The Designers of Iceland

Altogether, over one thousand designers work in Iceland, and their number is growing. They include architects, graphic designers, clothing designers, landscape architects, furniture designers, interior architects, product and industrial designers, as well as other specialised designers. Some work in a wide range of fields, and have even been trained in several design disciplines. They are also employed in a variety of workplaces: many designers work in their own individual studios, others at differing types of companies, and still others in studios together with other designers.

The occupation and professional designation of designers developed at varying speeds and in varying degrees of coordination with the economy. Here in Iceland, just as in many other places, the first designers came from the ranks of craftsmen and artists. There had been a great tradition of handicrafts in Icelandic homes which was later maintained through instruction in crafts in home economics schools around the country. Architecture, in contrast, rested in the hands of cabinetmakers and master builders, so that they drew up plans for a building as well as constructing it. With the arrival of concrete, there was a complete revolution in Icelandic architecture that led to a strong demand for specially trained designers. When Icelanders first began to study architecture, in the second decade of the twentieth century, they did so in Europe; later, however, some of them sought education in the United States. This meant spending long years in countries with different priorities and traditions in architecture. The differing influences which people brought back to Iceland with them at the end of such studies was conspicuously revealed in the great diversity of their buildings. After the middle of the 20th century, it was for a time very popular to study furniture design in Denmark, which was reflected in Icelandic furniture production at its peak during the 1960s.

The Icelandic Academy of the Arts was formally founded in 1999. Finally, this country offered a three-year, full-fledged post-secondary educational programme in several fields of design. The development since then has been such that a large number of recruits choose to pursue BA degrees at this school. Since the Design and Architecture Faculty commenced operations, enrolments have swelled even further, and the breadth of studies increased. Uninterrupted study in Iceland increases designer solidarity, contributes to critical discussion, and can cultivate not only novel directions in design but ideally even unique characteristics. Academic contacts with society always have a positive impact on its evolution. Including those now studying abroad, the number of Icelandic design students is well over two hundred. 

Architecture and industrial production have generally been controlled by the available materials and people's financial means. Handicrafts centred mainly on the unique, sustainable raw material of Icelandic wool, which was in fact the basis of Iceland's handicraft tradition. Around 1900, importing wooden houses from Norway was quite common due to a major shortage of practical building materials in this country. The introduction of concrete opened up previously inconceivable possibilities and heightened the demand for architects. Diverse business and cultural life, together with greater prosperity and spending potential among the general public, added to the employment opportunities for designers. For example, the market for various kinds of furnishings expanded, thereby calling for furniture designers. 

To begin with, domestic manufacturing enjoyed the protection of import duties, but in the 1970s, the Icelandic government set aside its protectionist policies, subjecting Icelandic manufacturing to increased competition with foreign goods. Since the nation's self-image was weak, Icelandic design suffered a disadvantage as evaluated by the public. Manufacturing companies were thus leery of building up brands and considering export. Nor did it improve matters that the homogenous Icelandic society had fixed ideas which made it difficult for designers to promote unusual design. The result was that the lack of self-confidence and of marketing knowledge, among other factors of that time, prevented Icelandic design from achieving any success or exportation. This very nearly spelled the demise of the Icelandic design industry.

On the other hand, it might actually be considered a strength for Icelandic designers today that in this country there have been neither prominent manufacturing leaders nor strong "design icons" to set the norm. In neighbouring countries, however, there are many examples of designers straying away from their own ideas and techniques when a certain style has predominated. 

Some Icelanders believe that the nation's self-image did not properly shake off its stagnation until the last decade of the twentieth century, when several individuals acquired world fame for their artistic creation and tiny Iceland became known for its particularly original music scene. This was the fruit of systematic nurture, general education and support for the field of music. Now the same development can be observed in both art and design, but it is important to continue cultivating all of these fields. Iceland is in fashion today and is on the map as a wellspring of creative ideas and revitalisation. 

Ever more Icelandic designers are attracting attention in an international context. Foreign manufacturers and other bodies are utilising the original designs of Icelandic designers and seeking collaboration with them. The success of Icelandic designers abroad sparks a chain reaction, catching attention at home and encouraging the recognition of accomplishments in design. The latest technology has been beneficial to Icelandic designers and facilitated this development. Various means of communication and production via the Internet shorten distances and save considerable time. 

Globalisation in international commerce has had a tremendous impact on design and on the values of people in the West. Alongside mass production at low prices, one can presently detect a decisive trend in design towards the return of articles built more on quality and uniqueness than price and quantity. These aspects are in many ways parallel to those of Icelandic handicrafts through the ages, when articles related to the purchaser, were uniquely individual and were reputed for their hallmarks and references. This development offers special opportunities to Icelandic designers, both those producing on their own and those employed by Icelandic companies.

It is important for society to make demands when selecting and evaluating design, and at the same time it is important for designers and manufacturers to be able to place corresponding demands on consumers. Consumers must educate themselves and be prepared to appreciate the merits of that which is better thought out and designed. Well-informed, demanding consumers who emphasise uniqueness and quality are multiplying all around the world. These consumers are prepared to pay higher prices for unusual, well-designed goods.

Icelandic designers ought to increase their role in shaping man-made surroundings. After all, they are educated to combine technological innovations, raw materials, cultural references and function, so that they are capable of making surroundings, objects and structures unique and lending them cultural significance and individuality. Designers connect technology and the arts, ideas and production, culture and commerce. A brand connected to its origins and well grounded creates a basic value that may be built upon during the further development of goods and services.

The need for a diverse supportive environment has never been so urgent, whether for working designers or those taking their first plunge, the newly graduated. The Iceland of today has numerous associations and organised interest groups for designers, and an overarching organisation, Associated Icelandic Designers - Form Island, was founded in 1985. The overall organisation helped plan and develop education in design at the Iceland Academy of the Arts and continues to be of assistance in building up an MFA programme and in encouraging purposeful research in an academic environment. After many years of preparation, the beginnings of a centre for designers were established two years ago, under the initiative of Associated Icelandic Designers and several government partners. Many hopes are tied to this project, which is called the Iceland Design Forum. The Forum is intended to become a general centre for the development and promotion of design. At the beginning of this year, the Visual Arts Centre commenced operation, in cooperation with Associated Icelandic Designers and the Association of Icelandic Visual Artists. This is the first time that designers in Iceland have been offered workspace, with members of the organisation having the option of renting studios and receiving access to versatile work facilities. Associated Icelandic Designers also oversee the annual Visual Arts Awards. Such an award serves as a great encouragement to the designer and provides a financial foundation for continuing achievements. 

Public allocations to Icelandic designers, however, remain inadequate, often especially restricting innovation and pioneering endeavours on the part of the designers themselves. Powerful backing for designers would without a doubt increase innovation and diversity in Icelandic society. In coming years, the Icelandic government will doubtless increase financial allocations towards developing creative professions. They have long since proved their value; moreover, the very image of Iceland is at stake. 

Hrafnkell Birgisson
Chairman of Associated Icelandic Designers - Form Island



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