From Iceland — To Know Is To Design: Kristín Þorkelsdóttir On A Lifetime Of Creating Iceland

To Know Is To Design: Kristín Þorkelsdóttir On A Lifetime Of Creating Iceland

Published June 4, 2021

To Know Is To Design: Kristín Þorkelsdóttir On A Lifetime Of Creating Iceland
Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Ólöf Breiðfjörð

“You could say this is my lifetime work,” says product designer Kristín Þorkelsdóttir, gesturing to the large, airy exhibition hall of the Museum of Design and Applied Art. She’s standing in front of what appears to be a corner of logos, with the Icelandic Nature Conservation Council, the town of Mosfellsbær and even BYKO’s symbol on display. Yes, all around Kristín are the icons of Iceland—her life’s work.

Even if you’ve never heard the name Kristín Þorkelsdóttir, if you’ve spent more than a minute in Iceland, you’re no doubt familiar with her work. From Icelandic butter to the Icelandic banknotes, the history of this country is written with Kristín’s product designs. And now, it’s all gathered in one room as part of the Museum of Design and Applied Art’s special retrospective on her work.

Found treasure!

“If you’re working on something, you have to know it,” Kristín explains, when asked about her approach to product design. “When I was designing a book jacket, I never did it without reading the book first, and then my subconscious would work on it without me knowing. You have to find the core of what you’re working on.”

“You have to find the core of what you’re working on.”

And it’s clear that Kristín has found many cores, as the room is filled to the brim with works of all forms. There’s floral packages of Nýmjólk, which, as Kristín explains, were inspired by the works of Eggert Pétrusson. And across from that is a special glass case featuring the progression of Kristín’s book jackets for Rachel Carson’s game-changing environmentalist work ‘Silent Spring’.

But it’s Mosfellsbær’s logo that Kristín is quick to point out as a favourite. “Egill Skallagrímsson was a painter for the King of Denmark and the story goes that he got a silver treasure for his great defeats. He supposedly buried it in Mosfellsbær,” Kristín explains. So when given the challenge of designing the town’s coat of arms, Kristín contacted then-president Kristján Eldjárn, who was the guardian of the relics, to see the treasure. He showed her the coins Egill got from the king and voilá—the core was found.

Kristín Þorkelsdóttir

Hidden gems

The króna get their own corner of the exhibition. Of course, the banknotes are present but along with that are sketches from the design process that Krístin has kept over her lifetime and other gems—such as the reference photos Krístin used to draw those of which she had few visual references.

“There were no pictures of Brynjólfur Sveinsson,” Kristín explains, gesturing to the 1,000 ISK bill featuring the bishop. “So I asked a friend of mine. He is a photographer, but I took his place and he posed for me.” Kristín then took the photo of her friend and altered it slightly for the finalised sketch. “I changed his face a little. I used the mouth of my oldest son,” she laughs.

The most curious note in the collection though is one that many newcomers to Iceland might not even know exists—the 2,000 ISK bill, which features famed painter Jóhannes Kjarval. “The 2,000 ISK bill was never programmed into the ATMs, so not a lot of people use it. You have to specifically ask in the bank to get it,” Kristín explains. “I’m actually quite sad it didn’t get a lot of attention — I think it’s the most beautiful one.”

Kristín Þorkelsdóttir’s secret

While the current banknotes are here to stay, there has been talk once again about removing two zeros off the króna to reorganise and stabilise the currency. If so, does Kristín have any ideas of who she’d choose to feature from the modern era?

“My husband and I were talking about it yesterday evening, and we have some ideas, but we will never say,” she says cheekily. “But I think there might not be more banknotes. I think the world is using cards.” She pulls out her card, laughing. “That’s a secret!”

Kristín Þorkelsdóttir’s exhibition runs until January 30th, 2022 at the Museum of Design and Applied Art.

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