As I walk into the Reykjavík Museum of Design and Applied Art for the first time, I can’t help but feel that everything looks very familiar. And, well, that’s because it is. The space is currently home to a 30-year design retrospective that’s filled with old ads, bank and TV station logos, book covers and CD artwork—a presentation comprising decades of visual ephemera that would make any Icelander feel nostalgic. “I had no idea you did all this, ” I say to the man behind the images, graphic designer Ámundi Sigurðsson. He laughs modestly at my exclamation.
Ámundi was born in 1959 and started working as a graphic designer before the age of the personal computer. He’s been working in the field for the last 30 years, amassing an impressive legacy along the way. From Icelandic beer brands like Víking Light, Gylltur and Lager to the familiar logos of hangouts like Kaffifélagið, Einar Ben and Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar, his work has been quietly permeating Iceland’s visual environment for three decades. Excited by the evocative power of his work, I start chattering about how graphic designers have such a large impact on society, in an almost divine kind of way, with graphic design affecting almost everyone on a daily basis. Ámundi agrees. “I definitely think graphic design has a great influence on how people perceive and sense beauty, ” he says.
At the same time, the public doesn’t tend to be aware of the people behind the work, which leads me to believe that modesty must be a somewhat necessary trait for graphic designers. Ámundi, at least, doesn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of “design star” status that’s afforded to similarly prolific figures making, say, furniture or fashion. “I guess it doesn’t really bother me because it has always been like that,” he says. “People don’t know what you’re doing unless they’re in the business. That’s just how it is. And moreover: sometimes your work is taken and recycled, in a way. That’s a typical thing that would generally get on my nerves, but in this context it doesn’t. At least not if it’s properly done. ”
Without skipping a beat, Ámundi is suddenly enlightened: “I think I know why it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “It’s because I’m constantly doing it myself. You see—I am a graphic sampler.” Although his face is dead serious, there’s a smile behind his words and it’s apparent that he doesn’t take himself, or his work, too seriously. “You see, I borrow stuff from all over and re-apply it in my work,” he continues., “although I quit straightforward stealing early on.” He points to a record he designed. “The back cover of this one was pure theft from another designer,” he says. “I was so embarrassed about it afterwards that I stopped stealing immediately. I realised that if you’re borrowing or sampling you have to fundamentally alter the images.”
I take this speech about stealing only semi-seriously, because if Ámundi is a borrower, he’s a very subtle one. His work has strong recognisable characteristics that have adapted to the times. But taking all this into consideration it starts to make sense that he’s comfortable with relative anonymity. Ámundi seems to look at graphic design as the art of conversing with the past, present and future—taking from the past, giving to the future and, perhaps most importantly, understanding the current, and swimming with it.
This constant evolution means that the older work in the exhibition has visibly dated, but in a way that can be very personal to the viewer. A logo for a TV station that went bankrupt appears now as a cultural artefact of the past, and an Emiliana Torrini CD cover can act as a surprisingly powerful sensory trigger (loved that one, when I was eight). In a way, the viewer is taken for a sentimental roller-coaster ride through visual design.
This kind of retrospective show also means facing up to work that’s long since been superseded in quality. And in all honesty: some of the older stuff is… well, not that great. I politely ask Ámundi how it feels to look back over 30 years of output. He seems to read my mind: “Some of my early stuff is pure horror,” he laughs. “But I decided I wouldn’t let myself get away with censorship.” He walks me to a logo for Utangarðsmenn, an 80s punk band. “Take this, for instance,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s dreadfully over-done.” He points to a couple of other logos that he thinks are just appalling. “I was so proud of this one,” Ámundi says, pointing to a background for a TV station as we both laugh.
Ámundi’s early work was made back when graphic design was closer to handcraftsmanship, with professionals working with typesetters, print plates and photographic reproduction. When the digital revolution arrived, Ámundi was studying in Toronto, and he recalls his teacher telling the students that their prosperity relied on learning to work with a computer. “I’ll never forget my first encounter with a computer. I remember asking my professor: ‘Does what I do in here simply come out over here?’” he recalls, tracing an imaginary computer and printer with his hands. “When he said yes, I just went like…” Ámundi then throws himself dramatically down on his knees and raises his hands in the air. “I hadn’t prayed for years at this time, but I just felt this was a gift from heaven.”
Joining a cult
Ámundi goes on to tell me he’s very interested in everything concerning God. “Fifteen years ago I went to meditate with an American guy,” he tells me. “Well, he was totally crazy. He was eventually fired, a total nut job. But he woke me up. For that I will be forever grateful. It was a multiple-hour meditation, and afterwards, I felt I had entered a place I knew and connected to something true inside myself. Since then I’ve been constantly searching.” He tells me how this has affected his graphic design and I glance at a huge typographic sign in all caps: LET GO, GIVE UP, SURRENDER. Ámundi tells me it’s his motto. “I try to live by these words.”
A few years after meeting the crazy meditation guy, Ámundi continued his search when he took a meditation course. It affected him even more deeply—his teacher, especially. “She’s the most remarkable phenomenon I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “She’s the freest person I’ve met. When I looked in her eyes for the first time, I just–pffffhh–got sent away somewhere. So naturally I got scared and kept away from her for some time.” It’s evident that this topic is important to him, and he takes breaks to think about how to explain. “I joined a cult, you know,” he says, watching for my response. Now his banter is obvious, although he’s not making a joke. “I tell people this to shock them. I know most people are scared of cults. I am as well.” The cult Ámundi is referring to is called “The Center of the Golden One” and focuses on surrendering to God. (Feel free to Google it.)
Ámundi’s confidence and sincerity is admirable. He’s not afraid of being judged or made fun of. He has simply found something that he believes in. “It’s hard to explain, it’s even hard to talk about,” the graphic designer explains. “I’m trying to find one sentence to make this clear, but it’s hard to find. I see God in various places, especially in the eyes of children. They haven’t developed the histrionics that we suffer from as grownups.”
His faith in graphic design is a little less stable. “Sometimes I feel like I’m beautifying the world a little bit, but the next day I feel that this is a pathetic job. It’s not like I’m a doctor or a teacher, you know.” Keeping the faith can be hard. “This faith at least,” Ámundi laughs. “It’s hard to see how it matters, sometimes. But then everything matters.” He laughs again. “Well, now I’m just talking like some lunatic.”
Freedom of inspiration
Keeping an open mind, Ámundi seems to be able to seek inspiration from wherever. But an all-time inspiration for him, he tells me, came from visual arts, namely the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. “Especially his ready-mades,” he says, “how he takes things that already exist and puts them in a new context.” This makes perfect sense given our earlier conversation about sampling. “Dieter Roth was also a great inspiration for me,” Ámundi continues, “even though it doesn’t necessarily show in my work. I know how important it was for me to be around him when I was young—his son was a friend of mine.” He pauses, thinking back. “It was like meeting God, you know, he was such a legend.”
Ámundi tells me about an important meeting he had with yet another artist: Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson. “This was during a time when I felt I was stagnant,” he says. “And he told me, ‘Try to find what truly touches you, embrace it and dig into it,’” he says, pausing briefly. “That was my fifties…” He goes on to explain how he came to realise that American television, which was broadcast in Iceland from the US army base, also greatly influenced his sense of beauty. He seems a little bit embarrassed, almost as if he was excusing the time he spent in front of the TV. “I was a movie-freak,” he says. “I would escape into a different world through movies.”
While he tells me about the 50s movies he loved to watch as a young man, I can see how this harmonises with many of his logos, such as the one for Kaffifélagið, a small coffee shop on Skólavörðustígur. “I had always tried to shut this TV influence out—I was embarrassed, in a way. Just like I was embarrassed of my love for sentimental music. But now I just allow myself to listen to Burt Bacharach.”
We leave the museum together and Ámundi asks me if he should take a taxi or join me on the bus. Would I mind? Of course not. It’s public transport, anyway. So off we go.
This is new for me, walking with a strange, older man, to catch a bus together. But somehow it feels super normal. On the way to the bus he tells me stories about how his son demanded to rent movies every night when he was a kid, clearly inheriting his father’s interest in movies. He tells me he’s now expecting a ‘little Ámundi,’ getting a little ahead of himself, clearly excited.
We see the bus approaching and have to run to catch it. On the bus journey, we pass at least four of his logos. Neither of us mentions them, and I guess none of the other passengers have any idea.
Ámundi runs until May 31 at the Museum of Design and Applied Art, which is open every day 12:00 – 17:00.