Interview: Icelandic Designer Hlynur Atlason – Home, Identity + Yoga Pants

After a great exhibition at this year’s DesignMarch in Reykjavík, and a with a career that spans advertising, industrial design, and teaching, Hlynur Atlason is a success, in all senses. As someone who admires Hlynur’s work from both a visual and theoretical side, and as a foreign designer in a new country (I recently made the jump from London to Reykjavík), I was interested to hear how Hlynur looks at his work and himself.

I spoke to Hlynur about his interest in ‘design’ as a child, how his location affects his work, and about his identity as a Nordic designer. Oh, and yoga pants as inspiration. Yes, you heard right.


It seems you had an interest in design from a young age, what drew you in to the arts?

I have always liked coming up with ideas and always liked making them happen. When I was a kid, there was never a car in our garage, but a bunch of bikes and stuff that I was working on, much to the frustration of my parents. At that point I didn’t connect what I was doing with the arts (at all).

At some point, much, much later I figured out there was actually a profession where “they would pay you” to do this type of stuff. My first year of art school at Parsons in Paris was an incredible high – I just couldn’t believe that this type of a school could exist, with grown-ups seriously critiquing the ideas I was coming up with. I still feel it’s incredible.

 

Hlynur Atlason Icelandic Designer

 

Copenhagen, Paris, New York – What have these places taught you about designing for people?

People have a different relationship with design depending on the place. Design in the USA has often been served up as pretentious and frivolous, where as in Denmark it is deeply rooted in the culture, where the value of design is understood by the public on a visceral level.

Brands can be perceived differently from one market to another; what could be a typical kitchen chair in Denmark is seen as a high-design luxury item in the USA, so in my experience context is important when designing for people.

An example is Budweiser, which is offered as a premium beer in China, and the sales eclipse those in the US.

Another thing I’ve learned is that nostalgia and cultural references will drive decisions based on emotion. If you experienced something as a young person, that had an impact on you, odds are you will seek this out later in life. These references can be unique to a country and only be valued where they can be understood. I think it’s important to be conscious of this when designing in a particular market.

 

Your collection for Ercol is classic but modern, and can be adapted for a host of spacial situations. What design inspiration did you draw on the for the collection? And why did you pick the colorways that are available?

This may not seem intuitive, but yoga pants served as inspiration for this collection of hardwood furniture. In the sense that yoga pants are this flexible piece of clothing that shows up in all types of occasions, from work to play to exercise etc., and they are very comfortable. With the work place becoming more open and flexible and sometimes designed a bit more like the home, there was this opportunity to create cross-over furniture that has broad appeal and can be configured to accommodate a number of scenarios, without coming across like a rigid system.

Ercol has this amazing history, crafting quality furniture since 1920, using the same Windsor style construction methods. Ercol is also a household name in the UK with a robust collectors market. I wanted to draw upon the heritage, but modernize the pieces with contemporary upholstery and a webbing system for superior comfort. We are also adding a screen with sound dampening properties for home and work uses.

The basic colors include natural ash and walnut, with leather and kvadrat fabrics. Then I also included tonal stories in midnight blue and Bordeaux tones that I think are more contemporary and youthful, and a little different from what Ercol has traditionally offered, signaling a new direction for the company. Not to forget black, which is always a solid choice.

 

Hlynur Atlason Icelandic Designer

Hlynur Atlason Icelandic Designer

 

What generates a feeling of home for you?

A home should be personal, in my opinion. Curated with things you like, that have a meaning for you. For me, that’s a collection of artwork; artifacts and large scale photographs from friends mixed with acquired objects or the occasional prototype from the studio. Things that one can’t order online, let’s say. And, of course a turntable with a few records, my favorite lounge chair and my favorite coffee cup (from an Icelandic mental institute, a gift from my sister that had a summer job there many years ago).  So, if you are into objects, then each activity, each moment becomes more special, when you are at home.

 

Hlynur Atlason Icelandic Designer

Hlynur Atlason Icelandic Designer

 

How important is it for you to show your work in Iceland?

My Icelandic identity is important to me, and thus, having a professional connection with my country is something I value. All my family lives in Iceland and I always want to spend more time there than I do.  At the moment I’m plotting to lecture at the university and start a collaboration with an Icelandic company, allowing me to keep my ear closer to the Icelandic ground. The plan is also to show some new things there next year for DesignMarch.

When you exhibit at Nordic shows and work with Nordic brands, do you consider yourself a foreign designer?

I feel like an outsider everywhere, in a geographical limbo. When I’m in Iceland I feel like I’ve become too much of a New Yorker, and in New York I feel very Icelandic. However, I identify as a Nordic designer, because I am one.


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