DesignMarch: Design on a Small Island

DesignMarch: Design on a Small Island

What is it that breeds innovation and creativity on a small island in the middle of the North Atlantic? Well, something or other is doing the job, seeing as Icelandic design is booming at the rate of its Scandinavian sisters - countries long-renowned for their stark yet elegant design credentials. But tempting as it may be to slot Iceland neatly into the 'Nordic Design' category and leave it there, it just wouldn't be right. The creativity that Iceland bubbles over with is altogether different; it has that same raw, simple edge but with a strong sense of warmth, narrative and tradition woven through.

So what drives these people to create? The current textbook answer is that Iceland is 'consolidating its economic recovery though the creative industries' but I think this is a bit of a cop out. Sure, the economic situation has pushed Icelanders into action in some ways, but I think the reason behind the boom in creativity has a lot more to do with the Icelandic soul than the financial situation.

Sari Peltonen of the Iceland Design Centre attributes it to something like a cultural (and indeed climatic) coping mechanism:

"Perhaps living on a cold, windy, volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic requires a certain blend of a courageous spirit and creativity - often new, imaginative solutions are required."

I saw this firsthand during my recent trip to Reykjavik's DesignMarch festival and I can safely say never have I seen jewellery, products, fashion and furniture scattered so far and wide into every nook and cranny of a city. My journey in pursuit of design took me to garden sheds, basements, rooftops and fish packing warehouses.

My first foray, having just arrived in the city, was to a small wooden shed deep in the suburban belly of the city (and the night) which somewhat stretched my severely limited map reading skills but didn't defeat them. Amazingly, I forged on, guided by the plume of smoke twisting into the sky from a pot outside the small, rustic shed that served to heat hot chocolate - rather like a modern-day smoke signal.

To elaborate past the wooden exterior, this was the opening of designer Erling Johannesson's fish bone-inspired jewellery creations. After identifying exactly which bearded man out of a selection was the designer himself, I asked him about the choice of venue and he told me the shed was a creative space that anyone could use. Nice. He also revealed that he moonlights as an actor/director. I'll warn you now - this is something of a common theme with the Icelanders. They are extremely creative and always multi-talented.

The next day took me to the festival's DesignTalks with lectures on 'the magic of creativity' from speakers including London-based designers Eley Kishmoto and MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin. FoAM founders Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney gave us a fascinating spiel on their work communicating with plants and the importance of pursuing a calm, 'vegetable' state of mind in a world overrun with movement and 'doing'. Sounds very sensible to me.

After I'd recovered from this slight overdose of creative wisdom, a pop-up catwalk from Icelandic designer Mundi greeted me on my evening wander through the streets, full of slightly post-apocalyptic rags and bare feet. All in the best way possible, of course. More fashion awaited me at The Culture House, with Icelandic collective Vík Prjónsdóttir and Eley Kishimoto collaborating on a freshly printed sealpelt - what can only be described as a giant (and completely amazing) onesie inspired by Icelandic folktales.

Next on my travels was The Reykjavik Letterpress; perhaps now my favourite place on earth. Speaking to the founders Hildur and Ólöf, I ask how they learned a skill which is fast dying out? In fact the pair are the only studio in Iceland using a letterpress machine. "We learned from the old man who sold us the machine," the designers say casually, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. The products the pair produce are beautifully crafted, from tags and letterheads to notebooks and branding work. For DesignMarch they had chosen to print clichés onto drinks mats and napkins, from 'Tea, coffee or me?' to 'Do you come here often?'

Cheerfully serving up Pimms, ("We know it's Winter but we thought it would be nice,") they insist I sample the mix first as the only British person present. Chomping on popcorn from hand printed bags and listening to an Icelandic comedian tell jokes (in Icelandic) which he then proceeded to translate into English for my benefit, I really feel quite at home.

Later on, standing inside SPARK design space in the centre of Reykjavik, surrounded by a crowd sporting an excellent array of knitwear and firmly clasping cans of beer, I experience something of this almost physical need to create.

All anyone here wants to talk about is how fiercely proud they are of the talent brewing in Iceland. But more than this, they want to talk about their own part in the phenomenon - what they individually are doing and creating. This isn't just a group of people spouting carefully rehearsed rhetoric about a project they have been planning for a several years, mysteriously rooted to the ground by their own creative inertia. These are people just doing stuff. In Iceland there is a feeling of nothing being impossible. As if to prove my point, a man chips in; "You have to trust that everything will work out," he says. Wise words.

This eternal optimism is something of a boon, and can perhaps be partly attributed to the small size of Iceland's population; not too much over 300,000. Halla Helgadóttir, Manager of The Iceland Design Centre (and graphic designer) cites the matter of size as a major factor.

"We are very few people living in the middle of the Atlantic, far away from both Europe and America. Being so few, one individual can have a huge influence on society and I guess in a way that makes us more optimistic and confident in our own abilities and the creative possibilities of a project."

Having been lucky enough to work on various different projects with the Icelanders, I've seen this easy, laid-back attitude to 'doing' in full swing. Design and print flyers in an hour? Sure. Construct a small wooden house and transport it to the remotest backwaters on wheels? No problem. For Icelanders, the need to create, do and fulfill is like a hunger - and you don't just stand around talking when you're hungry, do you? As Sari explains, creativity is a very 'natural and obvious' part of the culture - more of a necessity than a conscious choice.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg (rather appropriate imagery I thought) as far as design goes. But DesignMarch is something of a necessity for design fans and non-fans alike. There's a lot of ambition here.

For more on DesignMarch visit the Inspired by Iceland blog