Design in Iceland

As late as after 1950, the Icelandic language had no particular word for "design". This indicates clearly how short the history of Icelandic design has been. Our neighbouring countries in Scandinavia had a significant head start in this field, and it is interesting to note that during the time when the word hönnun (design) was beginning to take root in the Icelandic language, the Finnish architect and furniture designer Alvar Aalto was already world-renowned. Through the years, indeed, Icelanders have benefitted from the reputation of Scandinavian design and architecture; also, they have generally participated in Scandinavian design exhibitions. On the other hand, although we have a great deal in common with Scandinavian design, there are also many strong contrasts. Icelanders could be likened to the adolescent in the group: full of hormones, wracked by growing pains, and fighting vigorously for independence. 
Well into the 20th century, raw production dominated the Icelandic economy. Whereas neighbouring countries managed to create various manufactured goods in the wake of the industrial revolution, leading to technological innovations and increased exports, a simple consumer society developed in Iceland which exported practically nothing but fishing products. Fish was caught, thrown into a freezer and sent to a foreign market, while almost all consumer goods (besides dairy products, meat and fish) were imported. Today, the domestic fishery and agriculture have evolved to a high degree, substantially increasing added value through product development, clearer connections with the origins of goods, and more effective marketing. Hand-in-hand with increased exports of both goods and services by Icelandic companies, national understanding has mushroomed of the importance of innovation, branding and design. As the role of design in Icelandic business expanded quickly during recent decades, the design industry grew correspondingly. It is estimated that about 1500 people work in today's design industry, with 90% of them operating in the capital city, Reykjavík. For comparison, this resembles the number employed in the country's music industry. 
Good design = Good business
The relationship between design and company competitiveness is nowadays recognised as a fact. When considering how to add further value, what forward-looking companies place their greatest hope in is distinctive design. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, a company known for its innovative and exceptional design, regards design as much more than the surface of things, going so far as to say that it is their "soul".
There has been a prevailing tendency to regard science and technology as the main engines driving social development. Recently, however, people have begun better to appreciate the fact that design is no less important. Design bridges the gap between technology and the consumer, thus frequently determining the ultimate success of a product or service. We live in times where technology is a matter of course, so that it is appearance, image and effectiveness which matter most to contemporary consumers. 
Innovation is important for Iceland's economy, as for that of any other ambitious country. In Iceland, design has not been prominent in discussions of innovation or among the measures adopted towards innovation, despite an awareness of its important contribution to innovative undertakings. It is desirable for more Icelandic companies to utilise the services of designers right during the innovation process, rather than simply to prepare beautiful packaging at the end of the process. Designers are trained concept creators; not only do they often approach topics in an original way, but they are also capable of presenting novel, practical solutions with respect to materials, manufacture, function and interface. Designers are inherently involved in constant innovation, as may be seen through the amusing as well as impressive examples in this book. 
An understanding of the impact that design could have on the Icelandic economy has led the Icelandic government, with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in the forefront, to take the important step of establishing the Icelandic Design Forum as an experimental three-year project. The role of the Forum is primarily to strengthen an appreciation for and utilisation of design by Icelandic companies, with the aim of adding value and improving their competitiveness. Furthermore, the Design Forum is intended to strengthen the country's design industry, for instance by promoting Icelandic design. The Forum operates the website which serves as a liaison between the business world and design enterprise. The site gives Icelandic design firms the opportunity to promote their goods and services, whether in Iceland or abroad. 
The Icelandic design gene
As the General Manager of the Icelandic Design Forum, I have come to know numerous Icelandic designers,  their work and their ideas. It was not long till I realised the difficulty of defining Icelandic design as something fixed and tangible. Foreign guests have agreed with me on this point. After only two weeks at this post, I hosted six French journalists who had travelled here to write about Icelandic design. Arranging a two-day itinerary, I accompanied them around Reykjavík, where we visited Icelandic designers and design shops, along with viewing a student show at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Not only were these two days pleasurable and informative for them, but no less for me. At the end of their visit, I asked them about their experience of Icelandic design and found their answer quite interesting. They all agreed that the best word to describe such design was "energy". Wherever they went, they noticed a creative power in our design, an enthusiasm and boldness. Upon considering this more closely, I concluded that they were right: Icelandic design culture is simmering with energy, just waiting to be unleashed. 
The exhibition Magma (KVIKA) and this book are intended to give a clear picture of where Icelandic design stands today and a taste of what it promises for the future. Like the adolescent mentioned above, Icelandic design has grown and matured with tremendous speed in recent years, so that it now experiences itself as a fully matured and qualified individual, who nonetheless still has so much left to experience.


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