Iceland on Defrost
Slowly but surely, design is heating up
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 6/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Imagine being a designer in a country where there's nobody to make your products. That's the situation for most designers in Iceland, which has creativity to spare but few manufacturers. To get something produced, you'd probably have to do it yourself or look abroad, both options requiring resourcefulness and initiative.
Fortunately, those attributes are flourishing in Scandinavia's least "Scandinavian" country, one steeped in fine-art traditions but only recently evidencing much interest in design. Iceland came late to independence (1944) and even later to modern economic development. "We missed the industrial revolution and woke up in the IT age," notes Ministry for Foreign Affairs project manager Svanhvít Adalsteinsdóttir.
Pétur Ármannsson, head of the Reykjavík Art Museum architecture department, describes Iceland in 1900 as the "most primitive society in Europe." Extraordinary geography was largely responsible for this state of affairs. Isolated in the North Atlantic, the island is over 10 percent glacier and almost 65 percent wasteland.
Until the 20th century, most of the country's inhabitants were farmers. Today's population is concentrated in and around Reykjavík, a city that's essentially new. The majority of buildings date to the period of prosperity after the republic was declared.
Industrialization floundered after the European Free Trade Agreement of 1972, as Iceland found itself unable to compete with the Continent. There are few furniture companies—wood must be imported—and no mass-produced ceramics or glass. Of the two international manufacturers that aren't directly related to commercial fishing, the first makes food-processing equipment and the second prosthetics.
Because of the lack of a design tradition, it's impossible to generalize about Icelandic style. "The only thing that unites us is individuality. We're all small kings," architect and furniture designer Sigurdur Gustafsson says. In this generation, Icelanders find inspiration far and wide—and execute their ideas with spirited abandon.
In addition to individuality, Icelanders share a fierce attachment to their country. Designers generally go abroad for training, but they almost invariably return home. "There is no established designer who's not a returnee. We scavenge the world like the Vikings did," says Halldór Gislason, dean of the department of design and architecture at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Returnees are drawn by the ability to make a difference and the possibility of seeing their work completed without bureaucratic delays or public resistance to new ideas. Says Jóhannes Thórdarson, a partner at architecture firm Gláma Kím, "There's a freedom here that you don't experience elsewhere."
The two-year-old interdisciplinary design program at the Iceland Academy of the Arts focuses on concept more than craft, with marketing and business training emphasized, too. Other horizon-expanding concerns include the Museum of Design and Applied Art, currently an itinerant institution; director Adalsteinn Ingólfsson has been building a collection of historic decorative arts and staging temporary exhibits while he awaits government funds for a permanent home in Gardabaer. Form Island, organized to build public awareness of design, hopes to establish a permanent Reykjavík center like those in most Scandinavian capitals. Handverk og Hönnun helps market crafts by professional designers and untrained women from rural areas. Reykjavík's leading modern-design retailer, Epal, shows native designers alongside the likes of Eero Saarinen and Arne Jacobsen.
Still, despite these favorable developments, many Icelandic designers support themselves only by working in several disciplines. Residential commissions are widespread—in an unfriendly climate, Icelanders spend freely on their homes. Graphic and computer design are internationally successful, as they don't require production facilities. Fashion, ceramic, and jewelry designers can prosper by making one-off or limited-edition pieces.
While Scandinavians generally look on design as something to export, Icelanders see it as something for themselves. They're beginning to take a broader view, however. Besides designing furniture for Danish and Swedish manufacturers, Icelanders are learning to market themselves more aggressively outside national borders. A show of Icelandic fantasy gift objects, for example, has been touring Europe since January.
Iceland's creative output is increasingly likely to find its way onto the global market as foreigners discover the country's mesmerizing scenery and welcoming ambience. And outside interest should reinforce Icelanders' own awareness of design as part of their culture. For this young nation's young designers, the future is a landscape of limitless possibility.