Four lessons your event can learn from Iceland’s DesignMarch

Reykjavik – A population of less than 350,000 people, a high income per capita and a relative isolation from the rest of the European continent have given the Icelandic creative community two things: a strong DIY approach and not a single damn about what the outside world might think. Many times they do as they please, with no regards to industrial constraints nor commercial success. That explains the success of their oddball music, from Lord Pusswhip to Lady Björk and the hits of Airwaves, but also some of the logistics and selection in this year’s DesignMarch festival.

What would you do, dear design-event-producer, without the usual forms of restraint? Could something be learned from their approach? Here are four DesignMarch situations that can be applied to other design events.

[1] LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION? NOT SO MUCH.

Instagram has liberated exciting indie proposals from the high costs of securing a central location for a design event – as BoF recently reported, fashion shows today are mostly made for the screen. Before, traditional word of mouth couldn’t reach a critical mass in time, before the end of a design week. Now, via Stories and hashtags, an unexpected entrance can gain traction quickly – just think of the surprising success of last year’s U-Joints at the Milan Design Week. So, in theory, all it takes is a few key people to venture out to your out-of-the-box location early on; even if they don’t get there physically, digital awareness makes the venture worth it.

Think of rising star Eckhaus Latta, as the duo has made the Bushwick pilgrimage obligatory for the Manhattan-loving New York Fashion Week crowd. But now do it the Icelandic way: let’s say you pick a lighthouse, one so far away from the city centre it requires its own map. Let’s say you can only visit the exhibition by foot, after you’ve run through aggressive wind on a slippery patch of dark sand and weather so cold your ears might fall off. But once you're done with the hard part and walk through the door, you’re welcomed by a fountain flowing with homemade lavender-infused vodka – hot chocolate is for the weak – and a series of intriguing 3D-printed, clay, steel and textile objects as you reach every new flight of stairs. Oh, and the exhibition is only viewable when the tide is low – one can literally get trapped there from one hour to the next.

That’s what Þórey Björk Halldórsdóttir and Baldur Björnsson, the designers behind the Plus Eternity exhibition, decided to do. The couple chose the venue because it was the place where their wedding was officiated – the objects on display were a poly-material celebration of their relationship. In an age of accelerated digital one-upmanship, the social currency afforded to those who spoke of the difficult process of getting there made for a charming tale, and Plus Eternity ended up becoming one of the most talked-about exhibitions in the festival.

And Anti Matter's Plus Eternity exhibition at the Grótta Lighthouse - Photos by Gulli Már

The takeaway: If you build it, Instagram will come.

 

[2] ASK THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT QUESTIONS

Is cruelty-free fur really the most ethical form of wearable hide? Before a visit to the Feldur Workshop, the answer was a clear yes. But to Marta Heiðarsdóttir, a fashion designer, animal lover and second-generation fur-maker, that answer should be bit murkier. Is not using, discarding or disposing of already existing pieces fair? And to whom? For her Comeback project, she received donations of fur coats that had been stuck inside wardrobes for decades, and turned each piece into several new garments and objects, wasting not a single bit of pelage. ‘Is plastic fur really the best we can do?’ she asked.

Here’s another wicked question. Kristian Edwards presented Snøhetta's Svart as part of DesignTalks; the hotel, located by the Svartisen glacier in Norway, generates more energy than it consumes. But after his participation, host Búi Bjarmar Aðalsteinsson threw a curve ball his way. ‘How is it sustainable to [create a sustainable hotel] that brings tourism to an already sustainable location?’ he asked. Edwards explained that even though Svart opens in two years, the Norwegian spot already receives some 20,000 visitors per year, and that initiatives such as this one can raise awareness on energy-positive construction for other locations. But is that doable for countries such as Iceland, with few options for other locations?

From top to bottom: the process behind Marta Heiðarsdóttir's Comeback collection and Snøhetta's Svart - Images by Heiðarsdóttir and Snøhetta, respectively

The takeaway: Even though they live in a very cold country, Icelanders have no chill. Go ahead – try to question the environmental practices that make sense as our best option. They might indeed be positive. And yet, as Quartz recently brought forth a damning report that argues that organic cotton bags can actually be thousands of times more destructive for the environment than a single-use plastic bag, prodding some accepted truths can lead to uncomfortable – but necessary – questions.

 

[3] EARN YOUR IRONIC THEMES

It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s windy up in Reykjavik, where locals violently drive their large vehicles instilling fear on the pedestrians who dare to brave its snowy streets. We’ve seen many cases of thematic bars and restaurants popping up in culturally disparate places, with that juxtaposition as its own selling point. Gastronomic diversity and widening one’s visual horizons is fine… but the idea of a Miami-inspired bar in the capital of Iceland? That’s a thing of ironic beauty.

The aptly titled Miami Hverfisgata, recently designed by local studio Döðlur, hosted the Seismic Soils runway during DesignMarch. But let’s be real: that ‘sunny’ window stole the (fashion) show.

Welcome to Döðlur's icy-cool Miami - Photos by Jon Guðmundsson

The takeaway: Go ahead, make fun of your own cultural situation to capitalize on narratives that would read as mere commercial decisions in other places.

 

[4] SHOWCASE MORE SECOND-WAVE BIODESIGN

During his residency at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, designer Thomas Pausz approached Dr. Shannon Olson to work with her data; the award-winning researcher had focused on how insects identify objects and food through various senses. He got a startling answer from her. ‘Instead of taking my research and presenting it in a pretty way, why don’t you come up with a functional object that can actually help my research?’ she replied. The scientist was fed up with that breed of first-wave bioartists and biodesigners and demanded something useful instead.

Pausz was up for the challenge. Through the morphological decomposition of blooming flora, he was able to create his Non Flowers. The pieces are sculptural prototypes to be tested in places with migrant bees are brought in for pollination – think of the many greenhouses here in the Netherlands. As a large part of these insects find themselves in new environments with flowers that don’t necessarily appeal to their tastes, pollination – so necessary for human survival – becomes more difficult. Pausz’s Non Flowers appeal to their tastes in shape, geometry, colour and scent, making their work easier and our food supplies safer. And wouldn’t you know it? Just like gentlemen, bees prefer blondes – the designer says yellow is the most favoured colour in the buzzy kingdom.

With projects such as Non Flowers, animalneuroaesthetics may be the buzzword to watch out for - Images courtesy of Thomas Pausz

The takeaway: If you are a bioart or biodesign curator, keep Dr. Olson’s criteria in mind.

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