Iceland: the dark Norse of design

When Iceland’s three major banks collapsed in 2008 few could have imagined how quickly the country would get back on its feet or that the recovery would be led, in large part, by the creative design industries.

At a meeting with the director-general of Unesco in February this year, Ólafur Ragnur Grimsson, the president of Iceland, said that culture lay at the core of the country’s financial recovery and that the rest of Europe should take note that it had become the “major economic asset of the country”.

During the country’s design festival in March, now in its fifth year, about 15 per cent of Iceland took part, either by visiting or exhibiting, demonstrating that the field has grown rapidly from its craft-based roots into a thriving industry.

Ágúst Einarsson, an economics professor at Iceland’s Bifröst University, told Bloomberg that he would not be surprised if the creative industries became the largest contributor to Iceland’s gross domestic product within the next 15 to 20 years.

Such forecasts have come as a surprise to many, especially when taking into account that Iceland’s design heritage is so young. The word for design, “honnun”, was only adopted for the first time in the 1950s, when wealthy families began bringing back furniture from travels to countries such as Denmark. Only then did the idea of designing a home take root.

The financial crash has also led to Icelanders investing in local products as prices for imported goods have risen dramatically during the past five years.

Halla Helgadóttir, managing director of Iceland Design Centre, which organises the DesignMarch event, says: “In a way the [financial] crisis helped us because we have had to be more inventive and designers have just got on with doing their own stuff so it ended up working for us.”

Iceland’s lack of tradition has turned out to be an asset for the country’s new generation of designers. Free from rules and restrictions, they have developed their own playful style, using the country’s few natural resources as materials for their products. The result is a range of designs unique to Iceland. Furniture made from volcanic lava (there are about 30 active volcanoes on the island), lights from dried fish and vegetable fibre sit alongside aluminium stools and wall tiles created from salmon skin leather. Even old fish bones have been used to create model-making kits for children.

Sigga Heimis, a designer who has lived in Italy and Scandinavia, which have rich design histories, says Icelanders are unafraid to take risks.

“The Danes and Swedes have a stable design history and that can be a bit limiting when it comes to new creation,” says Heimis. “It’s a new profession in our country so we take chances in colours and variations and everyone is allowed to have their version of their ideas.” Designer Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir has made use of one of Iceland’s few natural resources with her limited edition lava stool.

Although lava is in plentiful supply, she says that it is often protected and is difficult to work with. Hers comes from a company that has a licence to mine the lava and, just like in any other quarry, she chooses the piece she wants to work with, then cuts it into slices and uses a water jet to shape the pattern.

“It varies depending on where and when it erupted and you can’t just help yourself to it,” she says. “Some restaurants are using it in walls and floors but it’s expensive to transport, cut and assemble. People have tried melting it to reshape it but they failed and at the moment no one is using it in mass production.”

Folklore is another strong element of Icelandic culture; tales of trolls and fairies, elves and ravens abound and product designers often seek inspiration in myth and nature.

Thorunn Arnadottir, a young designer whose pieces include a raven-shaped clothes hanger, says there is no pressure to conform. “Iceland has a rich culture of storytelling, which I believe has greatly influenced my work, plus the need to have a national identity; to feel that we are unique, even a little bit weird,” she says. “Interest in design is rising all the time and people are slowly seeing it as something more than just a decorative element.”

The lack of natural resources has also shaped the country’s architecture. Reykjavik is located only two degrees south of the Arctic Circle and the country has few trees. The result is a mainly low-rise city with many concrete buildings. Any wood has to be imported and where there are wooden houses, they have been clad in corrugated iron, which was first imported from the UK in 1870, and used initially on roofs but later added to walls to protect them from the harsh Icelandic weather.

These houses are often brightly painted in shades of red and blue and even purple and neon green, adding an unexpected note of colour to the otherwise monochrome landscape.

Inside, Icelanders lavish attention on their homes because the weather means family life is spent largely indoors. On the shortest day of the year, there are only four hours of daylight.

Though Icelanders tend to remain close to their Scandinavian cousins, who prefer plain white or grey walls, wooden or parquet floors and simple blinds at the window, they are not shy about incorporating splashes of colour.

Sari Peltonen, project manager at the Iceland Design Centre, says: “As a Finn living in Iceland, I am more used to monochrome; we tend to stick to the same colours. But Icelanders are much bolder and if they want to paint a kitchen bright yellow, they will. You wouldn’t see that in Denmark or Finland where doing something different is regarded as strange. Here, people are more individual and they do what they like.”

Cod squad’s bright idea

Icelandic artists Dögg Guðmundsdóttir and Fanney Antonsdóttir first displayed their distinctive Uggi, or fish, lights at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen in 2001, writes Nathan Brooker.

Uggi light, €625,

“We had been living out of Iceland for a while by then and wanted to do something that reminded us of our home,” says Guðmundsdóttir, who has been based in Denmark since 1996. The design points to the ancient Icelandic tradition of drying cod as a method of preservation, by hanging the whole fish outside on wooden racks exposed to the cold Nordic air.

The Uggi lights were so popular when first displayed that they have since been exhibited in Sweden, Norway, France and the US. “We decided in about 2008 that we should start making them on commission, and we now have them in one shop in Iceland and we sell them online,” says Guðmundsdóttir.

The pair source almost all their cod from Iceland and bring it back to Denmark to dry for three weeks, often hanging the skins on the balcony to avoid being troubled by the smell. “We experimented with treating the skins, because they could get burnt by the lights ... but since we started using new cold bulbs in the fish, we have gone back to having the skins untreated. It’s better because it’s natural.”

The new low-heat bulbs seem to have done the trick – unless you live somewhere humid, that is. The pair once made a light for someone in Abu Dhabi that needed to be lightly lacquered. To date, they have produced about 50 Uggi lights, costing DKr4,662 (€625) each. “The lamps can fade if left in sunlight,” says Guðmundsdóttir, “but if you look after them they will last for years and years. I’ve had some in my house now for long time and they are the same natural colour.”

Uggi Lights are available online at

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