Design March of the Creatives


Since the 2008 economic crash Iceland's design community has grown quickly, becoming, over the course of a few days, the focus of attention for Reykjavik's annual Design March festival

"That's a really tired question," says the fresh-faced Gallerist with a smile from over the other side of the table. I've just floated the cliche chestnut of the Icelanders and their close connection with the natural world. Still, any newcomer who ventures further than Reykjavik's city limits will find it hard not to be awed by the sheer enormity and strangeness of the endless emptiness of the island interior. Iceland is the size of Britain, with Scotland lopped off, with almost two thirds of its 320 000 population huddled into the greater city boundaries, less than one percent of the island's total landmass, leaving the great majority of the country sparsely populated.

Certainly the leaning of the young designers who were waiting expectantly for some attention from an incoming posse of European and American design press in mid March, were quick to underline their sense of connection to the great outdoors. The reason for the media's presence was Reykjavik's fifth Design March festival, which aims to showcase the burgeoning if attractively grassroots, design scene, over three – this year - blue skied, sunshine glinting, mid-march days. The festival, which takes in many venues across the small tourist-centric downtown is a chance for designers of many varieties to set up their stalls to both year on year increases in international tourists - this February, apparently was 45% up on 2012 - and locals, as well as the stray journalist. There's no overarching theme, nor money to speak of, with many in the country still heavily indebted after country's
Hring eftir Hring
autumn 2008 financial meltdown, with the body charged with its organisation, the Icelandic Design Centre turning this on its head, and into an 'anything goes' anti-festival of sorts, happy to highlight all comers to the party. This includes many individual's and two band partners trying their hand at establishing small businesses, though also some larger start ups, such as Marine Technology and CCP, an Icelandic DVD gaming success story. There are also small but vibrant companies such as furniture designers Studiobility, or Vikprjonsdottir, three graduates from the Art & Design School, who have been reinvigorated the almost disappeared wool industry, through a series of felt seal moustached scarves and other brightly coloured knit-ware releases. If the scene has gained a reputation for quirk - this reputation surely kickstarted by Bjork - could again be found.  The fishbone model-making kit by Skeppnuskopun, was again on display, while a wacky woody bow-tie by Hring eftir Hring could be found in one of the group shows.

What felt-equally apparent, however, was how many of the design offerings were actually conventional, simple, and straight-forward ideas pursued as a small scale business idea. Some were doing okay, conversations elicited, although for many this was a second part time project, while a day-time job often provided some security. These day-time jobs form part of the backdrop to the growth of Icelandic design, and it is no co-incidence that the festival started in the year after the financial crash pushed the country over the edge. Since that collective trauma, and the changed zeitgeist that the 'pots and pans' revolution ushered in, many, particularly the young, have been drawn to making their way through their own creativity, as best they can. The elections which took place after the Government resigned en masse in early 2009, brought to power Iceland's first left of centre Government, a coalition of Social Democrats and  'Left Greens'  - have pushed the Creative Industries as part of their economic recovery strategy. A 2011 report, Towards Creative Iceland; building local, going global, provided the first objective analysis of the value of the creative industries, arriving at a figure of an annual 81 billion Icelandic Krone, far above agriculture’s calculated 2 billion, and beginning to approach the 121 billion of Iceland's largest industry, fishing. Not for nothing did the report have a very significant impact, both politicians and people took heed of the evidence. Where before the crash the creative industries were on the margins of the banking fuelled boom, today they have become an accepted part of Iceland's recovery plan.

Ossur prosthetic
Things are changing, however, with the return to Government of the two right of centre parties, the Progressive’s and the Independent’s, which have been in power all through Iceland’s history, apart from the brief interregnum of the last four years. How this plays out is uncertain, although generally people within the design community I spoke with seemed to believe that the value of the ‘creative industries’ to Iceland and its economy argument, and design specifically, has been won. Some were less sanguine about how politician’s and bureaucrats went about defining the ‘creative industries’, unhappy at the amounts of money pumped into the computer games sector or Ossur, the country’s prosthetics company success story.

As for the design scene, one could envisage a sense of threshold. Compared to their Nordic neighbours the Icelanders are minnows in a much larger sea. A pronounced current of Nordic Minimalism - no surprise there - was apparent, check for instance Copenhagen based Dogg Design's furniture or Bryndis Boladottir sound absorbers, each tasteful additions to a minimalists space. As far as the cultural professionals are concerned I could imagine a breakthrough by any of the home companies into the European or even Nordic markets, like Finland's Merrimeko or Denmark's Fritz Hansson would be a success beyond dreams. Though also exactly what they are working towards.

Bryndis Boladottir sound absorbers

By saturday's closing evening I was left wondering if Design March's absence of thematic slant signified a diversity of strands to the scene, or was a sign that it has yet to mature identifiable strengths. A mix of both, I suspect, although as and when the festival is re-launched with specific branded themes, you'll know that that this surge in Icelandic design has left its grassroots behind. OL

Another version of this piece appeared in Blueprint Magazine