Listasafn Islands

by Andri Snaer Magnason

We have taken over the world; we have taken the Lord at His word and redesigned creation. The earth is raw material which is being repositioned as something designed; design is both a creative and a destructive force, just as we ourselves are. 

We are surrounded by design. While building a house takes a year, that very house contains design amounting to a thousand person-years. Chairs, dishes, phones, clothes, key chains, beds, sofas and the car; moreover, every day more person-years enter the house through the mail slot. 

Design originates in our desires and weaknesses. It is the fundamental force itself, the eternal need, the impetus for progress and development; design stirs our opinions, keeps our senses alert, and prevents stagnation, staleness and rigidity. In the realm of design, ideas fight for their lives, as new designers shove previous designs aside. Winter lines, summer lines, autumn lines, overall endless lines of design and re-creation stretch into infinity, and design is its own worst enemy. Design relegates us to years and periods, viewpoints, classes and positions. In piles of clothing kept in storage, one can read the history of the earth, old ash layers, Corona pants, the Duran Duran era. All of this ends up in a bin at the Red Cross, which sends the clothes back to the country that manufactured them. 

Design is driven forward by the incomprehensible aesthetic sense of humankind, the raven in us which collects anything that glitters. We also fill our nest with such. Beautiful things then become ordinary, next ugly, finally embarrassing and funny, before ultimately becoming beautiful again, and even priceless. Design is knowledge capable of finding a diamond in the rough, but at the same time one might ask: was a 10-year-old painting by Kjarval ever embarrassing? 

Design is freedom, but yet also despotism: the fashion police show up if you are not following the trend. Design is a solution to problems, while itself being the problem. It is trash and it is luxury, both disposable and eternal. It is temporary as well as classic; however, time determines the outcome and can turn everything on its head, so that the temporary becomes timeless and the disposable becomes classic -- or becomes art. 

Design makes our lives easier, devises solutions and fulfils needs. If there are no needs to fulfil, design can produce a desire for things that we do not need. Thus design is a precondition for factories rather than the reverse, when no "genuine" need for production exists. This is how design creates work and even the yearning to work. This is how we keep ourselves afloat, this is how we find our purpose and our goals. 

Design: the core of competition for the finer things in life, the core of identity-building, of social standing, of communicating who a person is, whether through Chanel, Levi's, Aalto, Starck, Lada or Cayenne. Design is irresponsible: blood diamonds, gold mines, ivory and persistent-toxic rubber ducks. Hummers and motorways, Ford F350 pickups and urban sprawl. All of them designed and thought out. But are they well designed, or poorly thought out? Teak became fashionable, and such trees nearly disappeared from the face of the earth. Out in front of my neighbour's house, I see a whole dumpster full of teak while the house is being filled with white minimalism, just so the owner will have a chance to regret the teak five years from now. Designing the aluminium soft-drink can in 1963 became the basis for an Icelandic hydroelectric project and smelter in 2002. 

Some say that in the future it will be design which will above all determine the competitiveness of nations. Design will determine which companies survive. Even if people achieve exceptional progress in technological development, they will only be able to reach ordinary people by means of proper design. Whereas the advantage previously lay in productive factories or craftsmen and technicians, now it is design that turns a phenomenon like the iPod into a superpower. 

The country of Denmark, devoid of natural resources, has a higher per capita GNP than Iceland, and each year exports more than ISK (?) 200 billion worth of custom-designed furniture. The Danes design Lego blocks, whereas the actual manufacture has been transferred from Billund to Romania. While Icelandic politicians have been busy "creating jobs", trying to find people something to do, they have misunderstood global developments. 

We were digging assets out of the land, but lost sight of how today's world in fact creates its greatest assets. Icelandic design has somehow become associated with handicrafts -- sewing a wallet out of catfish skin or making a bottle opener out of ram's horn -- has become a method for utilising the by-products of a farming society. We have underestimated our inherent power to create value out of nothing, to choose our raw materials, rather than them choosing us. Many parents have considered studying design to be an irresponsible fantasy; nonetheless, one might argue that many companies in Iceland would be larger today if they had put more emphasis on good design. Icelanders have too often positioned themselves at only one end of the production line, the one responding to demand on the global raw materials market, instead of the one creating demand, whether for fur products, sewing rooms, or electricity and smelters. 

Iceland is in many ways an excellent place for design: the nation is young and possesses fertility and materials, energy and inspiration. The country is full of history while at the same time the suburbs lack history; this prevents history from becoming a yoke and allows people to choose their ideals at will. It is easy to try things out here and get ideas which might catch on throughout the world. This is an opportunity that it ought to be possible to utilise to the fullest. 

Design is and will be part of a cycle, but it needs to recognise this cycle and be aware of it from the outset. Good design will not necessarily be that which stays popular or lasts forever, but might even rather be that which lasts as long as necessary and is easy and inexpensive to recycle. Design must create new lifestyles and outlooks. In the future, small cars will need to symbolise masculinity, and buses to symbolise wealth; different sorts of cities will have to be designed, different types of buildings, different packaging and novel ideas. That will provide a competitive edge during the 21st century; indeed, 21st-century design will determine the quality of life in the 22nd century, because it will not always remain possible to redesign Creation itself. 


Printed of the web Reykjvik Art Museum, 01.16.2015