The Daily Heller: The Thawing of Iceland’s Graphic Design History

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The history of graphic design (and particularly 19th-century design) in Iceland is not on most—or likely any—non-Icelandic course syllabi. In fact, design historians today who are digging into the little-known legacies of lesser-known design hubs seem to have forgotten that innovation and derivation underscored virtually every nation that required graphic communications as a staple of their economies, including Iceland.

How many readers have even thought about what forms and styles of design, typography and illustration defined and conditioned Iceland’s commercial growth over the past century? I don’t see any hands raised!

Well, soon the chronicle of this deeply frozen history will be uncovered with the first of a two-part textbook, Íslensk Myndmals-Saga, by Gudmundur Oddur Magnusson (below).

Gudmundur Oddur Magnusson

Goddur, as he is known, has been a professor of visual communication at the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik since 2002. As a scholar, he investigates the heritage of Icelandic imagery and symbols, putting them into context with imagery from other countries, finding connections and patterns. He also hosts regular shows about culture on national television. Alongside his interest in the past, his big heart, eyes and ears are always at the center of what is happening at the present. He has done this ever since he studied under Dieter Roth at the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts in the ’70s, and he still does it, as a friend and collaborator of artists of all ages.

First, can you tell me more about yourself? Where you were born, why you entered the design practice, and the kind of work you are doing today?
I was born in 1955 in Akureyri—a town in northern Iceland—population now around 20,000 people. I lived there until I was 21 years old. I then moved to Reykjavik to attend The Icelandic College of Art & Crafts in 1976. That school was established in the 1940s (since 1999 it has been known as The Iceland University of the Arts). It took some time to enter the design practice—I always intended to be a graphic designer because of vinyl album covers and posters. But after foundation courses I changed my mind because something exciting was happening. The spirit in the school was changing from being a hardcore modernist school into being post-modern, with heavyweight Fluxus artists on the international level. Swiss/German artist Dieter Roth moved to Iceland in 1957 (he was originally educated as a graphic designer). He did some major interior design inside my head. He was an alcoholic and changed the classroom into a pub. We also had a Fluxus artist from Vienna, Hermann Nitsch, and the French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou—this was between 1976 and ’79.

I went through my first detox and rehab in 1984. After that I got a job as an illustrator in a graphic design studio and found out that I knew nothing about typography. So I thought I better change my path from dreaming more and more and doing less and less smoking pot, in the world of fine art, and go for what I always wanted—graphic design—and applied for school on the West Coast of Canada in Vancouver in 1986 (then the Emily Carr College of Art & Design). I met many good educators there; the one who influenced me most was Friedrich Peter (Vivaldi and Magnificat—in the Letraset catalogue). This was the time of the change from analog to digital. We got the first Macs in 1987. I graduated in 1989. I could work after school for one year but then immigration told me to get married or hit the road. I started to teach in this then-new environment for graphic designers and was part of the generation to change the Icelandic College of Art & Crafts to university level in 1999. I taught graphic design or visual communication until 2019, when I became a pensioner and freelance designer. I still keep the position of being research professor at Iceland University of the Arts.

When laying the groundwork for my research, I used Ways of Seeing by John Berger. That led me to Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) and later Alexandra Middle (Design by Accident / For a New History of Design, which changed my point of view a lot) and lots of other works, like Jan Tsichihold’s The New Typography from 1928. The interesting thing about that book is that the chairman of The Union of Icelandic Printers was at conference of unions in Leipzig in the late ’20s, and he got a copy in 1929 and translated some excerpts in the Printers union magazine in 1930—and that influenced at least one printer, who got [ennamored] by the idea of a new profession about to be born.

I had no idea that there was such a long history that at once expresses that graphic style and is consistent with current design styles. Who were these printers and designers looking to for inspiration?
This among other things gave me a pattern recognition of ideas. Then I started to collect examples from municipal archives around Iceland and slowly it started to make sense. The influences came also by type specimen catalogues from Germany and from the U.K. Other interesting influences came from Seventh-day Adventist who published a magazine in the beginning of the 20th century (1902) with Art Nouveau type and ornaments—the reason was they were vegetarians and loved these forms of flora. All basic form ideas are like throwing a stone into water, where the ideas are born, and they build a flow of circles around that place that will sooner or later reach other territories.

Were there many surprises for you?
Yes, there were many surprises, because art historians in a small country like Iceland almost ignored applied arts—they were not taken seriously as “real art,” so they did not see that most of the movement from the 19th century and along the 20th century came first in applied arts.

When and where will the book be available?
The plan for the publication is next winter—it could be late this year or early 2024. We have a local publisher ready and waiting for me to deliver.