Iceland resembles a place in a dream, is somehow unreal, located somewhere between the present and some primordial forces. A remote volcanic island with hot springs, geysers and any number of myths and legends: fairies, elves and dwarves live there in a kind of parallel world that is respected by the Icelanders, who are deeply rooted in nature. For example, the ideal route of roads is changed in order not to disturb the important places inhabited by elves. In Iceland the world is still intact, the sea and the air are clean, and the relationship between man and nature is not yet impaired it would seem.
Björk as the country's mega-export star is in fact considered by some to herself be a kind of elf, with her husky and yet strident voice, her Arctic eyes and an aura of complete inviolability that renders her incomparable with any other artist. Her shrill costumes on stage and clothes off stage seem to originate in a different world. Nothing about Björk seem overdone and artificial, it all seems to be the product of a personality, whose strangeness and independence accounts for a large part of the fascination she has on people.
"Fabulous Iceland" is the title that Iceland has chosen for itself for its cameo appearance at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. The title alludes clearly to the fables, those ancient Icelandic sagas, which will be one of the focal points of the presentation of Icelandic literature at the book fair. Written Icelandic has hardly changed since Medieval times owing to the country's geographic isolation, and Icelanders today therefore have a comparatively easy time of reading the old texts. Like every year, the Guest of Honor at the book fair is also present round town in the form of exhibitions of contemporary art and culture. Apart from the music, it has primarily been Icelandic fashion design that has grabbed the international limelight in recent years. Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt has accordingly organized an exhibition entitled "Randscharf – Design in Island" on fashion, product and graphic design from the volcanic isle.
To what extent can design today even be considered in terms of national characteristics? "Collaborations arise if only simply because you keep on crossing each other's path, which may foster a certain collectivist approach. This should not be taken to mean that the star cult has not long since hit Iceland, but it of course remains a lot smaller and modest there ... Iceland is a kind of cultural petri dish in which trends can evolve in a more protected environment before being put to the test worldwide, whichis the case elsewhere," comments Klaus Kemp, who curated the exhibition, in his contribution to the catalog. Perhaps this is also a reason that explains the relatively large number of designers in a country whose population does not even amount to half that of Frankfurt.
Regional idiosyncrasies usually relate to the conditions and circumstances under which design arise. Icelandic designers work with very few different local materials, above all wool and fish. Arndis Jóhannsdóttir produces bags and wallets made of salmon leather. The "Uggi" luminaire made by Dögg Design in collaboration with Fanney Antonsdóttir first saw the light of day in 2001 – made from a complete fish hung up by its tail fin. As long ago as 1972 Sigurður Már Helgason created the "Fuzzy" stool made of sheepskin.
Needless to say, Iceland is no exception when it comes to rising eco-awareness, yet at the same time the 2008 financial crisis really clobbered the country and thus many of the designers have been prompted in recent years to try and improve on their own designs. They sought for solutions that promote the so-called 'real' economy, which in Iceland consists mainly of farming and fishing, while also developing ecologically sustainable products.
Young designers join forces with traditional companies and farmers to devise high-grade products that both continue the island's traditions and yet are geared to a new future. The five-member designer group Vik Prjónsdóttir has started a joint venture with Víkurprjón, a long-standing knitwear factory on Iceland's south coast, to give the island's wool industry an unconventional image. Using traditional Icelandic materials they are developing a collection of blankets and scarves that are inspired both by local myths and stories and by nature and urban life. There is an obvious link to fashion design here. In collaboration with fashion designer Henrik Vibskov the group has come up with a portable woolen blanket with a shape borrowed from an old story, according to which an old cow seal lost her skin and became a human. Having regained her skin, she returns to the ocean. The blanket looks like an outsized overall and when used becomes a second skin, highlighting both the Icelanders' close ties to the sea and their need to protect themselves against the cold, a basic element of Icelandic culture.
Not seldom does one encounter an interdisciplinary mindset in Iceland and few are the designers there who respect the classic lines dividing art, the various fields of design, and curatorial work. This may also be a result of the close networks and the small domestic market.
The most impressive items in the Frankfurt exhibition are the exhibits by Icelandic fashion designers. The collections created by Spaksmannsspjarir, Mundi, Ásta Créative Clothes, Barbara I Gongini and Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir alias Shoplifter labels have caused a real stir on the international stage. Their unique thrust is the product of an unconventional approach to materials such as wool or hair, free associations with the old Icelandic folk costumes and designs that seem to have been made of old fishing nets, seaweed and other materials similarly drawn from a maritime environment, bringing androgynous silhouettes to life that inhabit a realm somewhere between the world of elves and contemporary fashion design.
Iceland has a very confident view of itself and its culture and is constantly reinventing itself. The emphasis on history and the regional together with a contemporary view of things proves once again to be a recipe for success in this context.
Randscharf – Design in Island
Sept. 22, 2011 to February 19, 2012
Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt