Published September 2, 2016
Hafnarfjörður’s Íshús is an imposing white seafront warehouse with its name emblazoned neatly across its front in marine blue paint. It stands out amongst the other industrial buildings as perhaps a little unusual, and just a few steps inside this suspicion is confirmed. The air smells of wood dust rather than motor oil or fish, and people mill around in paint-splattered overalls between tall shelves, workspaces and roped-off studio booths. Some are in the process of sanding down items of wooden kitchenware, while others sit quietly stitching clothing, painting canvasses, or carrying trays of freshly glazed ornaments from the kiln room to their studio to apply the finishing touches.
We’re met by Anna María Karlsdóttir, one of the instigators of the project. Anna starts to show us around, introducing us to various practitioners in all kinds of disciplines, describing the ones who aren’t present. She and her husband Óli were the ones who instigated the regeneration of Íshús from a disused warehouse into a thriving studio community of artists, jewellers, product designers, and makers of all kinds.
“Óli had this idea in mind for many years,” she explains. “Then the project started about four years ago. He’s a pro boat builder, and studying ceramics. There was a group of women that were happy to take this step with us, if we rented a nice space somewhere. Óli and I would never have done it alone.”
The space they found is something of a gem. The various spaces all have their own distinctive character, from the old offices to the light and airy open-plan first-floor spaces, to various hidden-away nooks, and a central cold-room that seems to cry out to be used as a gallery.
“The building is an old freezing plant and fish factory,” explains Anna. “It was used for that until 2001, then it had been sitting empty for a while. A few things opened and closed here, but nothing stuck. We started with the space in July 2014. We started with five hundred square metres, housing ten work spaces; now we have thirteen hundred square metres in total.”
As the diversity of the practitioners increased, so did the range of facilities on offer. “We’ve seen it grow into ceramics, woodwork, metal work… we have a wet room for textiles, kilns, ventilated spray rooms, and more,” says Anna. “It’s a bit of a hippie community! Whoever comes in can make an agreement to share tools.”
This attitude of collectivism fuels the positive and vibrant atmosphere of the building. “There are thirty spaces here now, and they’re all open,” Anna explains. “The concept is an open, flowing atmosphere—we put emphasis on the community in the house, and run it as a group. We have open houses, and when we take part in events like Design March or Fisherman’s Day, it’s as a group. We go different things like this across the year.”
Íshús feels like a shining example of a story that’s happening all around Iceland’s coastline, where creatives are taking over disused ex-industrial spaces to create new opportunities for the communities they serve. In fact, many of the people operating in Íshús are actually from Reykjavík, or its surrounding municipalities.
“Half the people here are from Hafnarfjorður, and then we have people from Seltjarnarnes, and all over the Reykjavík area,” says Anna. “There’s office space all over Reykjavík, but nowhere near as many creative spaces, where you can have some noise and mess going on. It was something that was definitely missing, and there’s demand for more.”
Anna thinks that this cooperative, community-focussed approach is part of a trend that’s often easily ignored. “All the talk is of entrepreneurs in Iceland,” she says. “There should be more focus on how communities can work together, rather than small businesses competing with each other. You can do so much more when cooperating rather than competing.”
This approach also breeds a spirit of volunteerism that helps such projects to get off the ground. “There have been a lot of things and people that appear at just the right time,” says Anna. “But we’ve been waiting a while for someone to appear and help us to develop a cafe and market. There’s so much potential here—just like Grandi in Reykjavík. It’s all been an organic growth—very natural, rather than being on a planning table for ten years. We’d like to keep that spirit. We would love for this old house to keep developing in this creative direction.”
“Hafnarfjörður is just ten minutes away from Reykjavík but people are like, ‘Oh, you’re so far away,’” Anna finishes. “But this area is a great alternative to 101. Von is a really great nearby restaurant, and we have Pallett across the street with their great coffee. It’s an area that’s really coming alive.”