Undralandið

The aftermath of Christmas. Most have eaten too much and the time of exercise is lurking ahead, but I’m not quite there yet so I find myself firmly squeezed in a comfy chair with a slice of pizza in my mouth and a computer in the lap, browsing the internet. Having read dozens of status updates from people worried about their over indulgence I stumbled upon a marvellous video from a new and exciting graphic design company in Reykjavík, run and owned by four women fresh out of their studies. I knew I just had to meet them the first chance I got, and find out what makes them tick.

Ladies, can I have your names?

Júlía Hvanndal, Arna Rún Gústafsdóttir, Jóna Berglind Stefánsdóttir and Svala Hjörleifsdóttir.

You all studied graphic design at the Iceland Academy of the Arts but what was your experience before?

Svala: I finished college and went on to work for some time. Later I studied for a short period at the Technical College in Reykjavik so that I could attain a degree in art studies. That then led me to the Arts College in Reykjavik and finally the Academy. Júlía: After college I worked and lived abroad for a while, in an attempt to figure out the world and where I fitted into it. Jóna: I entered the Academy straight from college having done media studies. So you were absolutely clear on your path? Yes by that point, but prior to that I had been interested in dentistry. These are quite different fields. Júlía: She does have a tongue and teeth thing going on. Are you clinical in your work then? Jóna: No, I’m not perfectionist and I am fully able to leave a mess behind. Arna: I finished college and then moved to Denmark and worked there for a while, and then, like the others I entered the Academy.

“you might actually be able to make a living out of drawing”

So the vast majority of students had gone out in the world to figure out their niche before starting their studies?

Júlía: In all of us I think there was always the spark present, the desire to do something creative. Svala: Yes, and then there are the things that make sense to you now when you look back, for instance I collected well-designed, beautiful packaging and had a collection of beautiful gum wrappers, logos and postcards from all over the world. It all makes sense to me now, maybe not so much then.

Arna: For me it was the notion that you might actually be able to make a living out of drawing, which I never thought possible while sitting in college with all my notebooks full of scribbles and drawings. Jóna: Exactly! I had always intended to be an artist but then the idea of dentistry took over at some point. I so enjoyed my trips to the dentist that I intended to become one. I gather from that information that this field of work attracts “different” types of people. Well, my mother always said I was the weird child. That is a good thing, I think!

What do you bring to this venture as individuals? By that I mean, you must all have your strengths and weaknesses?

Arna: Well, one thing that unites us is that we all have the desire to work a bit more with our hands. Júlía: I’d say that we all have our own strengths but then we share common ethos, an idea of where we are going. Svala: Exactly, during brainstorm-meetings, things just flow, with us finishing each other’s sentences, in what is a cumulative process. The finished article will then stylistically depend on who ultimately executes it.

That leads me onto what first got me interested in your work, your Christmas card video, which I came across over the festive seasons, where did that idea come from?

Arna: It came from us wanting to work hands on with the logo, cutting it out of Laufabrauð (traditional Icelandic Christmas deep fried shortbread) or baking it. Júlía: Or alternately sending the typical orderly card but that isn’t really what we’re about. Arna: Something new, something fresh. Jóna: The video came from us documenting the process. Svala: The filming was a backup, we thought it might be good for something later, to own it as a memento. It was all just good fun.

Jólakveðja Undralandsins 2011

There has been a palpable shift back to technique and handcrafting, don´t you think?

Jóna: And a desire to work by hand. Svala: Not just sitting in front of the computer. (At this point it’s worth mentioning how seamlessly they finish each other’s sentences, the four of them, like a grand old couple telling the rehearsed tale of how they met fifty years ago. Such fluidity I think can only come from a shared vision and desire)Arna: The drive to learn something new along the way is there as well.

“It’s healthy not to be glued to the computer all the time”

Svala: There’s a deeper understanding to be achieved in analogue, take photography for instance. It’s healthy to learn, no matter if you are going to work solely in digital later on, you’ll understand better the machine you are using, the commands, the ideas are the same, and they are of course all named after the old methods. You will be able to break it down to its constituent parts when working in analogue. Arna: You will also develop a different set of skills and won’t be fully dependent on technology. Simply being able to take a good picture and not having to edit it afterwards. Jóna: It’s simply healthy not to be glued to the computer all the time.

The perfect example of that is Reykjavík Letterpress, which we interviewed last year. Jóna: I was an intern there for about six months before we started up here. They are great aren’t they? Jóna: Yes, but you´d be surprised, they’re such pranksters!

Svala: What they create is so beautiful, great artists. Arna: And the Reykjavík Letterpress girls are the only ones working with these techniques in this country! Júlía: The craftsmanship and the paper. Oh we’re into paper, it’s a weird hobby, we know. Paper is brilliant!

From one thing to another, what brought you to taking the plunge into becoming a start-up?

Júlía: We had all just loosely been talking about it over coffee here and there or at school but last November I sent them all message about that now was the time and I called Svala and said: Enough is enough! Now is the time where we will be opening an office, we are good enough, clever enough, we know what we are doing and the time of hesitation is over!

Svala: At that point my boyfriend, Hörður, had been saying; stop wasting time and just start working with your friends. So when the phone call from Júlía came it was like ‘ahhh right, this is on’. Arna: We we’re all privileged enough to be able to bring projects into the company, that was a good leg up. Then it transpired that we could be her in this space, which we love, and that was the point we knew it was real, that this was on. Bar Bakkus is opening just across the road and we can therefore work until like one in the morning and then just jump over and dance. I’m impressed with your work ethic, working til one in the morning, that’s quite good. Jóna: That does happen on occasions.

Have you set yourselves a business goal?

Svala: That is just around the corner, we intend to put our goals in the form of a time-line on the wall, but to make a project out of it. Arna: You could say that our first major goal is to pay ourselves full wages.

Júlía: Well, that, and the bills. But in regards to the future we are going to do good things. Svala: With the reception we have had from people and the projects that are in the pipeline, there are a lot of great things happening that hopefully will have a domino effect. Jóna: We are diligent and we have ambition. Svala: We set the rule for ourselves that we would treat each project with equal enthusiasm and integrity, be it a bank or a bakery, we’ll treat them all the same and most importantly, try to make sure it’s fun and creative. I was quite fond of the fact you put some of your older work on your website, thus making sure it’s not barren and it gives the potential client a great view into what you’re all about.

Are you working on some interesting projects now?

Jóna: Well, we just got contracted to do all the design work for the Iceland Airwaves festival, which is quite the coup for us, as far as we know we are the first women to be lead designers for this 13 year old festival.

That must be a long term commitment for you?

Jóna: Well, we start pretty much now. Arna: As far as commitment goes we estimate about three weeks of work, that is, of course, spread out over the next few months but yes, should be about three weeks.

Does this project involve you working with a lot of people?

Júlía: Not really. Should be just the web programmer, Halldór, and we know him well. Any photography will be taken from the vast archive that the festival has gathered through the years on Flicker. All the festival photographers are required to publish them there. Svala: We try to do anything and everything ourselves and learn through the process.

Is your approach different from other graphic design companies?

We aren’t markedly taking a stance as women when we approach a project, but it does make a difference whether it’s just women, a mixed group or just men. Arna: We might, in our projects, be more aware of gentrification in advertisement, and therefore possibly have an advantage in avoiding clichés. We are, by our nature, better adaptive at taking a woman’s perspective than a man would be.

Júlía: Us being only women here just happened, we contacted guys as well when we were starting up, but, as these things happen, this is how it wound up. Having come through the same program at university, we have worked together and found that it somehow just works. There have never been any disagreements or drama. Jóna: It is really quite fulfilling to be finally able to work in the field of your profession.

And lastly, a bit of a cliché question but what would be a dream project?

Arna: You could say that it was dependent on the client, it’s always great to work with people that are willing to try something new and take risks, give it a go. I mean it might be a great company that looks really promising but then the people are less ready to evolve the concept. We have two projects like that at the moment, that is where the client has come to us because of who we are and for what we stand for, the one being Macland and the other we really can’t talk about. A mystery client? Yes… But a client that’s willing to take the journey with us and place that trust in our work.

Are you coming in at an early stage, in the concept development?

Svala: The client has opinions on how it should be done, that is only to be expected, as it might be something, he or she will have carried with them for a while, their baby if you will. So we just brainstorm with the client, get him involved and that can be great fun. Júlía: But to be able to brand a whole company or design the cover of a book from scratch, that is extremely gratifying as a designer. There is, of course, a difference between starting from scratch, as you say, with something new, something that has no parameters and then working with, say, the Airwaves festival where set parameters are in place and the question is how do you work within the set boundaries.

Jóna: I would say that it’s both interesting and with the Airwaves project we are working with a strong identity that’s already there and we won’t be dissecting it, but you can play with it, evolve it and try to freshen it up. Svala: Which we did in our sketches that we presented to them and they seem to have liked it.

But running your own business that must be a new experience. Going to meetings, having to negotiate terms and so forth?

Júlía: That’s true but we have played it by the book so far, we get a brief, we then send in a proposal that leads to some negotiations, it is a process. Arna: You learn it on the go, what people are willing to pay for the work, and for you to calculate the time the project will take you so that you don’t short change yourself. Jóna: We seem to be doing all right so far, we are going out of our comfort zone but that becomes a norm like anything else soon. Svala: Also we have just put down a clear agenda for us, and how we approach negotiations. Arna: That might be the one place where we take men as role models, on the money side we’re all guys. That is frankly a must, you can so easily kill your love for your job if you make bad contracts and end up slaving away for what ultimately won’t even pay the bills. Arna: That is a part of it at first but then you learn or… well, it’s just all a bit of a learning process.

Any message for the children out there in the world?

Júlía: Keep on trucking! Jóna: Anything is possible and dreams can come true, ha ha. Now we’re just babbling.

I love to meet people that are as optimistic as these four are, but at the same time have the ability to back it up. Here you have a unit that, through the time spent working together in university, managed to forge a bond that really comes across when you talk to them. Their eagerness and the great progress they have made in such a short space of time gives me the feeling that we should all keep a close eye on them in the future.

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Interview: Guðni Rúnar
Photographs: Nanna Dís