Issue 08 is now available

In Conversation: Icelandic Design Center’s Halla Helgadóttir on the Power of Design

Photo Courtesy of Ludovic Maisant

For a population of just over 330,000 people, Iceland sure knows how to grab the world’s attention—and no, we’re not talking about that volcano. In the past decade, Icelandic artists, musicians, designers, and architects have gained global attention for work that is rooted in craft and tradition, yet exploratory, innovative and provocative in nature. For the past nine years, Boston has welcomed Taste of Iceland, an annual festival that both celebrates and gives space for collaboration with Iceland’s evolving, vibrant culture.

This year, the Iceland Design Center will host a luncheon and lecture with Halla Helgadóttir, the managing director of the Iceland Design Center and award-winning designer. As director, she has been particularly focused on how design-driven planning and cross-sector collaboration can pave the way for a better future not only in Iceland, but around the world.

We caught up with Helgadóttir to learn more about her upcoming visit and to get the latest on Icelandic design.

BAR: For those who aren’t aware, could you tell us a little bit about the history of the Iceland Deign Center and your role there?

HH: Iceland Design Centre has been around since 2008. It was initiated by government through the Ministry of Culture and is supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Industry. In actuality, it is a promotional office for design in Iceland. We aim to enhance design, push it forward, and make it a bigger part of society, economic development, and culture. We work on behalf of the designers, but foster collaboration across sectors.

BAR: You’ve been the director at the Center for ten years, how did you enter the field?

HH: I’m a graphic designer and started my own company in 1990 to do design advertising. After 18 years, I was asked to take on the role of director at the Design Centre and happily joined. It has been interesting to see the intersection of business and design.

BAR: Was there particular interest in hosting a design-focused event in Boston?

HH: This is a relatively new relationship. We have been interested in starting a dialogue across several cities in the US and Canada. We believe that strengthening the relationships between design and music, literature, architecture, art, even urban planning will be beneficial to the development of all parties involved. The talk I will be delivering will be focused on how Icelandic design can be incorporated both in thought and practice.

BAR: You mentioned these notions of collaboration, is that what you’re most looking forward to discussing at the event?

HH: I believe so. You see, because we live in a small community, it is easy to become closed off or comfortable within your own environment. Yet, in larger societies, such as the United States, it is harder to foster connection. This is why I’m interested in bringing design to the conversation. I hope that by speaking in Boston, where there are so many institutions, universities and brilliant initiatives, we can inspire others to consider the importance of design in their own practices. I think there’s a big opportunity to bring together cultural understanding with creative understanding.

I believe that by integrating design into more sectors, we have the ability to solve issues not only in urban planning, business, or things of that nature, but potentially in energy, pollution, or housing. And we’ve already seen the success of these conversations in Iceland.

BAR: Speaking of fostering connection, what do you see as some of the biggest differences between American and Icelandic design?

HH: Well, I’ll start first by talking about the difference between traditional Nordic and Icelandic design. In the Nordic countries, their design is deeply rooted in tradition, material, and environment. Icelandic design differs in that we do not hold to tradition, and instead are very experimental, looking forward, and pushing boundaries.

Now the differences between the United States and Icelandic design… In Iceland, and perhaps throughout many Nordic and European countries, we are less concerned with business and enterprise.

 BAR: Yes, capitalism does unfortunately tend to infiltrate art and design in the US.

HH: Exactly, yes. We are more culturally focused perhaps as a nation. Though the state is moderately supportive of our field, there are a lot of gaps where the private sector, individuals, and organizations, show their support for art and design. I think perhaps that is one of the biggest differences. We are fortunate to have a society that also sees the value in design work.

BAR: As Iceland continues to assert itself as a leader of design, how do you see the field developing?

HH: We are continuously learning, evolving, and growing. However, we are also still finding our voice and our place within grander contexts. For example, in the 21st century, we are less confined to materiality or industry. In the past, design might have been limited to energy, fisheries, etc. But moving forward, we are entering emerging markets. It has been particularly interesting for me because I come from a very traditional design background, but now I am working in new areas, like technical fields.

BAR: From more of contemporary art focus, we have seen some really forward thinking, provocative work emerge from Iceland. Katrín Sigurðardóttir, Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, Ragnar Kjartansson, even Christoph Büchel. Whose work have you been particularly impressed by as of late?

HH: There are really so many, and in my position at the design center it is difficult to decide. The artist Siggi Eggertsson has made work for companies, festivals, and shows around the world. I’m impressed with his illustrations and how they push design forward.

I have also been really excited about work coming from Studio Granda. They have been around for a while, but most recently have embodied this idea of cross-sector collaboration in urban development, architecture, and commercial design.

BAR: To wrap things up, what are you most excited about during your visit to Boston?

HH: I’m looking forward to connecting with several designers in Boston. In my previous visits to Boston, I have been particularly impressed by the labs, universities, professors, and emerging tech industries. I hope to meet with many of these leading individuals at the event as we engage in conversation.

“Iceland’s Thriving Design and Architecture Scene” will take place at Boston Society of Architects // 290 Congress Street, Suite 200, Boston, MA 02210 on Saturday, March 10th from 12pm-2pm. For more information about Halla Helgadóttir’s presentation and to RSVP, visit the facebook event page.