Eccentricity and playfulness are the hallmarks of the three Icelandic companies invited to exhibit at Downtown Design in Dubai this month
As mission statements go, it’s intriguing. Go to design collective North Limited’s website and they promise that everything they make, from dressers to tea towels and coat hangers, will “mix elegance with Icelandic quirkiness”. What that actually means, says Icelandic designer Thórunn Hannesdóttir, is that “people from Iceland can be quite eccentric, but focused and stubborn, too. And sometimes that comes out in the way we express ourselves.”
It certainly explains why North Limited offer a roughly hewn plate created in dark, hardened lava… and then recommend it would be an inspired choice as a platform for a birthday cake. They’re being playful, of course, but this happy disposition is certainly one of the characteristics shared by the three Icelandic companies invited to exhibit at a special focus on Reykjavik design at Downtown Design in Dubai later this month.
Hannesdottir admits that it is a long way from Iceland to the United Arab Emirates – and not just geographically. Culturally, this small volcanic island just outside the Arctic Circle is a world away too, a quiet, reflective and remarkably self-sufficient country. Paradoxically it’s exactly this environment that has made Reykjavik such a fascinating design destination.
“We live on this isolated island, and in a small society sometimes it can actually be quite difficult if you want to stand out,” she says. “But it also means there are these bursts of creativity from time to time. As far as design goes, it feels like we’re in one of those right now.”
Hannesdottir isn’t sure there are any unifying Reykjavik design themes, although there are certainly echoes of popular Nordic design in the commitment to natural materials, the influence of nature and the marriage of aesthetics and functionality. This is certainly how Agustav, the furniture design and production company would like to be perceived, and it’s no surprise that their beautifully simple book rack, which enables books to be ‘hung’ as pieces of art, has appeared in design and style magazines across the globe.
“It is one of those really simple products and yet very striking and interesting – you want to know how it works,” says one half of Agustav, Agusta Magnusdottir. “But I wouldn’t say it’s typically Icelandic - people do whatever they want here. What is actually making Reykjavik design so vibrant is that we can create this work very easily. Because we are a small island, the supply lines are great. People are really eager to help you and get new products out. And because of that, you can just get on and make things.”
Intriguing designs can be seen at Dubai Design Week
“I was in the UK for a while and if you wanted to get anything made you needed to order a whole load of stock,” agrees Hannesdottir. “We have this saying in Iceland, “Thetta reddast”, which basically means ‘it’ll work out”. There’s this ‘can do’ attitude where if you need to make one prototype of, say, a table, you can go and speak to a small company personally and get it made. There’s a lot of freedom in that.”
The world's leading design innovators will come together in Dubai from the 24-29th October
This commitment to craftsmanship is shot through much Icelandic design. Hugdetta are the third Reykjavik company to be represented in Dubai, and though a birch dining table and chairs are the stuff of cheap, flat-packed Northern European cliche, its minimal design from Róshildur Jonsdottir marries perfectly with the hand-crafted finish from her brother and nephew. It’s telling that it’s Icelandic birch too - and Agustav actually plant a tree for every product they sell.
“Although I’m actually a bit tired of the assumption Icelandic design is influenced entirely by the amazing landscapes of the island,” smiles Agusta Magnusdottir. “For us, we’re more inspired by the need to create a home and surround yourself with beautiful, interesting, functional items you identify with and will keep.