What We Saw
DesignMarch 2011 in Reykjavik

What Iceland may lack in sunshine — getting, on average, less than half the amount of rays New Yorkers enjoy annually — it easily compensates for in natural beauty. When it’s light outside, the landscape is an almost otherworldly sight, with blackened crags of lava softened by bright heaps of moss and glaciers melting into never-ending expanses of steel-blue sea. When it’s dark, there’s a symphony of northern lights to behold. With all of that visual stimulation surrounding them it’s no wonder Icelanders are aesthetically gifted, with a fashion sense that rivals Stockholm’s in its cacophany of colors and textures and a community of designers that needn’t look further than their own backyards for inspiration. When Sight Unseen was invited to Reykjavik this past weekend to attend the opening of Iceland’s third annual DesignMarch festival, that was precisely what struck us most: Whether the work we saw directly referenced the country’s landscape and culture or just told a story about its current state of affairs — as with one designer we met who had to shutter her architecture practice after the bank crash and start anew — the show felt like a singularly local celebration. Whereas some other small design fairs invite international names to play many of the starring roles, DesignMarch served as a roadmap to the Icelandic scene, and small as that scene may be in a country with just over 300,000 inhabitants, it certainly had us intrigued. As the kickoff for a new column we’re launching to catalog our impressions of experiences like these, we’ve put together a taste of what we saw at DesignMarch 2011, which you can read about in the slideshow at right.


The terrain in Reykjavik, the backdrop for the DesignMarch festival, is beautiful enough. But less than an hour’s drive outside the city you’ll encounter scenes like this: one of the volcanic fissure lakes inside Þingvellir national park, whose mirrored surface we photographed during a group excursion to the countryside.


An image we captured while driving back from the countryside through a thick, white Icelandic fog.


Those are the types of vistas that inspired Italian graphic designer and Central Saint Martins grad Elisa Vendramin to mount an entire thesis project dedicated to capturing her impressions of the Icelandic landscape. Taking the form of a book called Þýða, it incorporates photographs and illustrations she made while traveling throughout the country, plus images of installation pieces she constructed by folding those photos and drawings into origami-like arrangements. This one was on display at the fashion boutique KronKron during the festival.


“I have always been fascinated by the lively Icelandic cultural scene as well as its geographical uniqueness,” Vendramin writes in her project description, echoing our sentiments. “It is in the Icelandic landscape, in fact, that many artists like Katrin Sigurdardottir, Ragnar Kjartansson, or Olafur Eliasson find the inspiration to create.”


The same can be said, on a more modest scale, of this wrapping paper by designer and photographer Elísabet Davíðsdóttir. The paper is digitally printed with various moss formations clinging to volcanic rocks. We found it at Epal, a kind of Icelandic version of Design Within Reach.


A taste of her source material, a relatively common sight in Iceland.


Inside a small fishmonger’s shop just off Reykjavik’s main street, expat Hrafnkell Birgisson — a product designer currently based in Copenhagen and a former member of the Icelandic design collective Vik Prjonsdottir — launched a different kind of contextual product along with fellow designer Fanney Long.


Produced locally by a company called Fast Plastics, their Cutfish cutting board takes the shape of local aquatic delicacies, “thus celebrating the fishing industry that has been the backbone of Iceland’s economy for decades,” the designers write.


Long’s own work also made an appearance across town at the 10+ exhibition put on by the Association of Furniture and Interior Architects, who filled a disused warehouse on one of the city docks with work by up-and-coming locals; she contributed these two wooden valet prototypes that were the first thing visitors saw as they entered the space.


Outside the warehouse, the view looked more like this: Clusters of fishing boats, with the city center visible just beyond.


Rising Icelandic star Sruli Recht keeps his fashion and product design studio on the very same docks, where he was busy all winter preparing his first proper menswear line (we’ll offer you a look inside his atelier later this week). Launched during Paris Fashion week, the collection includes showstopping pieces constructed from local leathers and seabird plumage, and it was feted during the festival at the Reykjavik Art Museum — save for a one-of-a-kind jacket snatched up in Paris by Karl Lagerfeld.


A video playing in the background of the Museum presentation cycled through images of the clothing paired with ethereal shots of the Icelandic terrain, underscoring Recht’s fierce devotion to celebrating the country’s natural resources.


Recht also gave an early debut to forthcoming product he created in partnership with the music label Ghostly International, a metal record stand with a rusted patina. It was part of DesignMarch’s other big showcase, this one organized by the Association of Product and Industrial Designers.


We also encountered this dramatic hanging lamp at that event, whose bulbs were choreographed to brighten and dim in unique patterns. It's called the Rignandi Chandelier, and it was created by an Icelandic product designer known simply as Marý.


One of the few products in the festival that was actually in production and for sale was the Scintilla line of bedding by Linda Björg Árnadóttir, who worked as a textile designer for Martine Sitbon and Anna Molinari for 12 years before returning to Reykjavik to head the Iceland Arts Academy’s fashion department and start her own line. She was introducing her second collection at Reyjkavik’s tastemaking SPARK design gallery, an experimental space launched last year by Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir.


A far less conventional space to see design last week was Toppstöðin, a small power plant that sat empty for 20 years before becoming a non-profit launching pad for design and engineering entrepreneurs, offering temporary studio spaces and related educational programming. The city was all set to tear down the 75,000-sq.ft. building until the bank crash, when it could no longer finance the demolition; offices now run around the perimeter of the original generators, which are still themselves considered a danger zone.


Though we weren’t allowed inside that part of the building, the designers had installed their works there among the old machinery. If all goes as planned, we’ll post another story on Wednesday specifically about Toppstöðin, by way of introduction to a new likeminded Icelandic website documenting the homes and studios of local creatives.


Another unique setting commandeered for the occasion was this tiny historical house on Reykjavik’s main shopping street, which the aforementioned knitwear collective Vik Prjonsdottir had turned into a “Sweater Factory” from which they were producing hand-shaped scarves live on-site. Their actual factory is located in their namesake town Vík, in southern Iceland, and it’s one of the oldest and best-known woolen mills in the country. Like Recht does when he sources materials, they started the collective as an attempt to support one of the country's dying industries.


Just for the week, though, it was the actual members of the collective who were doing the cutting and sewing, if not the knitting itself.


In a clothing shop across the street, we happened to spot these lights by Hjörtur Matthias Skúlason, who we couldn’t discover much about personally but whose project was an attempt to recycle old crutches and chairbacks into beautifully designed lamps. They’re a small nod to Icelanders’ famed commitment to environmental conservation (save for the controversy over their whaling and fishing industries).


Looming large over the week’s events was the nearly completed Harpa Concert Hall on the city’s waterfront, designed by Henning Larsen with a shimmering honeycomb façade by Olafur Eliasson. With a swarm of fluorescent-clad workers clamboring to lift its modules into place in time for the building’s opening this May, it acted as an unofficial beacon for the event, a symbol of all the good things yet to come in Icelandic design.