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February 26, 2009
Originally published in Super Natural

Gundrún Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir of Studio Bility takes us on a guided tour of the city by the smoky bay: Reykjavík, Iceland. She tells us about the local fascination with fairies, why we should keep an eye on the city's small but burgeoning design scene, and how, with all the collaboration going on, no man is an Iceland.

Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdottir of Studio Bilty takes us on a guided tour of the city by the smoky bay: Reykjavik, Iceland. She tells us about the local fascination with fairies, why we should keep an eye on the city's small but burgeoning design scene, and
Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdottir of Studio Bilty takes us on a guided tour of the city by the smoky bay: Reykjavik, Iceland. She tells us about the local fascination with fairies, why we should keep an eye on the city's small but burgeoning design scene, and how, with all the collaboration going on, no man is an Iceland.
Photo by 
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Nearly two-thirds of Iceland's population of 300,000 lives in the greater Reykjavik area. The city's name means "smoky bay." The view of the waterfront shows the rational architectural pragmatism that holds sway in much of the country.
Nearly two-thirds of Iceland's population of 300,000 lives in the greater Reykjavik area. The city's name means "smoky bay." The view of the waterfront shows the rational architectural pragmatism that holds sway in much of the country.
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Grasses and moss grow in plush mats over volcanic rock on the edges of the city.
Grasses and moss grow in plush mats over volcanic rock on the edges of the city.
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The houses show the traditional style alongside the contemporary.
The houses show the traditional style alongside the contemporary.
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The dramatic Icelandic landscape is on stark display just outside the capital. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet near Keflavic.
The dramatic Icelandic landscape is on stark display just outside the capital. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet near Keflavic.
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Rocks may house the huldufólk.
Rocks may house the huldufólk.
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Geothermal activity is nothing new.
Geothermal activity is nothing new.
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A shark-skinning shack.
A shark-skinning shack.
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The original Naked Ape shop sells inventive street clothes that are screenprinted by the store’s owner and many local artists and designers.
The original Naked Ape shop sells inventive street clothes that are screenprinted by the store’s owner and many local artists and designers.
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The Asmundur Sveinsson Collection is worth visiting for the architecture as much as the sculpture.
The Asmundur Sveinsson Collection is worth visiting for the architecture as much as the sculpture.
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Vik Prjónsdóttir Studio is on the vanguard of Icelandic design.
Vik Prjónsdóttir Studio is on the vanguard of Icelandic design.
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Kron Kron, a local shop, features the knitted seal-shaped robes, humorous mustache-guarding winter hats, and blankets by design collective Vik Prjónsóttir.
Kron Kron, a local shop, features the knitted seal-shaped robes, humorous mustache-guarding winter hats, and blankets by design collective Vik Prjónsóttir.
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The cozy Saegreifinn Fish Shop is owned by a former fisherman, a legendary salty character who lives above the shop.
The cozy Saegreifinn Fish Shop is owned by a former fisherman, a legendary salty character who lives above the shop.
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Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdottir of Studio Bilty takes us on a guided tour of the city by the smoky bay: Reykjavik, Iceland. She tells us about the local fascination with fairies, why we should keep an eye on the city's small but burgeoning design scene, and
Gudrun Lilja Gunnlaugsdottir of Studio Bilty takes us on a guided tour of the city by the smoky bay: Reykjavik, Iceland. She tells us about the local fascination with fairies, why we should keep an eye on the city's small but burgeoning design scene, and how, with all the collaboration going on, no man is an Iceland.

The view from Studio Bility designer Gudrún Lilja Gunnlaugsdóttir’s home just outside Reykjavík would be bucolic were it not for the threat of severe weather. In the former auto repair garage that she and graphic designer husband Jon Ásgeir Hreinsson are renovating, expansive windows look out on a lighthouse at the end of a long jetty. At midnight on the night after Midsummer’s Eve, the sun hasn’t set. We have a clear view of the sky as it grows moody, stooping low and gray, reminding us that summer could disappear precipitously under show-ers of rain and the bruising winds off the North Atlantic.

Iceland is a land of extremes, suspended between Europe and North America, with ties to Scandinavia (Vikings, sagas, an affinity for nature) but few of its high-profile design icons. The countryside features dramatic textures (moss, magma, roiling hot springs, and glacial crevasses), while much of its tiny, cosmopolitan population lives in the highly rational architecture of the capital, Reykjavík. The national language, like much of Iceland’s architecture, is literal and lacks extraneous embellishment or preciousness. Additions to the lexicon are often made up of precise, elaborate compound words (Icelandic is not unlike German in this respect), augmenting the Icelandic vocabulary to keep pace with developments in technology and the sciences. (The word for “deodorant,” svitalyktareydir, entered the dictionary some decades back and literally means “smell-sweat-destroyer.”) But this highly efficient brand of economy is tempered by a widespread faith in fairies and huldufólk, the hidden people who inhabit stones.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the Iceland Academy of Arts began to grant degrees in design, and today, as the first graduates establish studios and show new work, Reykjavík’s burgeoning design community is reaching new heights. Last year Gunnlaugsdóttir curated the exhibit Magma/Kvika:  Icelandic Contemporary Design 2007 at the Reykjavík Art Museum, which featured the multidisciplinary work of more than 80 local designers, a striking number relative to the country’s population of 300,000.

Over skewers of fresh fish brought home from a hole-in-the-wall shop in the nearby harbor, Gunnlaugsdóttir talked about what’s afoot and why it’s time for all of us to keep an eye on Iceland.

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