Icelanders tell me the land itself is a source of creative inspiration and, indirectly, happiness… if you are inclined to believe in energy vortexes and other such things, then Iceland is the country for you. — The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
Reykjavík, Iceland, June 2013.
The first word that comes to mind as my plane descends is “lunar.” In the late sixties, American astronaut hopefuls came to this volcanic landscape, our closest earthly simulation of the moon.
I’ve made myself a somewhat predictable playlist and am listening to Bjork—her pagan discordance seems perfect for this place, a natural extension of it. I’m soon to learn that in Iceland no one considers Bjork to be “that weird.” We smash onto the runway with a windy bump.
Driving towards Reykjavík, I’m awed by Iceland’s spectacular barrenness: huge fissures traverse the landscape, flecked with electric green moss. Snow-topped volcanic peaks jut out of the horizon. Steam belches out of the ground and drifts in silent plumes. It all looks surreal, intergalactic—like an early Star Trek set. The wind howls. Even in June it is bitterly cold.
It’s 2:15 a.m. and I am wide-awake. During the summer equinox, the sun only sets for the briefest of moments. It is bright, and although not clear-skied, pretty dramatic. I remember a volcano somewhere near the airport, set in a field of hardened lava and decide to see if I can find it. An hour later, the rental car bounces in a terrifying spine-jarring manner along a rough track. I am not, to say the least, a confident driver—it takes a lot of internal negotiating for me to pass someone on a highway—but I continue, strangely compelled by what is ahead of me.
To prepare for this trip, I’d watched Ridley Scott’s Alien update Prometheus, which was filmed in Iceland, and here I was, right in the middle of its otherworldly colony.
The igneous rock is banked on either side, so the only way out is forward. I stop the car to Instagram the volcano in the distance. Then, suddenly, it hits me. I feel a rush go through my body that can only be described as electric. The land is talking to me and I am tuned to its creative frequency—its seismic music.
Back to Bjork for a second. In her 2003 documentary, Becoming Bjork, she describes the Arctic brand of passion as “more of a sub-marine passion, it won’t burst out easily to the open,” as she glides in a dinghy across Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s largest glacier. After seeing the movie, it struck me that Bjork’s music sounds like the glacier feels. For her album Homogenic, she took a mini recording studio out onto the tundra to capture “volcanic beats”: microsounds, crackles, farts, and geothermal burps. The sound is odd and thrilling and completely original. It’s the creativity that comes from paying relentless attention to what’s right in front of you.
This idea of geographic resourcefulness is evident at Reykjavik’s Design Center, too, where I am greeted, front and center, by a huge fish light. I don’t mean a light in the shape of a fish. I mean a gutted, skinned, headless fish, roughly stitched back together by its maker. The light’s gills, left intact, are wafer-thin and razor-sharp. There is a bulb inside and an electric cable dangling from its tail. I am mesmerized. I ask the lady who runs the shop about it and she says: “Well, fish is an Icelandic resource. Of course we would design with it.”
Looking around, I realize that most of the objects reflect the landscape in texture, shape, and material. They are mossy, soft, primal. Many look like ancient, still-living forms articulated with bones and skulls. Natural materials like stone, wood, felt, lava, and of course fish are put to use in ingenious ways. I buy the lamp, as well as three strange felted music boxes that play Sigur Rós-y lullabies, a raw wool pom-pom hat, twine-wrapped twigs, and a ceramic volcano candle holder that glows, its red-painted interior visible only when lit. I am not someone who buys souvenirs, but in each case these objects embody a feeling of being radically local—the purest expression of Icelandic culture and nature.
The people of this Arctic island have done something that I wish all designers did more often. They’ve created a design vernacular that feels viscerally rooted there.
That realization leaves me wondering: Has the abundance of technology—the access to ideas and inspiration through Google searches and TED talks and on Instagram—become too pluralistic, too easy, too intellectual? Are we too global? Should design be more constrained, more local? Have we forgotten to intuit, scavenge, embody, and feel our way through the world? Have we stopped reacting to our surroundings in favor of alluding to them? Or is this kind of indigeny only relegated to art or craft?
I can only say this: standing alone on a lava field literally and metaphorically rocked my world. Seeing a culture that, as my partner Jim said, is so far out there it has, “its toes curled over the edge of the world,” I can’t help but think that that we have forgotten this feeling. Can we recreate what was once instinctive—the electric, primal reaction to the things that surround us? How might we turn on our collective fish lamps and catch some of that sub-marine light?