We chat with the brilliant Icelandic artist about sustainability, textile techniques and handing out wool pizzas to the public.
Normally when our clothes get tired, we just give them to a charity shop or dump them in the recycling. But Icelandic artist Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, aka Ýrúrarí, has been turning them into stunning works of art.
Currently living between Berlin and Reykjavík, her work typically combines elements of humour, body movements and the everyday in wool-based, often wearable, objects.
Her pieces explore the line between costume and casual wear and typically feature a distinct, colourful, playful style. In recent years she has been increasingly concerned with sustainability, an issue reflected in her use of second-hand tangled sweaters given a new look through handmade decorations and mending.
In 2020 Ýrúrarí’s first line of upcycled sweaters, Sweater Sauce, was nominated for the Icelandic Design Awards. This project evolved into 'visible mending' workshops in her open studio at the The Museum of Design and Applied Arts in 2021. The workshop, in which participants personalise items of clothing and play creatively with mending techniques on their own knits, has now travelled to several European cities.
With her work about to appear at not one, but two exhibitions, we chatted to Ýrúrarí about her knitting process, where she gets inspiration from, and her upcoming shows.
Process and perspective
How, we wondered, does she approach creating her unique art forms? "What has inspired me most in doing my knitwork is the thought of a wearable piece that moves around the everyday surrounding a person's body and affects the visual elements in the spaces it enters," she explains. "So when I start a piece, it's usually the thought of its effect and how it moves around, hopefully bringing out some smiles and laughter."
That’s also one of the reasons why she works with second-hand sweaters. "They've all had lives I didn't know about before I got them into my hands," she explains. "But when they leave, they're still an everyday garment, but with a new presence. Using colour and humour are the core of my practice since I often wish it was more common for people to dress up in a colourful and playful way after reaching adulthood."
Her process usually starts with finding a particular second-hand sweater. "I usually get them from charity places where they sort second-hand clothing but sell the 'unsellable' ones for a bit less," she explains. "So the sweaters are already in need of mending."
Following their knit structures and the ﬂaws that will need a mend, she'll then grow an idea. "Sometimes sweaters stay with me for months or years before I'm sure what I want to do with them," she says. "But also, sometimes I spot a sweater when thrifting and I just know right away what to do, so this part of the process varies greatly."
"I usually don’t sketch much before starting the work on the sweaters," she continues. "But now I've got more into using programs like Procreate to roughly sketch on top of a photo of each sweater. It deﬁnitely saves some time on making unwanted mistakes."
Regarding crafting, she thinks carefully about yarns in terms of wool, colour and type. Nowadays, she mostly works with either knitting or needle felting, she says. "I always try to work only with natural materials. The crafting can take days and sometimes even weeks."
Knowledge and experience
Ýrúrari is guided by a mixture of gut and experience, of which she has quite a bit. "I’ve been studying textiles since I was nine," she explains. "Textile practice is part of the curriculum in children's schools in Iceland, and that’s where I learned to knit."
She deepened her knowledge at Reykjavík School of Visual Arts and then at Glasgow School of Art, where she got her BA in Textile Design in 2017. "Learning various textile techniques has given me a wider view of what's possible," she says, "even though I only use a fraction of what I learned in my actual work. I also gained a community and network of other people working in the same ﬁeld, which is a precious thing to have in a very uncertain and unstable career."
She later took a Master's degree in Art Education, and now she teaches her own workshops and is qualiﬁed to guide new textile design students. "This is also now a big part of my work: sharing how I approach my work with others and hopefully inﬂuencing some people to be a bit brave and bold when mending and working sustainably with textiles."
Shaped by Iceland
Although she moved to Berlin over a year ago, her homeland of Iceland remains the biggest influence on her art. "Iceland was a very safe space for me to grow my ideas, a small place full of incredible nature," she explains. "I think Iceland has shaped me. Being in such a small place makes me take more risks. In Iceland, there is more space to not fully understand the system or how things are 'supposed' to be.
"Berlin is a lot bigger but also full of art and creativity," she adds. "I’m still ﬁguring out the possibilities here. It’s easier to get lost, which is good and bad at the same time."
Most importantly, her art continues to make her happy. "When I stop having fun, or if I feel like I can’t ﬁnd more happiness in what I'm doing, I know I'll just go do something else," she says. "This can often be tricky since I'm deﬁnitely not going about making a living in the smartest way. I know it's not fun to talk about, but it can often be difficult working so hard on something that, in the end, doesn't work out as a full-time thing."
Ýrúrari is currently working on two big projects she's particularly proud and excited about. On 28 April, she'll open her solo exhibition 'Presence' in Iceland's Museum of Design and Applied Arts. "It’s been a year-long process, and it’s all coming together perfectly with the help of my wonderful curators in Studio Fræ, an international design agency based in China and Iceland," she enthuses. "The exhibition's emphasis is on bringing a stronger presence to second-hand sweaters and is a bit of an overview of the past ten years of Ýrúrarí. All the pieces are new and fresh out of my studio in Berlin."
During the exhibition, which opens on 28 April and ends on 27 August, Ýrúrarí will work on a publication covering previous projects and her techniques. It will be based around a sweater that will grow throughout the exhibition period, with every step recorded to use as a visual reference on how to try out the techniques at home.
"We worked together last year on a research project ﬁnding solutions on creating new textiles out of the leftovers from the Icelandic wool industry," she recalls. "We experimented with a felting loom in the Textilelab in Blönduós and ended up buying our own machine. At DesignMarch, the machine will have a debut live performance called 'Pizzatime', a show where people can order wool pizzas from a menu made of 100% wool leftovers. The project is well funded, so we’re keeping the pizzas at a regular price, hoping to lighten up some homes with custom-made wool pizzas you can use under warm things or as decoration."
Presence takes place at The Museum of Design and Applied Arts and showcases new sweaters by Ýrúrarí, curated by Studio-Fræ, from 28 April to 27 August. On Sunday, 7 May, at 1pm, Ýrúrarí and Studio-Fræ will guide guests through the exhibition. The exhibit is open during the museum’s opening hours, and all guests are welcome to participate in a fun interactive part of the installation.
During DesignMarch from 3-7 May, designers Flétta and Ýrúrarí will open up Pizza Time with Flétta and Ýrúrarí, where guests can order freshly felted wool pizzas made of leftovers from the Icelandic wool industry. The pizzas will be in limited edition.