Published March 20, 2018
Sitting on a low wooden panel that runs along half the perimeter of Kjarvalsstaðir’s Idea Lab, I draw my legs inward and I look around me, my eyes wandering over the aquamarine décor, reminiscent of arabesque tiles. Designer Guðfinna Mjöll Magnúsdóttir lounges next to me slowly sipping her tea, her iconic mane of white hair falling tidily onto her shoulders.
Guðfinna is best known for having championed Icelandic wool for the past 15 years through her label Vík Prjónsdóttir, whose distinctive ‘Wing’ and ‘Healing Hands’ scarves and colourful ‘Sun Hats’ have become synonymous with quality Icelandic design. Not content with this success, Guðfinna continued to expand her horizons beyond the realm of fashion, approaching various creative fields through design, and becoming one of the most established and multifaceted designers in Iceland. She’s also the creative mind behind the Idea Lab, which she designed in 2013 as a free space for adults and children to make, and be inspired by art. “I really love to find the heartbeat for the projects that I work on,” she explains. “Then you know you have the passion for it.”
A matter of survival
For Guðfinna, design ultimately comes down to passion—and, perhaps, a tendency to take advantage of every opportunity. With her overflowing schedule chock-full with creative sessions, lectures, studying and her daily chores as a mother, at first glance she could pass for an overly enthusiastic millennial who was told she could and must have it all—the job, the family, the money. However, she’s more like the poster child for 21st century independent workers—always busy, always on the run, and unable to slow down.
Although Guðfinna enjoys the perks of being an established designer who’s been active in the Icelandic creative scene for almost 15 years, she feels the industry is changing. Public institutions see young people with too many low-paid opportunities and fewer long-term plans and look at them as redundant. With soaring rents, undignified student loans and an increasingly competitive market overflowing with freelancers, the future looks precarious for those who are looking to survive in the Icelandic creative scene. It’s become a matter of survival for design itself: it must adjust to the times and find a new place in Icelandic society before it’s too late.
A right to education
For a country that is slowly trying to come to terms with crumbling institutions that are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate, admitting that the educational system also needs to be spruced up is a difficult thing to digest. For Guðfinna, however, we must start there, weaving a sturdy safety net around young students. “I’ve often been on the edge of giving up in these studies because it’s so hard to work everything out,” she explains, referring to both financial and personal difficulties. “So that’s number one—to have a system where students can really focus on their studies.”
“We’re excluding some groups from being able to study and that’s also a serious problem.”
According to Guðfinna, in fact, financial issues seem to arise long before students acquire their degree, and don’t necessarily get resolved with time. “When I was studying at the Iceland Academy of the Arts 14 years ago I could live off the student loan—of course I was broke, but it still worked,” Guðfinna says. “But I was in huge shock to see how drastically this has changed.” She’s referring to the fact that students today have to work while they study because of loans that are effectively out of touch with the latest social and urban development, with amounts calculated for a Reykjavík that doesn’t exist anymore.
This means that students, whether they have a family to support or not, can never invest enough time in their studies. “They’re not in full focus,” Guðfinna says, adding that Iceland is also on the verge of making access to education a privilege rather than a right. “We’re excluding some groups from being able to study and that’s also a serious problem. I’m not sure if the Ministry of Education realises this.”
The pressure is on
Things don’t always seem to get better after graduating. If Iceland was once a haven for creative minds, it’s suddenly being catapulted into the real world without a life jacket, or even a miserable raft.
“If you’re an independent worker there is no back-up. No safety net, and that’s difficult—sometimes.”
It’s worth mentioning that designers can apply for grants just as artists, novelists and poets do. They do have the opportunity to take as many projects as they want and they can enjoy a flexible work environment. Finally, they can take advantage of unique opportunities such as DesignMarch, which seeks to support the Icelandic design and art scene with lectures, workshops and open exhibitions. Yet, compared to the local music scene—which fares so much better without financial help from the government—design seems to be the weakest link in the local creative chain, whether it’s fashion or product design.
“We never lived from Vík Prjónsdóttir,” Guðfinna confirms, referring to herself and her collaborators Þuríður Rós Sigurþórsdóttir and Brynhildur Pálsdóttir. “We wanted to work on more projects but we also had to be able to get a proper income. So through the years, it has always been a matter of juggling two, three, maybe four projects at a time.” And while Guðfinna cherishes all the opportunities that have been presented to her, she also admits that it can be tricky to say no to projects coming her way.
Like the little ant that puts away food in the warmer months to be able to eat in the winter, she and many other designers have to be able to compromise to be able to live off their work. “These are things that you don’t think of when you are newly graduated, but with time, when you experience life, you get sick or have a baby, you realise how important that is,” she explains. “If you’re an independent worker there is no back-up. No safety net. That’s difficult—sometimes it makes you want to give up.”
A single mother
Guðfinna experienced this kind of breakthrough long after her graduation, and once she’d had a baby. That’s how she spotted the biggest conundrum in the local design scene: that despite being part of a network of independent workers, you can still feel extremely alienated in the marketplace. In particular, she was struck by the lack of a union to protect independent workers and provide information on insurance, pensions and parental leave.
As a single mother, Guðfinna felt particularly antagonised. “When I had my boy four years ago, I got scraps in parental leave,” she says. “I’m used to low wages, but that shocked me. I had never experienced being so broke, and it makes you feel like you can’t survive. I felt like society was telling me not to have kids because it made everything much more difficult.”
On social evils
Guðfinna often talks about the necessity of working and staying busy, but never in a negative tone. She enjoys what she does, and it’s that twinkle in her eyes that betrays the passion and excitement she feels while talking about working and going back to university. Her talent has been rewarded with an abundance of projects, and she rejoices at the trust people put in her. But as time goes by she is less inclined to see her endless drive as something praiseworthy.
“Icelanders are suckers for people who are hard-working and it’s problematic. That’s the ultimate compliment here, you know?” she explains. “But I’ve often had this dilemma where I know I’ve overworked myself and so I tried to edit more what I was doing and have days off over the weekends, but that’s tricky to manage. I have also been dealing with a series of traumas that drained me completely, until this autumn I just kind of had a system breakdown and got really sick. It was surreal to feel defeated.”
“The praise of being hardworking is a big part of Icelandic culture. But it’s a true social evil.”
After managing projects, studying and having a child, as well as experiencing a series of breakdowns, Guðfinna realised she couldn’t go on pretending she was made of steel. But the issue of how to defeat social pressure still stands. “I am used to being hard-working and handing everything in on time—and to admit that you can’t do that for some time is really hard. You can feel defeated,” she explains. “This is a real issue in Iceland because it’s such a big part of our culture—the praise of being hard-working. But it’s a true social evil. When you’re working independently, projects come in and you can’t really control them—but at the same time, it’s so expensive to live here that you have to work constantly. You have to take the projects to survive, so how do you last in this field? This can’t happen so often that people crash completely.”
Right now, Guðfinna is working on healing and doing things she loves, but she knows this is a privilege. Others are not so lucky. In a world that has suddenly begun to move at a faster pace, Guðfinna has been blessed with the knowledge that designers must find ways to survive through collaboration, community, and mutual support. Although the job can be isolating, designers don’t live in a vacuum—on the contrary, their place is within society, and their purpose can be to help their community grow from all angles.
Guðfinna is doing just that. Although she began her career by designing wool pieces for her design label, she lent her skills to the widest variety of projects during the past 15 years. She went from creating an exhibition for children books to designing indoor spaces; from designing food products and shops to finding ways to protect the environment. In addition, she juggles being a teacher at the Iceland Academy of Arts and studying for a new university degree in landscape architecture.
“The key is to look at the purpose of design in a way that changes all the time,” Guðfinna says. “I think it can be completely different each time I work so that the purpose of me being a designer is one today but it was another one some years ago, and something different in the future.”
Fighting for the environment
Purpose and passion are indeed what drives Guðfinna’s work. Fifteen years ago, when she began working on Vík Prjónsdóttir with four other fellow students, the idea was to take wool—which had been out of fashion for years—and make it relevant again. As she felt that the Icelandic wool had potential, she created opportunities for it to be valued.
Later, she worked with Brynhildur Pálsdóttir on exploiting the potential of Icelandic clay. When she felt the need to show the importance of design in food production, she went on to work with local farms to create food packaging and, in the case of her latest project with Erpstaðir, even an entire store that plans to sell Skyr ice cold and straight from a machine, like fro-yo. Now, however, her heart and sense of purpose lie in the environment, whether it’s landscape planning or the pressing issue of plastic pollution.
“I would really like to see Icelandic food producers make a bold environmental move when it comes to their packaging. Microplastic has polluted all oceans and in many countries, it’s already in the drinking water,” Guðfinna explains. “Thankfully there are a lot of creative people already working on this, but a great responsibility lies with producers and designers, who have to find ways to stop using virgin plastic in their production in favour of biodegradable materials.”
Guðfinna is aware that she can’t change things on her own, but as a designer, she is conscious of what kind of materials she should and shouldn’t use in her products, so that plastic fibres aren’t flushed into the oceans directly from our washing machines.
“I would really like to see Icelandic food producers make a bold environmental move when it comes to their packaging.”
Governments and politicians, however, play the most important role in the fight for the environment. In a country that is slowly moving away from its pledge to respect the Paris Agreement, too little is being done to lighten the impact Iceland has on the environment. Compared to other European countries, Icelandic municipalities are behind even when it comes to recycling. Guðfinna, however, is one step ahead. “Today it’s all about the circular economy where the creation of waste is being avoided altogether and the resources are being kept in use for as long as possible,” she adds. “It’s really challenging but a linear economy—as in make, use, dispose—is just not acceptable anymore.”
Swapping roles and finding inspiration
Expanding her range of vision when it comes to design has also helped her along her adventure as a teacher. Guðfinna has worked both for her alma mater, the Iceland Academy of Arts, and for the Reykjavík School of Visual Arts, but despite her invaluable experience as a designer, her position as a teacher doesn’t pressure Guðfinna into being a mentor. Instead, she exercises her influence discreetly when it comes to environmental matters, looking at her relationships with current and former students as exciting collaborations.
“It’s a privilege to get to know them all and see what they’re thinking about,” she explains. “Through teaching, I’ve gotten to know so many people who are doing great things and who really inspires me, like the students in textile design in the School of Visual Arts. They are now working with wool, sketching straight into the materials and collaborating with the knitting factory and the design store Epal for Design March.”
“When you are collaborating with other experts you learn so much from them. This dialogue is so important for the design process.”
Guðfinna admits that swapping roles and being both a student and a teacher on the same day can be daunting and chaotic, but she loves it nonetheless. She’s one of those people for whom the creative dialogue is a source of energy and inspiration, and while she likes her work as an independent professional, she cherishes all her collaborations even more. Even so, bursting out of the design bubble in Reykjavík and focusing on her studies in Hvanneyri felt like a breath of fresh air. “Of course, part of going into these studies was to have more possibilities work-wise, but then it also felt refreshing to be in a different crowd,” she admits with a laugh.
A healing garden for the future
It’s clear that the environment has a special place in Guðfinna’s heart, and it’s no wonder that her initial plan to go back to University for just a semester ended up stretching to an entire Bachelor of Science. “I wanted to add something different to my product design degree, so I decided to open up the scale,” she explains. “Dealing with product design, you’re often working on a domestic scale, but here you’re working in public spaces, outdoors. I’m really interested in designing a public space that people can just use —where they don’t have to buy an entrance or buy a product. This area has a lot of potential and there are so many possibilities that we haven’t explored, both in Reykjavík and in the countryside.”
As of late, Guðfinna has been lending her landscape knowledge to the municipality by organising the Forest Games in Heiðmörk, just outside of town—a project she is really excited about. However, she has a more ambitious baby climbing out the cradle. As part of her graduation project, Guðfinna is designing a healing garden for the National Hospital Landspítalinn as a safe haven from the pain and sorrow that can often permeate the pristine halls of the institution. Although Guðfinna hasn’t got much time to work on this project, she hopes to walk the paths of the garden in person in the near future.
“I have been spending quite a lot of time at the hospital for the past three years for various reasons so I’ve done some field work,” she explains, smiling. “I really believe that this idea could make a difference for patients, families, and even the staff.”
No designer is an island
It’s this kind of mindset that sets forward-thinking designers like Guðfinna apart from the rest. With her down-to-earth attitude and a curious soul driven by a desire to experiment and create, Guðfinna unconsciously plays an important role in the future of design—both as a role model for young students and as a designer of the future. By opening up to possibilities and branching out to different creative fields, she reclaims design as a necessary driving force within the local territory. It’s up to Icelandic professionals like her to lead the way when it comes to revolutionising the cultural perception of local design, and securing its place within the community.
As I walk with her through the wool factory where her iconic scarves and pelts are produced, I look at her interacting with respect and admiration with the factory workers. Finally, I understand what she meant when she talked about the value of her work relationships and creative collaborations.
“As a designer that’s what I love: you’re good in some things, but when you are collaborating with other experts you learn so much from them. This dialogue is so important for the design process,” Guðfinna finishes. “Most of my work needs this dialogue. It’s the key to the process, and to be able to be in that dialogue with so many professions, that’s really what gives me such huge inspiration.”