Whales just don’t tend to figure in the coursework of product design programs the way they do in literature curriculum on say, The Great American Novel. But Brynjar Sigurðarson, who is studying for his Masters in Product Design at University of Art and Design in Lausanne (a university whose track record for producing fantastic student work is pretty damn stellar), recently found a way to work whales into his academic experience. He turned to his alma mater, the Iceland Academy of the Arts, to co-organize and host a site-specific workshop for him and his ECAL classmates—to explore the inherent beauty and potential in whale bones washed up on the coast.
The five-day adventure was made possible by a state-funded grant that supports these kind of exchange programs. Before the trip, Sigurðarson spent hours on the phone with local farmers, a marine science association and whale enthusiasts for intel to help ensure some success in the search for skeletons. “Although you can find bones lying around the coast, we didn’t want to lose too much time looking,” he says.
Swapping the idyllic Swiss town for the raw and rugged Icelandic landscape was a necessary culture shock that bonded—and delighted—the group. “They had basically been placed in a small island they’d never seen before in the middle of the North Atlantic,” Sigurðarson says. “It was important they get a feel of what the place has to offer, not just sit in the classroom and work.”
And so they set out into the sandy, rocky wilds, enduring unrelenting weather and pitch-black nights to collect debris. “It was so amazing to see people who were usually super pragmatic and functional in their approach to design holding a piece of an old plastic shaped by the ocean and suddenly feeling like they found a treasure.”
This shift in perspective was exactly in line with Sigurðarson’s vision. “It was about making exercises with shapes and materials, to touch and feel, to become a child again and forget all those logistical points we have to consider when doing product design.”
Concepts and rough prototypes were created during the five-day workshop, then developed, refined, and completed back in Switzerland. It took a bit of maneuvering and patience in transition, however, as it turned out it was quite a challenge to track down the necessary permits and permissions to ship whale bones out of Iceland. The results are stark and sculptural—experimental modern artifacts inspired by strange and striking organic forms.