From Iceland — 365 Days Of Design

365 Days Of Design

Published May 8, 2023

365 Days Of Design
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

Looking ahead at Hanna Dís Whitehead’s year on the government payroll

“I am in Höfn. To drive here (if the road is open hehehe) takes around six hours,” reads an email from Hanna Dís Whitehead in response to a request for a face-to-face interview. By sheer coincidence, just two days later we find ourselves standing in her colourful studio, 500 km from Reykjavík. Hanna Dís tells me she works with colours more in the winter as a means of battling the darkness, but one thing needs no explanation — her passion for her work is contagious.  

Reykjavík jungle to countryside oasis

“I’m from Reykjavík — 101 Reykjavík, even,” smiles Hanna Dís when asked what brought her to Höfn. “I moved here to work at the glacier lagoon as a guide probably around 17 years ago, and I loved it.” 

“(All these) years later I’m still like ‘Wow’ … the colours in the glaciers, the mountains, the sky,” she marvels aloud. “When I’m driving to my studio in the countryside I see all the birds, I see the sheep. I’m looking at their wool like ‘Oh, look at that wool blowing in the wind. I want to get that wool.’”

Hanna Dís believes that living in a small community has given her a better balance and more time to create. “I have a lot more time than I had in Reykjavík,” she says. “In Reykjavík you’re always at a red light. You’re always sort of busy somehow. Here, there’s no red light — there are no traffic lights. You go very quickly between places and everything is easy.” 

A few of her favourite things

This year, Hanna Dís became one of 10 artists to receive the prestigious listamannalaun (artist salary) in the designer category — and she’s the sole designer to be funded for an entire year to work on four projects. “I applied for a year because I had four projects that totally fit in a year. I had to make a big application and explain how I’m gonna do everything and also give a timeline,” Hanna Dís says. “I was lucky.”

Two of the projects she submitted for the grant use local materials. “These are the materials I get three kilometres from my workshop — oat straw and second graded wool,” she explains, gesturing to the piles of wool and straw scattered around the studio. “Second graded wool in Iceland is the wool that they cannot use for the knitting thread — almost all of it just gets sent out of the country.” 

Another project Hanna Dís is working on this year will focus on bent wood, also known as ‘banana wood,’ which is typically considered unusable. For this project, Hanna Dís plans to combine wood offcuts with ceramics. The fourth project is a continuation of “Point of View,” a collaboration between Hanna Dís and her friend Guðmundur Úlfarsson, which explores the artists’ shared interest while bridging the gap between digital and handmade creations. 

Exploring possibilities

At this point in time, Hanna Dís is researching what she can do with the wool and the oat straw. “I am making experiments using the felting machine at the textile lab in Blönduós, which is on the other side of the country, to make industrial felt. I colour it by mixing in the rest of the material from my rug making,” she shares. 

“I have big dreams, ignoring all the red flags that are saying ‘No, this is not possible.’”

“The material is super usable,” she says, showing some samples from Blönduós. “You just need to know the purpose for it. We don’t need to send it somewhere else, we can try to find different ways to use it here,” Hanna Dís is confident. “I think the rough part of the wool kicks off dirt very well. It’s actually really good for rugs.”

Hanna Dís is puzzled by the lack of felt usage in Iceland compared to other countries. “In Finland, you have felt shoes and felt bags, and we don’t really have this industry,” she laments. “The nice thing about it is that you can felt wool together — you don’t even need to sew anything.”

Hanna Dís says the possibilities of second graded wool are endless — she even wants to try using it in furniture: “I have big dreams, ignoring all the red flags that are saying, ‘No, this is not possible.’”

At the same time, Hanna Dís is experimenting with oat straw marquetry. “It’s just straw, but it’s amazing. It grows while I sleep,” she says. “You can do patterns with it, but of course, this is something you have to make by hand. There’s no machine or anything.” The silica on the straw is really strong, so it takes a while for straws to boil before a dye can be applied. Hanna Dís brings a block of carefully coloured and inlaid straws to the window to show its natural glow: “It’s a really beautiful surface, it reflects light in a really nice way.” 

Living the dream 

“This year I got this 12-month grant, so I’m still living in a dream. When I got that, I couldn’t believe it. You get one year of freedom,” Hanna Dís cannot hide her excitement. “I work freelance and that’s almost month-to-month worries. I got rid of those worries for a bit. I’m really looking forward to just living the dream now.”

Hanna Dís acknowledges that next year she will likely face the typical struggles of a freelancer, as it is highly unlikely that she’ll receive back-to-back grants. For now, her focus is just starting the projects. “I can work on the projects I’m so passionate about,” she says. “I feel very spoiled and super, super grateful.”

Check out Hanna Dís Whitehead’s exhibition Gentle glow at Gallery Port during DesignMarch and until May 20.

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