We head over to Reykjavík to find out if Iceland really is the creative centre of the world
‘Design’ is the latest chapter in Inspired by Iceland, a multi-award-winning campaign for Promote Iceland from Brooklyn Brothers and Icelandic agency Islenska that's designed to harness the power of people and social media, and brand an entire country.
Never ones to do things by halves, the next stage of Inspired by Iceland is intended to build on Iceland’s fast-growing reputation for having more creative individuals than anywhere else – and cement the country as the new creative centre of the world. So when we received an invitation earlier this month to join four students from the Chelsea College of Art and Design on an inspirational trip to Iceland, we jumped at the chance to see what all the fuss is about…
For four action-packed days we teamed up with graphic design students Emma Noble, Dan Cooper, Joe Mania and Philip Linnemann to meet some of Iceland’s most talented and innovative designers, travelling across Iceland with them as they worked from a mobile creative studio.
Product designer Hafsteinn Juliusson was one of the first creatives we met – and for Noble, one of the most inspiring. From his napBook laptop bag – which “also happens to be a comfortable cushion” – to his range of Growing Jewellery (a collection of handmade silver rings and necklaces that contain Icelandic moss, and require regular watering and trimming), Juliusson’s portfolio is as unique as it is broad.
“The way he approaches his work is different from most other product designers. He incorporates elements of humour into his projects,” Noble explains.
“One of the things that I found most inspiring about Iceland was how much the people respect the land and the nature around them,” she adds. “This respect runs through into the work of many designers.”
Juliusson isn’t the only Icelandic creative experimenting with new ways of approaching design. For a country with a population of just 300,000, there’s a lot going on, as we quickly found out. The creative industries appear to be thriving – surprisingly so, perhaps, for an island hit so hard by the economic crisis – and an incredible ‘can do’ attitude permeates the Icelandic people.
Take Elísabet Jónsdóttir, for instance. An architect by trade, she teamed up with a group of young designers from different fields to set up Netagerdin, a dynamic collective based in the heart of Reykjavík, after being made redundant during Iceland’s recession. “Lots of people lost their jobs,” she explains. “But lots of us thought, ‘OK, I can create something else’” – which is exactly what she did with fellow creative Olga Hrafnsdóttir.
The pair heard a building had become available near the city’s harbour, and decided to open “some kind of design showroom and shop” – with an attached coffee house and restaurant.
Design meets food
“We knew the guys who own [popular Reykjavík restaurant] The Lobster House, so we asked them if they were ready to open another one,” she laughs. “They were up for it and we took over last summer in June. Olga and I designed the restaurant and then all the people who are here in Netagerdin designed the shop. We opened in October.”
Did they have experience in designing a restaurant? “No,” she smiles. “Just ideas. We tried to use lots of materials that were already in the building. There was a wooden stage in the restaurant space, which we used to build the bar, and the tables are made from driftwood.”
Today, Netagerdin is home to three design firms (BBolla, Stáss and Volki) and independent music label KIMI Records. “We started really small and now it’s growing,” she says. “We have many different products – jewellery, pillows, furniture, Icelandic wool, blankets… And this place is really positive. We try to stand together, back to back.
“There’s a survival attitude in Iceland. There’s a generation of artists and designers and we think: ‘Yeah, we can do it’.”
Iceland’s first type foundry
Graphic designer Guðmundur Ingi Úlfarsson agrees: “If you want to do something, you can and you do,” he says. He’s currently busy working with designer Mads Freund Brunse to set up Iceland’s first ever type foundry – you can read our exclusive interview with Úlfarsson here.
“More and more designers are starting their own little studios,” he continues. “I think the crisis had a positive impact on the creative side for graphic designers, but of course there's less money involved in the jobs that are available. Iceland is slowly building up its design history, and I think graphic design is stepping up, together with fashion and product design.”
It’s certainly an exciting time for Icelandic creatives. Jónsdóttir sums it up neatly: “In Denmark, for example, they have a really big, old tradition of design. If you compare us, they are like an old man – we are like teenagers, trying everything.”
“Iceland is a place to step outside of your regular routine,” concludes graphic designer and image-maker Jónas Valtýsson. “You can take a deep breath and watch time pass by a bit slower. I think it helps every creative mind to see something new, and for most people Iceland is exactly that.”