Iceland is to Europe what a sitar is to a classical orchestra – interesting and somehow different. The product designer Rosa and Snæbjörn, who are working under the name of Hugdetta in downtown Reykjavik, live with their two kids in a cozy house, just a couple of minutes away from the main Laugavegur Street. In their family home, a beautiful mix of vintage rarities, contemporary classics and self-made objects come together and create a very warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Over coffee and traditional Icelandic pastries, Vínarbraud and Kleinur, Rosa and Snæbjörn talked about their live in the North, their engagement in a national „Think Tank“ where artists, scientists and politicians come together to create innovative ideas and overcome the economical crisis that shocked the country in 2008. All during this, the couple tries to figure out what it means to create noteworthy design today.
From growing up in the Icelandic countryside, playing with sheep bones to traveling the world in order to get inspiration for their design projects – listening to the dynamic couple talk about their life and work, one cannot help but be fascinated by their visionary drive, which is wanting nothing less than to influence their surroundings in a positive and sustained way.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on their site.
How did you two meet? What was your fist impression of each other?
Róshildur: We met at an opening at the Living Art Museum in Reykjavík. A friend of mine and a friend of his were showing together. We were instantly attracted to each other and have hardly spent time apart since.
Where did you grow up?
Róshildur: I grew up in the countryside in the North of Iceland until the age of 10 and then moved with my family to London, where I lived until my adulthood. Snæbjörn was brought up in Garðabær, a suburb town of Reykjavík.
Did you ever live in another country?
Róshildur: I lived in Scotland and England for many years as well as having travelled around the world a lot. We then lived together in London for a while, travelled a lot and spent some time in Barcelona.
What was most surprising about it?
Snæbjörn: You always find something surprising in other countries – mostly countries outside the western societies though. There were too many surprises to state any specific ones.
What and where did you study?
Róshildur: I first studied Sports Injury Rehabilitation in London many years ago and then wanted to fulfill another dream and study design which I did at the Icelandic Academy of Arts where I studied product design. Snæbjörn and I studied Product Design simultaneously at the Icelandic Arts Academy.
Was the transition from being a student to setting up your own design company difficult?
Róshildur: Yes, very difficult. Product design is a very young field in Iceland and is very often in the hands of architects or interior designers. Product design is looked upon as a decorative industry by many, not as a tool to use within all fields as a thought process. This needs to be addressed I think. It is thus hard to find payed jobs and the market here in Iceland for any product we design and make is very small, manufacturing is expensive and thus mostly a struggle. We have made a lot of sacrifices and spent a lot of money on prototypes but we are finding a way to survive. We have a side project which are designer apartments that we rent out short term. This is probably our biggest project so far as we designed ourselves and are now hoping it will give us enough income to be able to work as product designers.
What does „Hugdetta“ mean?
Snæbjörn: It literally means „Mindfall,“ which in Icelandic means to get an idea. This suits a product design company very well.
Do you think good Design changes people/ can help make changes in society?
Snæbjörn: I think that big changes can be made in societies and communities by using creative thinking processes. I feel very strongly about using creative thinking people like product designers within governments, in companies, and from the very start of any business idea as an example. I think it very important that people understand that design is not just a process of creating a product, clothes, graphics or just something pleasant to look at.
There is normally a very strong characteristic of creative people who are open to mindedness, seeing things from a totally different prospective, turning ideas on its head and possibly finding a solution to a problem that no one else could possibly have thought of. This is then what drives people to study design, which normally makes this characteristic even stronger. You also learn to be very critical of this thinking process and channel it in a sensible way. It is very important that creative thinking people are shown more respect than just in an esthetic way. Here in Iceland we are very often brought on board to finish a product to make it sell well, and at that time in projects the money is normally all gone so we either work for nothing or put way to little time into the finished result. Any idea whether it is structuring a schooling system to finding a better way to create jobs in a certain area could without doubt be beneficial for creative thinking from the early stages.
Snæbjörn: Also, a good product can certainly change people’s way of thinking. A clever new product can make people think about what was wrong with the prior ones, if you know what I mean. That is something I tried to do with my „Something Fishy“ product where I was pointing out the simple fact that you can make brilliant models and toys with local material instead of imported plastic toys from the other side of the world. Also, it points out that making your own products gives you the sentimental attachment people are loosing with products. Mountains of plastic products that mean nothing to us as they are so cheap and they are thrown at us from every direction, make us immune to sentimental attachment. When we need a new look we just throw the Ikea stuff away and buy a new cheap one instead. This was not the case less than half a century ago here in Iceland where products were respected and handed down from one generation to the next, especially if your great grandmother made it!!!
How did you come up with the idea of using fishbones for your designs and what is the challenge here?
Róshildur: When I was a small girl in the countryside I used to play with sheep bones and horns as every kid in Iceland did before me. There was not a lot of imported toys so as in most countries we used bones, stones, shells and whatever nature gave us to play with. This goes without saying, it does wonders for a child’s imagination. Toys today leave little to the child’s imagination and are total imitations of adult everyday objects and thus become boring very quickly.
I also feel strongly about how badly we utilize the animals we kill for food today. In the old days, everything was used of the sheep for example here in Iceland. Every bone, the bladder, the wool… this has changed a lot for the worse, which is disrespectful I think. This is what I wrote my thesis on, how we used the animal in product through the ages. I wanted to combine all these elements somehow, to make people realize what we are doing. Importing mountains of plastic with no sentimental attachment.
The product “Something Fishy” was more of a statement than a product. It both uses local materials (fishbones), which are very often thrown away. It totally takes your imagination to great heights to glue them together in a fun way, to create a figure of some sort, and it gives you that sentimental attachement because it is something you have created with your bare hands. Why not make your own transformer!! I then showed this as my graduation piece and got such great response from people that I decided to make a product out of it. A fishbone model making kit !
What other creatives do you admire and why?
Róshildur: I have many creative people I look up to. Too many to pick any name out I think. These are mainly artists and designers who manage to do something I have never seen before and that are making some sensible statement by their actions.
Do you travel a lot? What does your favorite family vacation look like?
Snæbjörn: Yes we have been fortunate enough to have travelled very much. I think this is my biggest inspiration in my way of thinking, whether it is esthetically or politically. It always opens your mind and makes you a better person to see new things. An ideal family vacation would be a vacation that teaches us something and inspires us.
You were in a think tank with Björk and other people after the economic breakdown. What was that about and how did you work there?
Snæbjörn: It was a clever idea of Björk and other inspirational people to put together a team of thinkers from every field in a sort of think tank. We threw ideas around between us and tried to find other paths to go down than the ones that had been gone down before. This was not just to find new ways to get us out of this mess but to find out what we really wanted to be as a society, how we wanted to live and what our priorities in life were.
This movement had started before the collapse. People had started thinking about how all the eggs had been put into the same basket. Iceland had been creating power plants to feed the energy needy industry by sinking our beautiful landscape, banking and more banking, etc. The think tank was planned before the collapse, but it proved to be even more important than they thought as the collapse crystalized the importance of changing our way of thinking. I think a lot of brilliant seeds were planted with these meetings and this particular movement. A lot of new interesting companies are rising now from small clever ideas, which have been helped along by the right people. Very interesting and inspiring to be a part of.
What would be your dream job / design assignment?
Róshildur: I have two dreams – one is to get a project to design something like a restaurant, a home, a hotel or any project where money is no object. I have never experienced that and I think that must be such a good feeling. When you are designing something, it is in most instances the budget that controls what you do. I would love to have the budget and the time to design every aspect from scratch myself.
But honestly, my real dream is to get involved with a project or to have time myself to start a project that really makes a difference. I would love to throw ideas and crazy thoughts around all day and see them come to life with the help of brilliant doers. Solve something, whether it be a medical breakthrough or to find a better method of teaching someone to appreciate child rights. Anything that helps others have a more content and fearless life. That would honestly make me happy.
Do you have specific roles in the design process?
Róshildur: We work together in many different ways. Snaebjörn is more of a technical drawer and finalizes ideas for production. I tend to draw on napkins a lot. But we are strong in different fields and the combination is good I think. The ideas are always stronger if you have someone to improve them with you. We sometimes can’t stand each other through the process, but that is married life for you. We could not be better friends though, that’s for sure.
What are your favorite places in Reykjavik?
Snæbjörn: The swimming pools by far. We try to take the kids every day to breathe the fresh air and laze around in the steaming hot pools. We also love the sea front, the amazing restaurants and our local friendly coffee houses and bars where everybody knows our name. My favorite restaurants are Fishmarket, Fishcompany, Snaps & FRIDRIK V. The best coffee houses are Kaffismidjan and Eymundsson bookstore cafes. Grabbing a drink is always great at Ölstofsn and Boston & Factory .
Thank you so much for your time, guys! To look up more info on Roshildur Jónsdóttir & Snæbjörn Stefánsson, please visit their website!
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on their site. Have a look here.
Text: Sarah Weinknecht
Photos: Jeaneen Lund