From Iceland — The Professor And His Pixel Prince

The Professor And His Pixel Prince

Published March 23, 2011

The Professor And His Pixel Prince

Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon, Goddur, is Professor of Graphic Design at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts. A dropout who was kicked out of the Icelandic College of Art and Crafts, Goddur went on to get a fine education from Fluxus artists. He studied under Magnús Pálsson, Dieter Roth and Hermann Nitch to name a few. He went on to study graphic design in Vancouver, Canada, in the eighties, and was of the first generation that learned to design in an Apple Macintosh environment.
Returning from Vancouver (against his will!) in the early ‘90s, Goddur taught graphic design in Akureyri for a spell before moving on to managing the graphic design programme at the College of Art and Crafts (from which he had been kicked earlier), which would later turn into The Icelandic Academy of the Arts (LHÍ). He has been a professor at the school since 2002.
Goddur participated in the Klink & Bank project, and appeared with Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhodes at the Pompidou in 2004, in an exhibit entitled ‘Dionysiac’. He is an avid spokesman of visual literacy and has written many articles on the subject for the Icelandic media. He attends a sweat lodge two times a month, is “neck-deep in Shamanism” and intends to “spread polytheism and reclaim humans’ understanding and respect for nature” in the future.
Renowned graphic designer, typographer and illustrator Siggi Eggertsson was born in Akureyri in 1984. He spent his childhood obsessing about computers and drawing, and as a teenager learned he could combine the two in graphic design. He studied the field at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, doing internships with Karlsson Wilker in New York and a semester at Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee before graduating in 2006.
While still in school, Print Magazine named him one of the twenty brightest design stars under the age of 30. After graduating, Siggi took on a job with London agency Big Active. He has contributed to publications like Dazed and Confused and The New York Times and has done commercial work with Nike, Stüssy and Coca Cola, to name a few (he has also contributed illustrations to The Reykjavík Grapevine and the ‘Inside Reykjavík’ guide we published in 2006).
Siggi has received numerous awards throughout the years, lauded for his unique style and clear vision. He most recently received an Icelandic Music Award for creating the cover to Apparat Organ Quartet’s ‘Pólýfónía,’ the artwork for which will be on display at DesignMarch, in Tjarnarbíó. Some of his current goals, listed on his website are: making furniture, making an album cover for Björk, designing money, illustrating children’s books and working with LeBron James.
Here’s where it gets interesting. As you might have surmised, Goddur was Siggi’s professor and mentor during the latter’s stint at LHÍ. The two have known each other since Siggi was a teenager. They get along well but at the same time seem exact opposites, Goddur being an outspoken motormouth who changes his mind mid-sentence while Siggi is quiet, firm and stubborn. What sort of discussion arises when student meets master after making his way in the wide world? Read on to find out!
Goddur: …I first saw Siggi at Gilið in Akureyri [Akureyri’s ‘art district’] when he was fifteen or sixteen years old. He had a little office there, making posters for [arts society] Gilfélagið and various events they were staging. I knew his mother, and she had told me she had a boy that was making graphics, asking me to peek over his shoulder and tell her if he had any future in the field. That’s the first time we met.
I next saw him a couple of years later when he was trying to get into LHÍ [The Icelandic Academy of the Arts] at far too young an age. He was eighteen by then, too young, but he managed to whine his way in. It was a tough decision. You aren’t always doing people a favour by admitting them at a young age; even though they might have enough talent and the technical ability, there’s always a question of whether they’re intellectually developed enough to practice and fathom the ideological discourse, writing essays and whatnot.
See, LHÍ is not a technical school and was never intended to be one. Its goal is training burgeoning artists and creatives in practicing discourse about arts and design, their philosophy, sociology, history…. but we still let him in, because sometimes you can’t get in the way of those that obviously possess what we call ‘magic’. They have an innate ability to fascinate others, something we’re always looking for in the creative fields. In Siggi’s case, we couldn’t stand in his way. In fact, the problem was the other way around: he was far too quick in mastering what we had to say and teach him. In the end, we had to set him free… He completed his studies at the school, but we had taught him all we could long before he graduated.
Was that embarrassing for you as teachers?
G: Yes, it was. [Goddur leaves to answer a phone call].
Is he telling the truth?

Siggi Eggertsson: Uhm. I don’t know…
How did the two of you meet?
SE: Well, it’s as he said. I was working in Gilið and my mother asked him to look at one of my posters. Gilfélagið had advertised for someone to make posters and graphics, and I applied and got the job. It was a great job, even though it didn’t pay very well. A venue for what I wanted to do, even though it’s far from what I’m doing these days. I got to play around all day on the computer, making posters for jazz concerts and whatever else was going on. I had 100% creative freedom, too, which was nice.
[Goddur returns]
What makes a teenager want to do graphic design?

SE: I thought about this the other day. When I was a kid I loved computers and drawing. Those were my two passions. One day when I was around thirteen, a family friend that had just got back from Thailand came for a visit, bringing with him a pirated WAREZ CD he had brought from a street vendor. I had just gotten a brand new Pentium 133 PC, and so installed everything off the disk, including a graphics programme called CorelDRAW. It fascinated me, and through playing around with it I discovered that there was a profession that combined my two main interests.
It was around the same time that design was getting big on the internet. Designers became internet stars, posting their drawings and sketches, which were in turn discussed, on forums. There was a big graphic awakening in the early days of the internet and I followed it closely. I started participating, and I guess it was an early obsession of mine, wanting to be the best at what I did. I don’t see any point in being mediocre, not being the best at what you’re doing—or even trying to be the best—is pointless and boring. It’s not for me in any case.
The internet, is that something that matters?
SE: I would say that it means everything. It is man’s best invention, ever, I would say. It gives everyone an equal chance. It doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager from Akureyri or a rich kid in New York, you’ll have just as good a chance of doing whatever you want to do on the internet. You put something out there, and if it’s nice people will eventually spot it and you’ll get a reaction And if you continue on that path, then something might happen.
G: I want to remark upon the…
SE: Can I just finish here? So, as I said, I was getting into design at the same time that it’s getting big on-line. People are starting to design websites that are works of art, everyone suddenly has a platform where they can display their talents and share what they’re doing with the world. It was an exciting time, and it drew me right in. Sorry.

Siggi on Goddur:
Goddur is a great thinker, I would say. He has given a lot of thought to a lot of things, and he usually has something to say. And I usually agree with him, he has a good view of the world. He has also helped me a lot. I have much respect for him.

G: I wanted to ask if you’ve ever felt different for being an Icelander in your chosen field, interacting with the world as you do?
SE: No, I don’t believe in nations or nationality, I believe in individuals. Where you’re from might affect you, but in the end I am just some person that was born in this country, but this country isn’t necessarily a part of me.
G: As an art student, I once had a teacher that was a big name in the arts. We were drinking together and he said: “Never study abroad! You are so special here in Iceland, going abroad will ruin it!”
Then we drank some more and he reached the conclusion that us seeking studies abroad was fine. “I see now that your core is so strong, you can’t hide it. You can travel the whole world and never hide the fact that you’re from Iceland. The further you’ll go, the more obvious it will become.
Have you really never recognised any ‘Icelandic characteristics’ in you?
SE: No, I don’t believe those exist. What do you think they are?
G: We used to ask that a lot, and to our utmost horror we learned that it was everything we refused to admit we were, everything we wanted to hide. It’s everything you’re ashamed of and don’t want foreigners to notice. Imagine an Icelandic brass band playing on the 17th of June [Iceland’s national holiday], where nothing is quite in tune or in harmony. An Icelandic small-town church choir singing at a funeral. All the ingredients are there, but it doesn’t quite come together. Just look at Icelandic architecture—we imported all the main ideas of modernism, yet there’s no Le Corbusier, no Frank Lloyd Wright, nothing.
SE: …Everyone’s trying their best, but we just can’t get it quite right [laughs].
The Icelandic quality is being inept but still trying?
SE: I would say that. Just look at Einar Jónsson. In his sculptures he’s trying to emulate the international greats, but doesn’t quite make it. Which gives his work a quality and character of their own.
G: This begs another question: do you feel a difference in working out of Reykjavík and more remote parts of Iceland?
SE: I guess there’s a difference, but I don’t really interact a lot with other people…
G: Being a hermit, a monk that wants to live in seclusion. I know it from experience as a teacher at LHÍ; it’s how people escape from mediocrity. It’s like no one evades mediocrity except by being in a place where he can be introspective and alone with his vices. You have to have an obsession, and you need to flee others so you can indulge in that obsession. You need to become a hermit so no one can tell how anal you are in your work.
SE: Of course I am obsessed with my work, of course it is a sort of compulsion, but at the same time it’s the most fun thing I do and my main hobby.
G: Sometimes people need to focus on the small things to gather real success. Siggi isn’t really that good at drawing; he isn’t really good at anything except one thing, which is working with that small, square shape, the pixel. He’s mastered that, he’s top of the line when it comes to that one thing.
You seem to like order in your works, Siggi…
SE: I love rules. And I love creating rigid rules for my work that I need to follow…
G: In other words: you’re a fascist. There is another word for that, which is orthodoxy or fundamentalism. Political correctness. You have rules that you follow and there is absolutely no tolerance for any deviation. You see what I’m saying, the only way to superior success is donning these horse blinders that provide absolute tunnel vision, maintaining total focus at all times.
SE: I don’t feel I confine myself absolutely like that, even though I choose to work within a grid and with some rules. What I try to do is take something really small and make something really big out of it, as much as I can. Say I want to draw a horse; I’ll decide I have to draw it using a particular method that in turn influences how the work comes out.
Can you name some of these rules?
SE: They’re just these small, ridiculous rules, like only using a certain number of colours or shapes. Or inserting small jokes that only I will understand.
What does the graphic designer do? What is his or her role?
SE: I think it differs a lot from person to person. There are many different types of designers out there.
G: I’ve always thought of the graphic designer as an expert in relaying an idea to someone that needs it, using a mix of text and visuals. The graphic designer masters the art of presenting something, some message, whether it is political, religious or commercial … whatever industry there is or whoever needs to put forth a message, the graphic designer is a mediator between a message and its recipient.
SE: That seems a very straightforward way of putting it. It’s the core of what a designer does, then different ones employ different methods.
Is the difference between a graphic designer and a visual artist then that the designer is always relaying someone else’s message, while the artist makes up his own?
G: No. Because artists are often employed to get someone’s message across. Companies will pay them to make works of art or performances, politicians will employ them…
SE: And it’s pretty common that designers do something out of their own will…
G: The difference between artists and what we call visual communication is that for visual communication you need to employ no more than three layers to get your message across. That is, the sign, the signifier and the signified. The work needs to first catch the intended recipients eye, then tell him what it’s about—whether it’s an Apparat Organ Quartet or Hjálmar CD or Jón Gnarr or whatever—and then present the message. These three layers are all they can be, because it needs to be to the point and it needs to be digested quickly, while art can employ a hundred layers with references to literature and other art and hidden meanings.
The real difference is whether someone is creative or simply skilled at making things. You quickly realise that. Most of what’s made in the name of art isn’t art, it’s crap. And most design is crap, most music is crap, most business theory is crap. But there are people in each field that possess creative souls, they are all risk takers, they are all collectors, they all have that magic. I don’t sort people into categories of ‘designer’ and ‘artist’, I only divide between people that are creative and those that are merely skilled.

Goddur on Siggi:
In my mind, Siggi Eggertsson is a phenomenon of obsession. He makes up certain rules for himself. They aren’t very many. He keeps within their confines and masters their use. This is how he gets results that have placed him in the high ranks of the world’s visual communicators.

I find it very odd, this sudden focus on design. What with DesignMarch and everyone constantly talking about designers and design. This interview for instance. Where does it come from? Why? Why aren’t people talking about great plumbers or programmers or whatever… why does what we do matter so much? I don’t understand.
G: You don’t think it matters?
I just don’t understand why people aren’t talking about something else.. It’s odd having to tell people about what you’re doing, about ‘what design is’. Why not talk to a programmer? They are intensely creative, and they’re making useful things that make people’s lives easier. Why isn’t the media interviewing programmers and placing them on their covers?
G: Could it be that the designer needs more exposure than the programmer in order to get work?
SE: It works the same for the most part. The only difference is that the programmer’s job isn’t as visual. It’s problem solving. Some programmers are even creative, as in your earlier paradigm, while others are craftsmen. It’s a fascinating field.

But one aspect of your work is mass communication; addressing and trying to reach large groups of people, and if you are good at your job and succeed one could imagine that you’ve tapped into something human, something that’s shared by people the world over.

SE: Yeah, maybe. I never try to appeal to people or reach them. I put what I do out there and people will see it, but I’m not doing it for them. Everything I do, I do for myself. Regardless, I am fortunate enough that people that hire me for jobs usually know who I am and what I’m about. They’re hiring me to do what I do best, so there’s usually no confusion in that regard. I am also picky about projects, I need to like a band if I am to make their album cover. Making the cover for Apparat, for instance, I really liked. They are one of my favourite Icelandic bands.

You seem to share a certain aesthetic with the band, your artwork fit well with the music. Describe the process.

SE: We wanted to make something that was digital, yet had human elements. The band wanted to make a crest for each member and I liked the idea. I had spent a lot of time on the computer at that point, so I wanted to make this project a little differently. I drew all the pictures, then carved everything out in vinyl foil—each colour was a different film—and glued it together. It brought a human touch, they’re not 100% perfect.
Making it this way was an idiosyncratic decision, it would have definitely been easier on a computer. It took me around two weeks to draw the crests and then we spent a few nights into carving it all out, me and my friend Ögmundur Jónsson, who is very good with his hands.


What is your take on the current situation in Iceland in terms of design? Is anything going on?

[they laugh]
G: He has no idea! He won’t know a thing about it!
Yeah, no I don’t. I don’t think anything’s happening. I feel like there’s so much depression and… lack of ambition around. I can’t name any examples though.
G: I think you’re wrong. But it’s hard to spot when something’s going on. Like when kids ask me to recommend a school to go to. “Goddur, what schools are happening these days? Where’s the scene?” The fact is that if you hear about such a school or such a scene, it’s almost certain that it’s over by that time. That’s the nature of things—a chemistry starts brewing and no one can tell why, and no one even spots it until it’s over.

So, did something happen then? Has something happened?

G: See, what’s happened in the past decade is that Icelanders are for the first time participating in an international design culture, and—pay attention—almost exclusively in the field of graphic design. Books have been published about Icelandic graphic designers, magazines interview them and commission them. This started happening around the year 2000, and it doesn’t apply to architects or industrial designers or chair designers or whatnot. It’s the graphic ones that are raising attention and participating.
SE: Like who?
G: You, Katrín Péturs, Hjalti Karlsson…
SE: That’s not a lot of people.
G: Comparatively it is. And these three all have an international label. You can’t say that about Icelandic product designers or architects.

Why is this happening? Is it the internet’s fault?

G: No, I claim it’s because an international superstar of product design, Michael Young, fell in love with an Icelandic woman. It’s far more important than the internet. Journalists started venturing here to meet him and had their eyes opened to Icelandic designers and that there was something potentially brewing here that had gone undocumented. This attention and exposure injected life into the community.
G: Is anything happening in Berlin?
SE: Yes. There’s access to more, at least.
G: Is there? Do we not have access to the world via the internet and magazines and the media? Is this some personal access that you have there? I can tell you that I’ve met more world famous artists in Iceland than I ever met abroad. They are untouchable abroad, here they become your friends. You understand? I have had good conversations with David Bowie in Álftanes. You can’t meet him in New York or wherever he lives.
SE: I’ve only ever hung out with Björk abroad, never in Iceland. You’ve gotten so angry Goddur [laughs]!
[Goddur laughs]
G: I have to talk to you as a student. I have to be your teacher, that is my fate.
SE: Isn’t that just fine?

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