What Are The Trials And Tribulations Of Iceland’s Creative Economy?

What Are The Trials And Tribulations Of Iceland’s Creative Economy?

PSFK travels to Iceland to get an in-depth look at how local design and crafts may save their struggling economy.

Laura Feinstein
  • 23 december 2011

As part of a recent visit to Reykjavik to investigate how Iceland is rebounding from their recent financial troubles, we were privileged to be able to meet with several local designers and craftspeople who shared their opinion on the state of the country’s design economy. While in brighter times many goods like cloth and textiles were able to be imported and sold at relatively reasonable prices, since the collapse, designers have had to increasingly look within the country to provide themselves with materials and inspiration. As a result, traditional elements of local fashion like Icelandic wool have been making a large-scale come back, and smaller artisans have moved towards their historic backgrounds to help inspire their art making processes.

Our first meeting in the city was with Sunneva Hafsteinsdóttir Managing Director of CRAFTS AND DESIGN, a private non-profit institution originally established in 1994 to help support the development, furtherance and preservation of Icelandic crafts, applied art, and design. Here we were given a crash course in Iceland’s unique visual culture as we searched through CRAFTS AND DESIGN’s database of local artisans. Though partially funded by The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, the organization is now seeking other sources of revenue as they see public funds being shifted away from the arts, and as one local we spoke to stated “back into the hands of the bankers” (though to be fair, much of this is rumor and hearsay).

The bright side of all this upheaval however is the emergence of an entrepreneurial spirit, with local influencers like Hafsteinsdottir working with small businesses to craft websites and other press materials, increasing their visibility to a wider audience. In addition, they also hold a yearly competition to help showcase smaller under-the-radar creators, and assist with funding and promoting.

While organizations like CRAFTS AND DESIGN offer hope to the world of the handmade, on the fashion end of the spectrum comes the conundrum of the small, emerging designer. Unlike other countries like France, Italy, the US, (and even emerging China), Iceland doesn’t have an established garment industry with ties to international fashion weeks and large-scale distribution. While some brands have been able to export themselves in small supply oversees, there lacks the kind of infrastructure to help those who’d like to work in the fashion industry stay in Iceland and build their reputation and experience there.

However, that is not to say that there aren’t still interesting designers hoping to go it alone without the backing of major capital or fashion houses.

Within the center of Reykjavik sits Kiosk, an unassuming shop which inside may hold the crystal ball for predicting the direction of contemporary and avant guard Icelandic fashion. Made up of a collective of several talented young Icelandic designers, who each take turns manning the store to keep overhead down, the group of 9 are able to sell their upscale goods directly to customers (and often visiting foreigners) providing a fresh alternative to imported, mass produced, or otherwise pedestrian fashion (we can’t stress enough how much of the latter we saw in shop windows while roaming the streets). Though still under-the-radar, we could easily see some of their finely printed silk shift dresses popping up at next year’s Capsule Show, or even at Barneys, Bird, or Oak.

On the more traditional (though no less desirable) end of the apparel progression comes Farmer’s Market, who’ve been giving the ubiquitous Icelandic sweater a luxury revamp for the 21st century. Headed by Bergþóra Gudnadóttir, formerly of North 66  (and Iceland’s answer to Jenna Lyons) as head designer, the line is simple, well-made, and decorated with elegant bespoke touches; While most importantly still being practical for the unbelievably harsh Nordic winters. When PSFK visited the open studio and shop that Gudnadóttir shares with her long-time musician husband, we were struck by how friendly and accessible the space was. Though one of the more prolific and well known fashion labels in Iceland, guests are still able to venture inside and meet the creator herself, and if they’re lucky share a cup of tea. (For those of you in New York curious about Farmer’s Market, they’re also carried at the Icelandic goods shop Kisan in Soho.)

While Scandinavian fashion is certainly having a moment, as apparent from the outrageous popularity of major brands like Cheap Monday and H&M, to the mainstreaming (via Urban Outfitters) of under-the-radar labels like Wood Wood and Stine Goya, they’ve also been quietly impacting the fashion world in unexpected ways as well. At a recent visit to the Phillip Lim showroom, PSFK was pleasantly surprised to find our first ever pair of fishskin shoes. With its delicate texturing – a result of the unusual curing processes, these boots could easily have been mistaken for detailed leather or snakeskin. Rather, this new material has become one of Iceland’s most in-demand exports. Acting as the sole supplier of fishskin to top fashion houses like Gautier and DKNY, they’ve been able to gain outside revenue and provide extremely valuable income to the fledgling fashion industry.

While in years to come fashion may prove to be one of the bigger capital generators for Iceland’s creative economy, the art world may have more of a struggle ahead. Though Reykjavik’s museums contain an impressive range of international and local art, there lacks the kind of gallery scene one associates with many other major European cities. This doesn’t mean however that the small nation doesn’t have an array of fresh talent to offer. With its unique sensibility (in no small part informed by the dramatic natural landscape), and a worldwide growing interest in all things Nordic, we’re hoping that Icelandic art might soon be the one to watch.

As one of our last stops in Reykjavik, we were able to stop by Spark Design Space. Reminiscent of a chic gallery in Chelsea or Berlin, and far removed from some of the more sterile buildings in the museum area, it maintains an air of approachability and lacks pretension which is refreshing. We were able to speak with María Kristín Jónsdóttir of the space to explore what its like to be a young artist in Reykjavik. Though not explicitly stated, we got the sense that it’s difficult (though not impossible) for young artists to break free from both the academic, as well as the publicly funded art world, to create fresh and innovative works- especially if said artists are self -funded. In a somewhat unexpected turn, just like many Chelsea galleries of late Spark has combined people’s love of the aesthetic with a desire to own a tiny piece of the work (ie. affordable art for the masses). These pieces are in many cases wearable, spray able, or even provide a significant home accent. As a result, in addition to the usual openings and works on paper, Spark (like BravinLee and Canada Gallery) offers a range of bespoke rugs that will hopefully go a long way towards helping fund many of their other ventures.

Above image courtesy of Farmer’s Market.



Farmer’s Market

SPARK Design Space

Kisan Concept Store
125 Greene St. (at Prince), New York, NY 10012



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