From Iceland — Graphics Follow Music

Graphics Follow Music

Published December 20, 2012

Designer Goddur diplays his collection of 29 posters

Graphics Follow Music
Arit John
Photo by
Alísa Kalyanova

Designer Goddur diplays his collection of 29 posters

In person, Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon, professionally known as Goddur, doesn’t strike you as the creator of quirky and colourful posters. Sporting an unruly white beard and dressed in a black shirt under a black vest, black pants, black boots and a black beanie, he is the type you would expect to cover his walls with posters for death metal concerts, not movies, art exhibits and spoken music festivals. But then, his sartorial choices may just be part of a minimalist aesthetic.

“Sometimes the best designers, the best artists, are the ones who do the most minimal things,” he says. “Western people have a tendency to over-design.” 

His own office in the Iceland Academy of the Arts building is fairly simple—a couple of couches, a side table, a desk and a bookshelf.  On the walls are three posters, all part of the 29-piece collection that will be on display at the Spark Design Space until January 15.

Art, design and Björk’s coattails 

The collection, which first debuted as Iceland’s contribution to 2011’s Beijing Design Week, has been exhibited in 12 cities around the world. However, this is the first time that the posters  are formally exhibited together in Iceland. 

His philosophy for making them is fairly simple. “The message must be conveyed quickly,” he says. It happens in three layers: First, the poster must catch the viewer’s attention. Then it must convey what it is—an art exhibit, a film poster, etc. Finally, it must be clear who’s advertising. 

This, he says, is the difference between art and design. With art, you can spend months discovering the message, noticing different nuances with each viewing. This sort of delayed response doesn’t work for promoting events, as you want people to know what your event is before it’s passed. 

“With design, the top three layers must be pretty clear, but behind them you can have more layers that are not as important, but closer to art.”

At one point Goddur pulls up the oldest poster in the exhibit, an announcement for an art exhibit from 1996. The design is a collaboration with Bjarni H. Þorarinsson—Goddur received a pencil sketch from him and created what he called “a visual representation” of Bjarni’s world. Angel whales float above a futuristic barn house surrounded by tractors, both on the ground and in the sky. 

Despite being sixteen years old, the poster doesn’t seem dated. This is why Goddur prefers making posters to doing advertising work, which is meant to sell products in that moment.

As a professor, Goddur has been able to define the terms and number of layers of his own work. Over the last seventeen years he’s taught art in Akureyri, at the Icelandic Academy of Arts and Crafts in Reykjavík, and at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, where he’s currently employed. In this time Goddur says he has never had to apply for a teaching position. “They always come to me,” he says matter-of-factly. 

In that time he’s taught hundreds of students, many of whom now work in the design industry. The international success of some of these students, as well as international interest in his own work, is in some ways a result of the popularity of Iceland’s hit music groups. As Björk, Sigur Rós and other groups began selling albums abroad in the early 2000s, the artwork on the albums sparked an interest in the designers behind them. Or, as Goddur puts it, “the graphics followed the music.”

This has, at least in Goddur’s world, been going on for decades. His own interest in graphic design started when he was a teenager growing up in Akureyri, when the artwork on ‘70s vinyl records drew him in. 

He was at the time actively creating posters for different student groups, posters protesting the Vietnam War and championing the student revolution. And while his grades in math and other courses suffered, his visual art grades were always high. Eventually Goddur dropped out altogether.

Second chances for dropouts

“It’s usually the dropouts and the B students who do best in the field,” Goddur tells me, speaking from both personal and general experience. “It is usually the people that have to fight for their existence, to make their careers, who do best.”

In 1976, he began his formal education as a fine arts student at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts. There he studied mixed media art under members of the avant-garde art movement FLUXUS, including Dieter Roth and Herman Nitch. Years later, Goddur would be invited back to teach at the school, but in 1979, just short of graduation, he was kicked out “more or less for drinking,” he says. 

“I was drinking too much alcohol and smoking too much pot,” Goddur says. “I was dreaming more and more about what I wanted to do and doing less and less.” 

It was through his efforts to sober up during the early ’80s that he found his way into graphic design. “Part of my rehab was to get away from the bohemian life of the artist,” he says.

He moved to Vancouver, Canada and began studying graphic design at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. It was the late ’80s, and the old tools of the trade—a film grid for precision, an exacto knife for cutting and a wax for paste—were just being replaced by the Macintosh wave of the future. Goddur was part of the first generation of design students to use PageMaker, now Adobe InDesign and Adobe Illustrator, which he used to design all of his exhibit posters.  

But ask Goddur about Vancouver and he’ll tell you about the fireworks during the World Expo in the summer of 1986 when he arrived. Or he’ll talk about the design portfolio and fifteen boxes of personal belongings he left there in 1990, after his three visas—student, work and tourist—expired. “Immigration told me ‘get married or hit the road,’” he says. And while he returned to Iceland intending to head right back to Vancouver as an immigrant, he hasn’t so much as visited once in the 22 years since he left. 

He brings up the John Lennon quote: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

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