in Eskifjörður runs until midSeptember in the Cultural Centre. Open weekdays from 17:00-19:00 and by appointment for groups. Contact Þórunn Gréta Sigurðardóttir for further details about the exhibition and Karna Sigurðardóttir for information about the project.