From Iceland — Magic Happens: Inside the STEiNUNN studio

Magic Happens: Inside the STEiNUNN studio

Published May 20, 2016

Magic Happens: Inside the STEiNUNN studio
Photo by
Baldur Kristjans
Art Bicnick

Like a fresh breeze heralding the change in seasons, a group exhibition entitled ‘The Weather Diaries’ blew into Reykjavík’s Nordic House this spring. Stepping inside its muted, grey-green confines is like entering another world. Spread across four rooms, the show is an atmospheric and mesmerising collection of texts, sculpture, video, and installed clothing, interlinked by a series of painterly, dreamlike photographs of figures in dim North Atlantic landscapes.

Set amongst works by Greenlandic, Faroese and Icelandic designers, the show’s centrepiece is a delicate dress that hangs suspended in the air, surrounded by an installation of small fabric clouds. It draws you into its orbit with a subtle and powerful magnetism, seeming to spin, slowly, like a galaxy of snowflakes frozen in a single moment. Something about the piece, and the show as a whole, seems to get under your skin, like the pervasive cold of a drizzly autumn day. It’s an intoxicating exhibition that creates the feeling of a place at once familiar and unlike any other.

A few days later, having lingered over the pages of the show’s catalogue, I visit the studio of Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, the designer behind the dress installation. It’s a warm early-summer afternoon, and people flit in and out of a nearby ice cream parlour, casting long shadows over the slanted blue store facades of Grandi. Inside Steinunn place, it’s quiet, and the air is cool. Mannequins stand in a loose throng at one end of the space under a silver STEiNUNN logo, amongst tables of carefully placed accessories and a scattering of artworks and photographs. At the other end of the studio, behind some meticulously arranged bookshelves, sits the svelte, black-clad figure of Steinunn, typing and picking at a salad, her glasses perched on the end of her nose. She looks up, and beckons me inside. “Hello,” she cries. “Welcome to my little world.”

The Weather Diaries

Through the looking glass

A brief tour of Steinunn studio reveals her many nature-inspired clothing designs, and a treasure trove of interesting artefacts that provide insight into her process. She talks enthusiastically about the milieu of friends and colleagues behind the sculptures, records, books and photographs. My eyes settle on a book by Cooper & Gorfer, the curators of ‘The Weather Diaries.’ It is, in fact, the first volume the artist-curators made as a duo entitled ‘SEEK Volume 1’—an exquisitely produced edition that charts the two journeying across Iceland, several years ago.

“The show was created for the third Nordic Fashion Biennale,” explains Steinunn, “and I was the lucky one who got to help the Nordic House find the curators. The reason I fell in love with Cooper & Gorfer was that, to me, this book shows exactly what you need to do—you need to get out there and do the research. You can see it in their diary. It was a journey—a beautiful journey.”

I leaf through the book, absorbing the rich, generous detail: sketches, footnotes, photographs, scanned receipts, and scraps of paper, all fleshing out their experience of Iceland. “There’s a pönnukökur recipe in there,” Steinunn remarks, “and interviews with Einar Örn and Finnbogi Pétursson. They used Arctic Paper—a very fine Swedish paper. When you combine such good crafts and elements together—that’s when you really know what you’re doing. I think all of the designers in ‘The Weather Diaries’ had that quality. They each started with a tradition, and then took it further.”


Creating stitches

Today, Steinunn operates primarily as a fashion designer, but the job title hardly seems to do justice to her range. She has also taught workshops, curated an exhibition on Icelandic silversmithing, and is undergoing studies in ethnography. But her path began with a deceptively simple and quintessentially Icelandic tradition: knitting.

“I’m a perfect example of a skill that was passed down,” she explains. “My grandmother taught me knitting. I know everything about it, and I’m an avid knitter. I only realised it was something special when I began my studies at Parsons, and I realised that I knew much more about knitting than my teachers. I was creating stitches. I almost felt like I was cheating, because knitting felt so natural to me. After a couple of months, they sent me out onto Seventh Avenue in New York City.”

Steinunn lived and worked in New York City for over a decade, developing and applying her skills, and meeting many interesting people along the way. “It was the 1980s—it was crazy,” she says. “But what people loved was the craft of the knitting. That’s what I tell my students, when I teach—that you have to bring something to the table.”


Exploration and discovery

Her respect for craft, and for collaborating with creative people across disciplines, has led to Steinunn’s particularly artistic perspective of what fashion can be. It’s this exploratory spirit that led to the creation of ‘The Weather Diaries.’

“If you look at fashion,” she says, “there’s the designer in the middle, and he works with photographers, hair and makeup people, models, factories—he surrounds himself with people in all disciplines, hiring the best people for him at the time. And if you break down fashion into all those elements, you discover something wonderful—by asking questions like ‘what is hair, for fashion? What is photography, for fashion?’ And there are, of course, people who do it better than anyone else, like Mario Testino and Nick Knight—incredible fashion photographers. But the question we asked with ‘The Weather Diaries’ was: ‘What if you don’t do fashion photography? What if you try something else?’ So we choose Cooper & Gorfer to do the photography part of what a designer needs. The goal was to show all these different aspects of the designer’s work.”

“The Weather Diaries has travelled to destinations I don’t think any fashion people thought it would. The images are everlasting… they show a magical world.”

The exhibition arrived, fortuitously, premiering in Copenhagen during a recent period of heightened international interest in Nordic culture. It’s since taken on a life of its own, touring to Tórshavn and Beijing, and after Reykjavík, it goes to Seattle. “I think it’s travelled a lot farther than fashion people thought it would,” says Steinunn. “The images are everlasting and beautiful. They show a magical world. It’s great to have designers from this part of the world joining forces—we might not be seen much on the world stage, but when we come together this way, someone definitely hears us.”


Rhythm knitting

This restless creativity has also pushed Steinunn to test the boundaries of her craft. “I’ve experimented so much with knitting,” she says. “The question becomes: ‘Where can the world of knitting take you?’ And it’s led me to make installations and workshops in Sweden, Greenland, at The Kennedy Arts Centre, and many other places.”

Steinunn’s ‘Rhythm Knitting’ workshop plays on the connection between knitting and music. “There’s a special rhythm that goes with how you use your hands when you knit,” Steinunn explains. “I use drummers to help find this beat. I’ve given this ‘Rhythm Knitting’ workshop in many countries, and it’s always different. My favourite was maybe in Nuuk, with a local drummer. It was an unbelievable journey.”

The next edition will be closer to home. During the upcoming Reykjavík Arts Festival, the ‘Rhythm Knitting’ workshop will take place at The Nordic House, in collaboration with Icelandic percussionist and former Sugarcubes drummer, Sigtryggur Baldursson.

“Sigtryggur has a huge parabola drum,” Steinunn says. “I said to him, ‘I want the magic! I want it to sound like the rhythm comes from the earth.’ With this rhythm, the knitting, the lighting… you’ll travel somewhere. That, for me, is what knitting does. It’s magical. You make a loop, another loop, another loop—it’s an engineering process, but if you find the fun in it, that’s the way into knitting. I’m hoping that with the workshop, young people will find that interest, so I like to get people up on chairs or tables, to use the space rather than just their fingers. I want people to look outwards, to feel and understand the craft—the base of it, and the beginning of it.”


Spinning a yarn

The beginning of Iceland’s knitting tradition goes far back into the country’s history. An archaeological dig at Hólar í Hjaltadalur, near Hofsós, has revealed evidence that goes back as far as the 1300s. “My brother is a professor who’s involved in the dig up there,” says Steinunn. “They found out a church there that took 800 people. In Iceland! This tells us that life back then was bigger than we thought—it wasn’t all so small, in little farms and crofts. They found knitting needles there, and a piece of knitted cloth.”

“I’ve used elements like frost-bitten snow, fresh snow, dirty snow, lava, rivers, and the aurora, and made the textures using suede, chiffon, mohair, viscose, fur… whatever it takes.”

Steinunn has incorporated elements of Icelandic history into her work, such as using bows or pleats inspired by the Icelandic national dress. Her work also draws inspiration from Icelandic nature, and the art and culture that springs from it. “I like to find textures in the little things in the nature,” she explains. “I’ve drawn from work by photographers like RAX and Pál Stefansson, and others, who’ve done amazing books. I used their pictures, and recreated the textures them in knitwear—elements like lava, glacial rivers, freshwater rivers, and the different types of snow. Frost-bitten snow, freshly fallen snow, snow dunes, dirty snow. The aurora borealis. And I made the textures using suede, chiffon, mohair, viscose, fur… whatever it takes. I use the elements that are right in front of me as inspirations for the textiles. I love that—creating the fabric.”

“For me, that’s what fashion is about,” she finishes, “this combinations of the elements you find within yourself, and then the magical output. And if you look at Italian design, it’s so precise and smooth and together, whereas Icelandic design is very organic. We’re probably the opposite. That’s what makes Icelandic design so wonderful. We can’t forget that—it’s precious. If we want to try to be Italian, Italians do it better. But when we’re Icelandic, that’s what we do best.”

More Steinunn?
You can further engage with Steinunn’s work by going to an exhibition, taking part in a workshop, dropping by her Reykjavík boutique, or delving into her online archive.

Visit: STEiNUNN Boutique
Grandagarður 17, 101 Reykjavík
Steinunn has a store in Reykjavík, in the up-and-coming Grandi harbour area, near the Valdís ice-cream parlour. Swing by to see her collection in the flesh.

Take part: Rhythm Knitting at Reykjavík Arts Festival
Steinunn will lead a Rhythm Knitting workshop, alongside Icelandic drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson, on Sunday May 22nd at The Nordic House. Entry is free, but places are limited: book yours here.

Visit: The Weather Diaries
The Nordic House, Sturlugata 5, Reykjavík
This lush and immersive exhibition is open at The Nordic House until July 5th. Head over to see Steinunn’s dress installation, as well as some stunning work by other Nordic designers.

Steinunn’s site contains a lot of great information, including a biography, a list of her exhibitions and workshops, and various imagery from her long career in fashion. You can also see her current collection in the online store.

Also read: Inside The Weather Diaries.

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