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Design March of Progress

The Design March exhibition in Reykjavic shows Iceland’s energetic design scene emerging from the country’s infamous economic crash

Every year since 2009, Icelanders have descended on Reykjavík for Hönnunar Mars (Design March). This four-day festival is a riposte to the collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008: its singular purpose is to broadcast Iceland’s new-found confidence, embodied in the youthful energy of its burgeoning design scene.

Iceland is deeply haunted by the credit crunch. It is striking how ‘The Crash’ features in every conversation, a stain on the national conscience and an affront to Icelanders’ renowned positivity. Having swallowed the bitter pills of default, devaluation, austerity and isolation, the economy is now steadily growing. There is even a new political party called ‘Optimism’.

Unknown_5Visitors helping to build Lego skyscrapers for the installation by KRADS

Hönnunar Mars gathers a broad church. New typography by graphic designers Snæfríð Þorsteins and Hildigunnur Gunnarsdóttir was exhibited by publisher Crymogea, alongside precious zoological paintings by the 19th-century polymath Benedikt Gröndal Sveinbjarnarson. Designer Róshildur Jónsdóttir’s creepy children’s toys made from fishbones and furniture maker Snæbjörn Þór Stefánsson’s plywood replica of a priceless Qing vase were shown at their Grettisborg studio, together with a demonstration of Icelandic haute cuisine by celebrated young chef Gísli Auðunsson.

While the products have broad commercial appeal, the food – featuring rotten shark flesh washed down with a drink called Black Death – may struggle to find enthusiasts beyond Iceland. ‘Don’t use your fingers,’ the chef warned, ‘you’ll never lose the smell.’ Meanwhile the ubiquitous outdoor clothing brand 66º North showed its collection at the silica-lined Blue Lagoon hot spring. The models, sporting Viking beards and neon fishermen’s oilskins, emerged from Sigríður Sigþórsdóttir’s craggy visitor centre only to disappear along a floating catwalk into the sulphurous mist.

Unknown_4Children’s toys made from fishbones by designer Róshildur Jónsdóttir

For a town the size of Slough, Reykjavík seems unusually endowed with designers and makers. Festival director Greipur Gíslason celebrates Hönnunar Mars’ lack of a curatorial theme, explaining that the designers were united by a need for ‘strength in numbers’, and invigorated by interdisciplinary dialogue. ‘The Icelandic market is so tiny, we must look globally in sharing our skills’. You could speculate that the city’s creative spirit is born of its hostile environment: the nation’s very survival depends on a special capacity for invention. The savage Arctic ice is only kept at bay by the tail of the Gulf Stream, which buffets Iceland with horizontal drizzle: the climate is at best miserable, at worst lethal, and it is nearly impossible to grow crops.

Although an evangelically Scandinavian country (the Nordic Centre is presently courting Scottish nationalists from its Alvar Aalto-designed Norræna húsið), Iceland is also culturally tied to America, which until recently operated the NATO airbase at Keflavík. Operating simultaneously from two studios, one in Reykjavík, one in Aarhus, young architecture practice KRADS are capitalising on Iceland’s transnational connections. Formed in 2006, they use their position in Denmark to win built work, while launching experimental projects from their Icelandic base. In 2011 they collaborated with Arup and Winy Maas of MVRDV at The Why Factory in Delft, using 1m Lego bricks to produce hundreds of 1:100 models exploring the future of skyscrapers. This two-year partnership with the Danish toymaker was extended at Hönnunar Mars with a mass building workshop for children.

Alcoa aluminium smelting facility in Reyðarfjörður, Iceland by Batteríið ArchitectsAlcoa aluminium smelting facility in Reyðarfjörður, Iceland by Batteríið Architects

It is also possible that Iceland’s inventive spirit comes from something in the strange-smelling water: the ground itself has an immanent creative capacity. Sitting astride the mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is constantly growing, a font of magma bubbling out between the parting Eurasian and North Atlantic tectonic plates.

KRADS’ built projects in Iceland – particularly their brutal concrete summerhouse at Langitangi – reveals a fascination with the peculiar landscape. In the vanguard of this austere, critical regionalist movement is Studio Granda, led by the husband-and-wife team of Margrét Harðardóttir and Englishman Steve Christer. Since their dazzling first project, the precise Reykjavík City Hall (AR October 1992), they have developed a fluent Modernist language, executed in exquisite basalt and concrete. It is an architecture so deeply Icelandic Christer ‘could not contemplate’ transposing their ideas to another context.

The wilderness outside town features bubbling geysers, volcanoes and eerie lava fields. Lurking in the mist is a completely different intervention into the Icelandic landscape and a symbol of its natural resources and productive capacity: a vast new aluminium smelting facility in Reyðarfjörður for Alcoa by Batteríið, architects of the similarly oversized Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík. More than 1km long, the daylit shed applies an architect’s sensibility to housing an unpleasant industrial process while directly addressing the surrounding mountains. Iceland is back in business.

Fact File

DesignMarch | 22nd to 25th March 2012

DesignMarch is Iceland’s most important annual design event. For four days, the most northerly capital in the world plays host to dozens of openings, exhibitions, workshops and other events. From fashion to furniture, architecture to food design, the festival showcases the best of the local design scene alongside exciting international names. 

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