Birch, fish and lava

Volcanic ash notwithstanding, Iceland’s financial crisis has paradoxically come as a bit of a blessing for its creative industries, making people more willing to take risks and put design ideas into production. Hannah Booth checks out the scene in a country that is making the most of its natural resources

It’s a year and a half since Iceland’s spectacular economic meltdown. The nation is still undecided about how to repay its huge debts to European governments – but tourism is slowly rising, empty shops are filling, and the nation is investing in its creative industries in a bid to kick-start its economy by other means.

Iceland has long been associated with a hip music scene, from Björk and Sigur Rós to the established Airwaves festival. Now it’s hoping design can prove as lucrative.

The newly formed Iceland Design Centre hosted its second festival, Design March, last month. The small, lively event celebrated the innovation coming from small studios and independent designers, and the importance of experimentation. But it also revealed limitations in a country struggling with its economy – in particular, how many young designers don’t have thesupport they need to turn ideas into products.

Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir is addressing this. Already an established designer, she has just launched Lyng, a design brand and collective under which young designers can put their work into production. Its first fruits were unveiled last month: Hreinn Bernhardsson has designed Prestakaffi (Priest’s Cup) – a wine glass with a detachable birch-wood base; Jón Björnsson has cast black volcanic sand into vases and bowls; and Australian-born graphic designer, Megan Herbert, has created a decorative metal sieve for decorating cakes.

Working under one brand name is easier, and it’s better than having lots of single designer names around,’ says Bernhardsson, who is still studying. ’Lyng takes care of the production side of things, so we can concentrate on designing.’

Gudrun Lilja is a member of Studiobility, an experimental studio in Rejkjavik. During Design March its members were showcasing furniture made from recycled paper and a psychological experiment with bees, among other projects. ’We like to experiment with ideas without a set brief,’ she says. ’In such cases, the creation of products isn’t always the ultimate goal. Instead, this process gives us freedom to produce playful designs.’

Her pieces includes Rocking Beauty, an elegant wooden rocker with a decorative seat whose form is inspired by ’hydraulic dams, which are destroying a huge part of our nature’; Fairy Tale, a steel wall decoration in the shape of a butterfly, designed to cast an interesting shadow; decorative table candlesticks inspired by berry bushes; and Visual Inner Structure, a playful dining chair wrapped in Icelandic wool.

Elsewhere, Epal, Iceland’s largest design store, showcased 11 young designers working with indigenous resources – in particular, young larch and birch wood (Iceland’s lunar landscape supports few mature trees). ’About 15 years ago I started thinking seriously about how we could use local materials to manufacture the works of Icelandic designers,’ says Epal founder Eyjolfur Palsson. ’I hope our experiment will awaken people to the possibilities of Icelandic wood. Interest in Icelandic design is growing, so it’s very important to help our young businesses.’

Highlights of the show included half-American, half-Icelandic designer Chuck Mack’s simple birch trestles, Helga Sigurbjarnadóttir’s ’flat-pack lamp’ – a one-dimensional wooden light with a backlit bulb – Anna Thorunn’s Rudolf magazine rack, complete with antlers, and Hugdetta’s wooden Wine Cube for storing wine boxes.

These are not the only designers harnessing Iceland’s natural resources. In fact, if there is any clear trend in Icelandic design it is to use the country’s rich materials – from wool to volcanic rock to fish products – and to find inspiration in its awe-inspiring topography. Israeli-born Sruli Recht, something of a local star, showed a selection of pieces – from local horse-skin notebooks to a playful ’polar bear’ skin made from 15 Icelandic sheepskins. ’It’s incredibly hard to be a designer in Iceland as there are few natural materials,’ he says. Dögg Design showed its Uggi lights – whole dried codfish, with the skin forming a translucent light shade. Secret North launched a series of contemporary lava-stone fireplaces, and Bjargey Ingólfsdóttir designed Mountain Castle, an iron sconce that evokes Iceland’s seaside cliffs and rock shapes.
This movement is an instinctive reaction to the crisis, designers believe. ’The economic meltdown has made people more patriotic than before,’ says one of Iceland’s best-known young designers, Ingibjörg Hanna. ’We are using local materials, and being inspired by our past.’ The crisis has actually led to more creativity, believes Isak Winther, who designed Magneat, a popular magnetic clip-on device for storing headphone wire that is available in the UK. ’Financially, Iceland is suffering. But people thrive in these conditions,’ he says. ’Before, people had ideas, but no incentive to leave their well-paid jobs and take a risk. Now, we are forced to be creative. But you have to be pretty flexible to survive.’

Design is still an emerging field in Iceland, but it has the energy and ideas to match any of its established Scandinavian neighbours. ’Design must play an important role in the Icelandic economy, across all sectors, from construction to fisheries to tourism,’ says Iceland Design Centre director Halla Helgadóttir.

If the country can harness its unique nature, raw materials and gift for innovation, then its design scene could rival its energetic music scene – and help Iceland on the path to economic recovery.

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