This past weekend saw the ninth edition of DesignMarch, a proverbial diamond in the rough when it comes to the annual design-festival calendar. From March 23–26, Iceland’s homegrown design festival once again featured hundreds of events and exhibitions—possibly the highest rate per capita for a country of a mere 330,000 inhabitants, 40% of whom reside in capital city Reykjavík, where the event has taken place since 2009.
Of course, the jam-packed official event guide (roughly the size of two iPads stacked) belies the understandably modest scale of the festivities, which generally emphasizes quality over quantity, even as it encompasses product design, architecture, visual communication, and fashion. Despite the prevalence of posters at bus stops and cultural institutions alike—free copies of the guide were even available in a magazine display rack at the airport—the advertising efforts were lost on the majority of the (mostly American) tourists. It seemed that nature, not culture, remains the main attraction for most of the travelers in town (“Crazy Iceland” and “I Survived Iceland” were among the slogans laser-cut into souvenir refrigerator magnets).
But it is precisely the contrast between, say, the tourist-infested Blue Lagoon and the well-attended design-week events that affirm the strong sense of camaraderie among members of the local creative community, starting with the one-day conference that marks the beginning of the festival. Broadly addressing the theme of “Brut Nature,” Thursday’s DesignTalks featured a healthy mix of local and international designers, whose practices spanned critical design and visual art to research and ethnography. From IDEO’s globetrotting Paul Bennett to a trio of Icelandic porcelain-seekers, the speakers offered a healthy dose of inspiration to inaugurate the ninth edition of DesignMarch.
The exhibitions themselves offered more local flavor, at times alongside projects and presentations from Continental Europe, namely Scandinavia and Poland. Now more than ever, Icelandic designers working in various scales and media are looking to carve out their niche in the broadly Nordic tradition, and DesignMarch is the de facto platform for them to do so.
For example, we first encountered Thorunn Arnadottir’s “Shapes of Sounds” project in Tord Boontje’s cacophonous Electro Craft exhibition during London Design Festival, their understated simplicity was a disadvantage amidst the multimedia onslaught of the dense group exhibition. In her native Reykjavík, Arnadottir’s interactive objects occupied an intimate gallery apropos their essential element of sound, displayed with sketches and schematics.
The FÍT2017 exhibition, on the other hand, was among the few for which the texts and catalog were not bilingual. The Association of Icelandic Graphic Designers presented the winners of its 17th annual awards program at the Hafnarhús, one of three buildings of the Reykjavík Art Museum (each one hosted a design exhibition). In this case, the language barrier underscored the quality of the projects on view, from bold craft-beer packaging to books and illustration as well.
Yet Icelandic design is hardly an insular affair: On the contrary, designers from the island nation are engaging with their counter-parts in Sweden and Finland—literally, in the case of the Design Diplomacy event series and the 1+1+1 project—in the interest of establishing their own identity. It is these kinds of dialogues that reveal common ground as much as they cast Icelandic design in sharp relief.
As DesignMarch looks forward to its tenth anniversary next year, the only thing that is clear about the future is that there is no endpoint but rather a continuous process of self-discovery.