Iceland Design Centre Manager Halla Helgadóttir explains
The Iceland Design Centre was founded in the spring of 2008, just three months before the financial crash. “It’s something that people had been working toward for twenty to thirty years,” Halla Helgadóttir, a graphic designer for twenty years before stepping in as the Design Centre’s first manager, tells me. “I wouldn’t have said it back then, but I think it wound up being a good time to launch it. We needed something to focus on, outside of the banking and financial sector. We needed something inspirational, something that was going well.” Now three years later, Halla says the young Icelandic design scene is finding its roots.
What is Icelandic design?
I remember a foreign journalist asked me this question my first day on the job, and I said you can call me in a few years and perhaps I will know the answer. A few years have passed and I don’t really know the answer yet. Still, I can say, as a design nation, we are young. Our strengths are concepts, imagination and creativity. Our design is not based on materials, like in many other countries. We are exploring our materials now, but we haven’t been making much use of them.
So this is a very new development?
Well, we have our wool, and we’ve been working with that for many years. There is now a new generation of artists searching for our design language, our history, and our specialty. At the same time, many are not working in this national context at all. We should of course look at ourselves in an international context as well.
It’s interesting to think about working within or outside a national context…
Of course it’s cliché to say that a whole nation sees itself the same way, but still I think there is a strong sense of individuality and a sense that we can do anything. That can be our worst nightmare, like in the banking crash, but it can also be our best asset because we’re not easily intimidated.
How does Icelandic design compare to Scandinavian design then?
Scandinavian design is far more established than Icelandic design. Although Icelandic design fits into Nordic design, which is clean and minimalistic, the Scandinavian countries are historically more focused on materials. Today design is very much focused on the method—a way of thinking. It’s about using design to come up with solutions to problems—using it for the good, socially and economically. And as Iceland is breaking into the design industry today, this is also very much Iceland’s focus. You could say that we have yet to find our roots and materials.
So where is the fledgling design scene heading?
Well, we have many different sectors. We have graphic design, architecture, fashion and products design—those are the main ones. Graphic designers and architects are already part of a big industry, so it’s easier for them, although with the crash, it’s not as easy for architects.
But fashion and product design are young. I would like to see stronger design companies in Iceland—five to ten companies that would hire designers, giving them a place to learn the trade. It would be good to have more production here.
Unfortunately, the business environment for these companies is tough here in Iceland. The government is always talking about innovation—everyone is talking about innovation, the banks are talking about innovation—but it doesn’t matter if the companies shut down in their early stages.
There are problems with the króna, the European Union and Customs. Some of the problems can be solved. The little Design Centre is trying to do something about it, but we really don’t have enough manpower.
Now, with the influx of tourists, do you think Icelandic design may have become the new “Viking hat”?
Well, I think tourists are important to design shops, as they are to all shops downtown, and I think it’s really interesting how design shops have kept Laugavegur alive and what would we do without them. Foreigners say that it’s unusual to see so many fashion boutiques downtown, because in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries, most designers sell their products in other shops. Of course I hope that the design scene will benefit from tourists, but I don’t think that’s their focus.
You don’t fear that designers are going to start catering to tourists because it is such a big market?
I’m not worried about the market. Some people will do that, but others won’t and that’s fine as well. If you look at design as an industry, there are good things and bad things. Perhaps we need all these things.
Of course it would be a bit boring if all the shops downtown were tourist shops—I wouldn’t want Laugavegur to turn into one big puffin store—but I think if we get too many puffin stores, they will go bankrupt and they will go away. But that’s a discussion for another time.
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