You’d be a little taken aback if your doctor turned up with green lips, vampire fangs and dental braces or a giant tongue covered in a dozen tiny tongues – although maybe not in these strange times. Few have managed to capture the surreal nature of life during the coronavirus pandemic as perfectly as Ýr Jóhannsdóttir. The Icelandic textiles designer and art student, also known as Ýrúrarí, is boldly re-imagining the humble surgical mask in her eye-catching new collection.
Sitting in a chair with huge, menacing knitted hands reaching over its back, against a background of tongue-emblazoned sweaters whilst toying with a length of red yarn, Ýr is the picture of calm in a surreal setting. This epitomises her whole approach to the pandemic. Ýr’s project has been a runaway success and her masks have proved a potent tool for spreading positivity and public health advice across the world, yet all the while, Ýr remains resolutely humble and objective.
“It’s super unexpected”, Ýr explains when asked about her success. She has now amassed almost 60,000 followers on Instagram and her playful designs have made fans across the world. She has been featured in style magazines and national newspapers from Mexico and Bolivia to France and the UK. “Everyone’s everyday lives have changed dramatically at the same time. It’s something we’re all experiencing at a certain level, so I think we can all relate to [the project] in some way”, she muses. The globally shared experience of COVID-19 and pure visual power of her designs have allowed her work to reach across borders like never before.
Ýr never had a global vision for her project, it simply started as a way for her to deal with the personal impact of COVID-19. The mask project was borne out of disappointment following the postponement of Reykjavik’s Design March Festival. Like many of the city’s designers, Ýr had poured all her energy into preparing for the annual event, in which she was hoping to exhibit a collection of sweaters in collaboration with the Red Cross. “I’d been planning for months”, she explains. “We’d just finished the photo shoot when everything closed down. I’d had it all planned out in my mind and all of a sudden it wasn’t happening. I was supposed to be making more sweaters for the festival when it’s held in June, but I wasn’t even sure that it would happen so I started doing something completely different”. Ýr, who sticks to sweaters as a rule, adopted a topical new form – protective medical masks.
“It’s my way of coping”, Ýr tells us. She is painfully aware that many across the world are being affected far more severely by the virus, but knitting is helping her “keep sane” in these strange times whilst she studies for her Masters degree. “I feel a bit better when I’m knitting whilst watching something dumb”, she explains.
Each mask takes hours of hard work to create. The masks’ bases are created on her enormous knitting machine in her studio, but Ýr explains that “the majority of the elements are knitted by hand”. She prefers the freedom of knitting manually, “there’s more sculpturing you can do with your hands”.
Anxious observers have been quick to comment on social media that the masks are not suitable protective equipment – they don’t cover the nose and aren’t made of appropriate medical materials. But that was never Ýr’s aim, the masks are decorative rather than practical. All Ýr wanted was to “bring some joy” whilst she tried to cope with the personal impact of the pandemic. Her work is quietly humorous, just like the artist herself. “I’m a bit too shy to be on stage so I tell jokes through my knitting”. She goes on to add that humour comes naturally to her, “I don’t think I could ever say anything super wise, but I might knit something that makes people smile”.
Ýr’s work has done far more than raise a smile on her fans’ faces, it’s also being used to promote crucial public health advice. Encouraging people to wear face masks has been a challenge for many governments in western countries, but Ýr’s light-hearted designs are helping to encourage more positive attitudes towards personal protective equipment. After seeing one of her wacky knitted creations, wearing a plain blue surgical mask suddenly doesn’t seem so strange.
“There’s this group in London that’s trying to influence people to use masks and they’ve been using images of my work to persuade people that masks can be cool”, Ýr enthusiastically tells us. Several of her creations have been showcased by Artists4Masks, a British initiative to raise funds for personal protective equipment for medical staff and normalise the use of face masks. “Iceland’s doing pretty well”, she remarks, so she’s glad her work is helping people in worse-affected countries like the UK, where masks are even more vital. Ýr is understandably thrilled with the accidental positive impact her project is having. “It’s great that they’re doing some good”.
For now, Ýr is anxious not be parted from her creations. “I wouldn’t want to feel like one was missing, they’re a form of memorabilia. I’ll probably just hang them on the walls of my studio”. But although there are no plans to sell the works, she’s considering holding a virtual exhibition in her fascinating studio. In the meantime, Ýr intends to continue spreading smiles across the world with her knitting.
You can continue to marvel at Ýrúrarí’s latest creations on her website.
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