Right at Home: Icelandic design branches out

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2014

Being a small, sparsely populated island nudged up against the edge of the Arctic Circle hasn’t stopped Iceland from nurturing a rich and varied design industry.
While Viking runes, vintage Northern architecture and eons-old natural elements inspire much of the country’s design and craft work, “the field is young, and we’ve taken steps to develop the industry as a whole,” says Sari Peltonen, spokeswoman for the Icelandic Design Center. The first national design policy was published this spring, and the Iceland Academy of the Arts gave its first master’s degrees in design.
Peltonen says much of modern Icelandic design speaks to the island’s rugged geography, history and folklore (full of epic sagas and tales of magical wee folk).
The country’s signature sheep’s-wool sweater is known as lopapeysa; the wool has two layers, making it light, airy and water-resistant. You can find not only the sweater but its Nordic yoke pattern on porcelain mugs, candles, even paper napkins. (www.alafoss.is ; www.nammi.is )
Gerdur Gudmundsdottir uses the sheeps’ skins to make sheared stools and shaggy benches; Sigurdur Mar Helgason’s cozy Fuzzy Stool also utilizes the sheep’s lank white or black hair. (www.epal.is; www.kraum.is)
Ragnheidur Osp Sigurdadottir, who works under the name Umemi, has had a hit with her NotKnot, a soft sculpture made of stuffed knitted tubes. At once a piece of art and a squooshy pillow, the NotKnot comes in a variety of colors and configurations. (www.umemi.com )
“The inspiration originally came from scout knotting,” she says. “I’ve been fascinated by knots, the process of knotting and their purpose for some time now.”
According to an old saga, an early voyager brought three ravens with him; one flew ahead to help find safe passage to Iceland. The raven has been a common design motif here ever since.
Ingiborg Hanna uses the raven on hangers and hooks. She also makes a plywood coat rack in the shape of reindeer antlers, the “Not Rudolf.” (www.reykjavikcornerstore.com )
Deforestation by farmers and the erosive effects of cold spells and volcanic eruptions left Iceland fairly tree-free for many generations. There were some small, stunted trees that could survive the icy north winds. An old Nordic joke says that if you are trying to find your way out of an Icelandic forest, just stand up.
An afforestation effort in the 20th century has made birch, poplar, aspen and larch common sights around the countryside now, and designers use the images of these trees frequently.
American transplant Ellen Tyler has designed a pendant lamp out of steel, brush-stroked to evoke ice crystals, with a birch screen that casts tree-shadow patterns. (www.eltylerdesign.wordpress.com/treeline-series )
Katrin Olina Petursdottir and Michael Young craft their “Tree” coat rack out of lacquered or veneered MDF (medium-density fibreboard), the spare branches evoking a winter landscape. (www.icelandicmarket.com )
And Sveinbjorg Hallgrimsdottir designs woodblock prints featuring branches, birds and berries; her designs can be had on birch trays, pillows and blankets. (www.sveinbjorg.is )
Design studio Lagdur creates evocative photo-printed pillow covers of ptarmigan, fish, Icelandic horses and other scenes from nature. (www.alafoss.is )
Volcanoes are part of Iceland’s landscape, and there are lots of creative uses of their imagery and raw materials, such as jewelry made of honed lava stone. Secret North’s Lava Cube of Fire is a small, portable fireplace made of lava. It burns smokeless ethanol. (www.icelanddesign.is )
Anna Mikaelsdottir’s ceramic candleholder has a cutout in the shape of Iceland and holds ash from 2010’s eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. (www.designoficeland.is )
Gudny Hafsteinsdottir offers her Skarfur collection of bowls and vessels with sooty, matte black exteriors and a fiery interior glaze. (www.gudnyhaf.is )