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GRAY travels to the land of fire and ice for DesignMarch.

A marching band in colorful clothing playing on a a staircase.

The opening festivities for Iceland's 2022 DesignMarch festive. Image by Aldís Pálsdóttir.

After two years of cancellations, delays, and limited programming, DesignMarch—Iceland’s annual celebration of architecture, craft, design, art, and fashion—returned this month with a full roster of events. Celebrating its 14th edition, the four-day festival comprised more than 100 exhibitions, 250 events, and 400 participants, including a three-years-in-the-making display of work by designers in Seattle and Reykjavík.

“DesignMarch’s key role is to showcase the best of Icelandic design locally and abroad and focus on design as a driving force for innovation in society,” says DesignMarch festival director Þórey Einarsdottir. “[This year] there was a focus on sustainability, recycling, upcycling, and new technologies. Last year Icelandair made a movie with designers from various disciplines, tempting them to capture the creative spirit of Iceland. A common thread among the designers was that they expressed this level of freedom. The design industry in Iceland is relatively young, which leaves room for even more creativity.”

GRAY had the opportunity to travel to the land of fire and ice to experience DesignMarch firsthand. Aside from a focus on sustainability and material experimentation, one thread that tied projects and designers together was a strong sense of community. The population of Iceland is just over 366,000, and the design scene is very small but very robust. Walk down the street with an Icelander, and they are bound to engage in a seemingly endless parade of waves, greetings, and friendly conversations. This spirit of connection filled the week, with designers collaborating, showing up to support each other, and participating in multiple events and exhibitions. Here, GRAY shares the top things we spotted (and experienced) at DesignMarch.

A man with a beard dressed in black stands at a podium with a microphone. A large screen shows plastic objects behind him.

Architect Anders Lendager speaks at DesignMarch Design Talks. Image by Aldís Pálsdóttir.

DESIGN TALKS: Maybe we haven’t been to a conference in a while, but the DesignMarch Design Talks were especially engaging. Held at the Harpa conference center (its fish-scale-inspired glass façade was designed by Olafur Eliasson in collaboration with Henning Larsen Architects), and curated by Hlín Helga Guðlaugsdóttir, the series, titled “Bright Ideas for a Brave New World,” included speakers such as architect Liam Young, digital fashion designer Susanne Vos from Fabricant, designer Giorgia Lupi from Pentagram, experimental designer Valdís Steinarsdóttir, and more. We loved hearing about the work of Danish architect Anders Lendager, founder and CEO of Lendager Group, a firm working to help find sustainable approaches and frameworks for companies around the globe. Lendager is a pioneer in using upcycled materials (and proving that it can be cheaper to build in a circular, sustainable way) and a serial entrepreneur who has founded more than 10 companies in hopes of shaking up the existing systems of architecture and development. “You have to push the industry,” Lendager said in his talk. “I don’t care if someone else comes in and [does what I’m doing] and makes money. The only way to change things is to push.”

A wooden, bento-style box against a white background.

A bento-style picnic box by Darin Montgomery. The piece was part of the "Hae/Hi: Designing Friendship" exhibition. Image by Amanda Ringstad.

HAE/HI: DESIGNING FRIENDSHIP: Seattle and Reykjavík have been sister cities since 1986, so the theme of this cross-cultural exhibition is fitting. Organized by Darin Montgomery—Seattle designer and founder of furniture brand FinHae/Hi: Designing Friendship grew from a 2018 conversation between Montgomery and Halla Helgadóttir, director of Iceland Design and Architecture, that happened while the latter was visiting Seattle. The showcase, organized around the theme of friendship and the exchange of ideas, featured work from 15 designers and studios in Seattle and Reykjavik. Pieces included a leather tote and cork wine bottle holder by Fruitsuper, a set of mixed-media building blocks from Ragna Ragnarsdottir, a wooden bento-style picnic box by Montgomery, and more. Each work tapped into the idea of sharing dialogue, spending time together, and connecting—a simple yet welcome message after two years full of separation and isolation.

A dark petaled flower against a black background.

A piece from the "Faux Flora" exhibition.

FAUX FAUNA AT FISCHERSUND: Walk up the quiet Fischersund street just off Reykjavík’s downtown square, and you’ll see a black-painted house with white shutters. Walk closer and you’ll start to smell a deep aroma—earthy, herbal, smoky. This is Fischersund, a contemporary apothecary run by Lilja Birgisdóttir and her siblings. Originally the brainchild of her brother Jonsí (of Sigur Ros fame), Fischersund has grown into a space for all the senses, housed in a gorgeous building that dates back more than 120 years. For DesignMarch, Birgisdóttir and her sisters mounted a digital art exhibition, Faux Fauna, in the shop's basement. “Faux Fauna is a collection of digital and animated images, scents, soundscapes, and text where flowers, both real and fictional, are at the forefront,” reads a written description of the show. The works show fauna inspired by experience and memory (their grandmother’s purse, a girls’ night out, the traditional New Year's Eve bonfire), and is accompanied by a text from an individual in Svikaskáld, a local collective of women writers. A custom scent accompanies each piece—one releases it by lifting a large glass cloche on a nearby wooden table. The animated flowers have an Alice in Wonderland vibe—stems and petals move and sway—walking the line between real and imagined and serving as a reminder that whimsy and play have a meaningful, emotional role in design.

This exhibition will be up until DesignMarch 2023.

The "Bathing Culture' exhibition at the Museum of Design and Applied Art looks at the history of Iceland's relationship with municipal swimming pools. Image by Vigfus Birgisson.

BATHING CULTURE AT THE MUSEUM OF DESIGN AND APPLIED ART: Many Icelanders go to their local public pool on a daily basis to relax, catch up with friends, and get the neighborhood news. Similar to the plazas of Italy and Spain, the outdoor geothermal pool is a significant public sphere and social hub throughout the country—it’s a space specifically designed to bring people together and encourage community. Bathing Culture, the current exhibition at Iceland’s Museum of Design and Applied Art, traces the development of public pools in Iceland from the beginning of the 20th century (when the focus was on learning, hygiene, and physical education) to today’s more relaxation-forward focus. The opening of Vesturbæjarlaugin pool in 1961 (it is still in operation) included the initial use of the modern-day hot tub. “Architect Gísli Halldórsson based [hot tubs] on the geothermal pool in Reykholt where Iceland’s best-known medieval poet and scholar, Snorri Sturluson, used to soak sore muscles,” the show’s description reads. “The hot tub instantly became a community center and converted the pools into a public sphere that had been missing in Icelandic towns: a place where strangers and acquaintances cross paths.” With interactive elements— including a virtual reality piece—Bathing Culture demonstrates the unexpected ways in which design brings people together (apparently, it’s not unusual to find yourself in a hot tub with the president or another famous Icelander) and provides a strong list of cannot-miss municipal pools around the country. (We recommend Sundhöllin for its Art Deco aesthetic).

Bathing Culture runs through September 25, 2022.

A chair made from a blue, repurposed puffer jacket sits on a white pedestal.

The Sleeve chair by ERM studio at the 66°North store in Reykjavík.

66°NORTH DESIGNER COLLABORATIONS: Founded in 1929 with the purpose of making protective clothing for Icelandic fishermen (a detail that quite often could mean life or death in the harsh Arctic climate), 66°North has evolved into a contemporary outerwear brand that still serves its initial target audience while also offering garments for sporting and outdoor enthusiasts as well as everyday wear. For DesignMarch, the company partnered with young, local designers, asking them to think of creative uses for the waste materials produced during the manufacturing process (extra fabric, unrepairable end-of-life jackets).

For emerging design studio Flétta, experimenting with textile offcuts from the production of 66°North clothing—melting, sewing, and wrapping them together in different configurations—served as a way to delve deeper into the experimental process, and give the public insight into a practice that is normally kept behind closed doors.

Arnar Ingi Viðarsson and Valdís Steinarsdóttir of Studio ERM asked the question: “How can a coat become a chair?” Using discarded puffer coats and jackets from 66°North, the duo created the Sleeve chair, the first iteration of an ongoing exploration of how upcycling between product categories can succeed. Steinarsdóttir also presented a solo collaboration for the brand—using material experimentation and innovation (working with natural materials such as agar, gelatin, and SCOBY) to rethink how we manufacture clothing.


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