The Energy Of Reykjavik's Design Scene

Reykjavik's Design Culture

What to see, where to shop, and where to eat in the epicenter of European cool.


By Marika Cain
Photography by Nanna Dís

In Loftid, a former tailor's shop reimagined as a cocktail bar, an elfin wisp of a DJ who’s spinning vintage Queen suddenly whips out a flute and starts tootling along with “Another One Bites the Dust.” The musical flight of fancy epitomizes Reykjavik’s anything-goes creative streak – a streak born of isolation, collaboration, and more than a pinch of Nordic fairy dust. And while foreigners may know the Icelandic capital best for its music scene, architecture, fashion, and art proliferate here too.

Every pixie-dust-tinged story needs a fairy godmother or two. In Reykjavik, the title falls equally to fashion designer Steinunn Sigurd and design professor/gallery owner Sigridur Sigurjonsdottir. The former left a career designing for La Perla, Gucci, and Calvin Klein to settle in Iceland full-time and launch her own line.

“The creative community is much closer here,” she says. “I find it much more interesting to run into the violinist or the poet or the painter on the street and collaborate with them.”

Sigurjonsdottir, formerly a professor at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts and a tireless champion of Icelandic designers (she started Spark Design Space to launch local talent), concurs: “There is a freedom here that you can sense in the work. It is a small scene but very vibrant.”

An easy stopover en route to Europe, the city of 117,000 delivers a walkable (and shoppable) design scene – and a dose of indie cred. Denizens of the low-rise downtown, with its colorful corrugated buildings, look almost to a person like they’re in the coolest band you’ve never heard of. And everywhere, unself-conscious creations flourish: the city’s many murals; weird and wonderful shoes, jewelry, and more. Here, a few Reykjavik design highlights.


Glass Castle: A geometric-paned iceberg glued to the edge of downtown, Harpa, the national concert hall, hosts performances ranging from Icelandic folk music to How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes, an hour-long cultural introduction that employs Iceland’s signature dry wit. Shop for Icelandic goods at Epal in the sprawling lobby, browse the music at an outpost of the city’s beloved 12 Tónar store, or knock back a drink under the neon “Scandinavian Pain” art installation in Harpa’s Kolabrautin bar and restaurant.

Viking Backstory: “If you want to get to know how Iceland was built, go to the National Museum of Iceland,” designer Steinunn Sigurd says. There, permanent exhibits trace the country’s history, from the arrival of the first Norwegian settlers around AD 800 to the present – all in warm and tasteful Scandinavian surroundings.

Vantage Point: Rising like a pixelated Viking helmet from a downtown hilltop, Hallgrimskirkja, the country’s largest church, is a snow-white study in Icelandic eclecticism – guarded by an Alexander Calder statue of Leif Eriksson. Pay the admission and take the rickety elevator to its observation deck for postcard views of Reykjavik’s multicolored abodes.

Art On The Walls: Murals adorn buildings all over Reykjavik: A lava flow spills over the roofline of one building; a waterfall of silver and blue paillettes glitters on another. Giant Icelandic postage stamps, a single luminous two-story feather painted on a midrise building – the fun is rounding a corner and coming face-to-face with one of dozens of outsize artworks.


The Incubator: Projects showcased at Sigridur Sigurjonsdottir’s Spark Design Space gallery and shop have included perfume (Andrea Maack’s visual-arts-inspired fragrances), graphic design (gorgeous maps of European capitals by Paolo Gianfrancesco in a rainbow of Pantone hues), and category-defying works (a sort of Icelandic Lego set made of real fish bones). Spark also stocks excellent Icelandic art books and works from past and current exhibitions.

Haute Wool: Steinunn Sigurd’s line of knitted garments, STEiNUNN, runs the gamut from supple, fine-gauge cardigans and crew-neck sweaters to wildly textured headdresses and scarves that mimic lava flows, plus wool hats, coats, shirts, dresses, and pants. A visit to her shop and studio in the Fishpacking District doubles as a fine-art photography outing: Original Mary Ellen Mark Polaroids from the designer’s days in the New York fashion world adorn the walls.

Collective Cool: Kiosk artists’ collective stocks locally made fashion and jewelry, including designer/visual artist Hildur Yeoman’s work – crocheted nylon necklaces reminiscent of delicate sea plants embellished with glass beads and semiprecious stones, and her more outré fashion (one of her collections incorporates crocheted poodles).

Bright Spot: The riot of color in KronKron radiates chiefly from its namesake brand, Kron by KronKron. A husband-and-wife team turns out what might be called Icelandic muumuus, as well as dresses, tights, and footwear straight from a Willy Wonka hallucination. The shop also stocks other high-end brands such as Acne Studios and Sonia Rykiel.

All Things Iceland: Clothing and ephemera from “Good Old Iceland” (as the shop’s slogan goes) fill Geysir, a woodsy-feeling boutique. Pick up an Icelandic wool Wing scarf (a scallop-edged garment inspired by Iceland’s feathered friends) from design-community stalwart Vik Prjonsdottir – or a wearable “baby seal” baby blanket.

Rising Star: Local boy and recent Icelandic Academy of the Arts graduate Gudmundur Jorundsson turns out Jör, his menswear and menswear-inspired womenswear lines, in his studio downstairs from the shop.


Until recently, Icelandic food was more infamous than celebrated – and, yes, you can still get fermented shark if you want it – but the dining scene has blossomed, with creative chefs reinvigorating the country’s limited ingredients (potatoes, cod, blueberries, and lamb feature prominently).

Caffeination Nation: Reykjavik Roasters, the city’s best coffee shop and roastery, gets its soundtrack from vintage records and the chatter of Reykjavik regulars. Sip your latte, sit back, and watch the hipster parade.

Fresh Taste: Gló, a second-floor raw-foods-focused café across the street from Spark Design Space, leans vegetarian. Order a wrap and your choice of side salads, then grab a seat near the window overlooking the street scene below.

Dinner And Drinks: Have a craft cocktail with your charred salmon or cured arctic char at Kol, a cozy, contemporary dinner spot.

Nordic Notes: Reykjavik’s New Nordic Cuisine darling, Dill elevates traditional ingredients with fresh preparations: skyr (a thick yogurt-like product) with celery and roasted oats, for instance, or salt cod with celeriac and apples.

This article originally appeared in May 2015 issue of Virtuoso Life.