We met with Sonja Bent, a fashion and knitwear designer in the production room in Lazy Town, a children Television program that is extremely popular in America, produced both overseas and in Iceland. We noticed her Christmas sweater designs in read and green colours, and wanted to know more about her design projects that we knew were diverse and exciting, both independent and co- produced, for all sorts of mediums.
So, why are you knitting these ugly sweaters?
We are having an ugly Christmas sweater theme, in our closing show of Lazy Town, where I currently work. We wanted to portray this tacky Christmas sweater look, which actually exists in reality in some western countries like Britain. I think its great actually for the reason of making it more like reality of Christmas instead of over-stylising all the characters. Actually I started out as an intern here, when I was studying fashion design in the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and was offered a project of making knitwear for the winter show and now I am a costume design assistant of María Ólafsdóttir, who is the main costume designer for the show. I love working in this kind of an action driven environment, where creativity level is very high. All the characters have their own colour palette, which is a great challenge.
Do you think it’s difficult to design for puppets?
Well their proportions are so different to human shapes, for example one puppet on the show is quite the challenge because of its big belly. We have watched these rough cuts of some of these episodes that we are working on now, its different to watch something that you have made by yourself, coming to life.
Have you worked in other mediums, in the Icelandic film industry perhaps?
Yes, my first film project was to assist for the film Brúðguminn (White Night Wedding, 2008) for the wedding scene in the beautiful island of Flatey. These circumstances are very fast paced, and it can be very exciting artistically, it’s a huge change to go from all the doodling to working with a challenging team of filmmakers that need things to be done on the spot. My largest project in film has to be when I was the costume designer for the film Kóngavegur (King’s Road, 2010), portraying Icelandic trailer trash characters in a trailer park.
“The costumes were reality based worn out eccentric pieces”
What was the outcome, since we don’t have the actual culture of trailer trash in Iceland?
Well, we had influences from America of course, but the director, Valdís Óskarsdóttir, had such a strong vision for the characters so that was very helpful in the process. The costumes were reality based worn out eccentric pieces that we paired very thoughtfully together for each character. We thought of the Icelandic eccentric, in fact, that is what made the creation of the costumes come to life. I think some things work on camera, that doesn’t necessarily work in the real presence.
So, the actors from the theatre- based group Vesturport were involved in this film. How was it to work with them?
I really enjoyed working with the group; the Vesturport actors had strong opinions on their interpretation of the characters in the film. We had so much fun, brainstorming about the costumes, they where thinking about, “what would I wear, if I was this guy,”
I dug up old knitted sweaters, for one of the character, that I borrowed from old eccentric men, relatives and others that I know personally. We invited one of those guys we borrowed the most from, to the premiere and he must have found it a little strange to see his clothes worn, on the big screen in different kinds of scenes in the trailer trash park of Iceland!
So you borrow most of the clothing for these kinds of projects?
No, we have many fantastic second- hand shops here in Iceland, the Salvation Army, and Red Cross market that are very important for the film industry.
So, they are not too smelly one might think?
No, not at all. I use a magical chemical that eliminates odours and germs. This has made life much easier for us, using used clothing as costumes in general.
So, what about new film projects, are you working on something right now?
Yes as a matter a fact, I am working on a short film Stúlkan á rauða hjólinu (The girl on a red bicycle) that is now in production, which my husband directs, and our friend that is also a filmmaker co-produces with us. My costume design for this film is pretty special, because it evolves around this married middle-aged man, which his story is displayed through clothing. This man is always waiting to win the big lottery pot. But the thing is, the audience sees his emotions on how he is dressed, it’s very extroverted. If he feels like he is a clown, he is dressed as a clown, and if he feels like a million dollars, he is very sheekly dressed. He is dressed like he feels; this concept is very interesting to me
So you are a fashion designer and knitwear specialist on top of all this, how is that going?
Yes, I think you can’t just be a fashion designer all the time, especially not in Iceland. Sometimes you have to work in projects, but for me it’s a great blend, its not as if I’m working in a café alongside being a designer. I am a knitwear designer, and I sell my pieces in Kirsuberjatréð in Vesturagata 4. I think my projects; both in Lazy Town, Icelandic films, theatre and commercials go very well alongside my personal freedom of being an independent designer. That’s what makes me happy, and I will probably want to do more of in the future!
“I am crazy about pastels”
What about colours, what is your colour palette about?
I don’t like blacks, its unlikely for me to design black clothing in general. But I am crazy about pastels, and I have been for such a long time actually. And ethnical colours, Tibetan and Greenlandic colours many many colours together.
I am very colourful in my designs, when I was studying in the Iceland Academy of the Arts people were so surprised by that because I was myself dressed maybe in something complete opposite. Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, my teacher didn’t get that I was going all over the colour palette, being myself in the woollen sweater colours all the time. But I don’t follow the rule of being in what I design all the time. People have commented on my Farmer´s Market sweater that I wear and ask me why I would buy knitwear since I am a knitwear designer myself. But I am myself a consumer, so I think its fine to be dressed in other designs as well.
What project has had the most influence on in your carrier?
Well, I think it had a massive amount of influences on me when me and my three friends founded the Guerrilla Store in Slippurinn, Reykjavík around 2005, I was really inspired by our collaboratives Comme des Garçon but in fact they had been my favourite designers many years prior. But everything that we do, and as time passes by, the influences keep piling up and the various projects always influence me in a way. I am always planning of taking my masters abroad as well, so maybe in costume design or in fashion design. But I have had this dream of becoming a textile conservator, just repairing old textile works of all sorts. So that would be an idea as well.
Who are your clients?
Women of all ages basically. But what I find the most interesting now is when for example, I go out and I see someone wearing my knitted sweaters, I really really enjoy that. What can I tell you, oh yeah, It’s always nice when Björk buys your design. She has bought design wear from me twice but as we say in the fashion design community here in Iceland, we always celebrate that as a milestone if she buys our designs. She pulls off so many different things, she is magnificent.
But now this will all change, because I am currently working on a line for children that will soon be out, which I am producing in Portugal. Well, in Iceland it’s very common that you can be occupied in diverse projects all the time, but I am happy to be able to work in the field of design both as an independent designer and working on projects that are offered to me in different mediums.
We wish Sonja all the best in the future, with her designs for Lazy Town, her own contemporary knitwear design line, her upcoming children’s line and basically everything that her future brings.
Interview: Ása Baldursdóttir
Photographs: Nanna Dís