In an era when design stars are given TV shows, pal around with Brad Pitt, and collaborate with megaretailers, it’s not immediately clear why any young hopeful would want to join a design collective. Doing so requires putting the name and the needs of a group before one’s own, obscuring any clear path to individual fame. In the past, collectives often had a kind of anti-commercial sheen, even when they were selling things. In the sixties, groups like Archigram and Ant Farm used design and architecture to further shared countercultural agendas. Similarly, Ettore Sottsass founded the Memphis collective in the eighties as a kind of postmodernist manifesto. But when the Droog collective came along in 1993, its more practical, less philosophical mission—promoting talents too new and obscure to make much of an impact on their own—marked a turning point for design collectives. These days, belonging to a collective largely appeals to the under-35 set, who see it as a way to pool their resources. (The cost of exhibiting at career-making trade fairs like Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile can run $10,000 or higher.) With the buyer more frequently wanting a “narrative” behind his or her teapot, the fact that it was made by seven 24-year-olds in Helsinki also provides a built-in selling point. And now that young furniture and product designers are increasingly becoming manufacturers and retailers too—using the web to sell products directly to stores and customers—having more hands and minds around helps when it comes to product development, client relations, and fulfillment, not to mention picking up the slack when half of the collective is hungover the morning after a studio party.
Based in: Reykjavik and New York City
In 2005, with the Icelandic wool industry in decline, a group of product and fashion designers known as Vík Prjónsdóttir decided to join forces with a local knitting factory in an attempt to show how the material could be used in a more modern way. “The factory was making typical fisherman sweaters, socks, and the like,” says co-founder Thury Rós Sigurthórsdóttir. “We thought Icelandic wool could be revitalized with more contemporary designs.” They decided to base all of their eccentric patterns on stories or myths, often traveling to remote parts of Iceland for inspiration. Among their first products was a wool playsuit with flipperlike hands and feet, based on an old Icelandic tale about a fisherman who unknowingly married a seal. Later, while camping by a fjord, they designed a blanket resembling giant bird wings in homage to a mythical eagle said to preside over the nearby mountains. Eight years later, the country’s wool industry has “exploded,” says Sigurthórsdóttir—thanks in part to their efforts, plus the boost to the buy-local movement in Iceland provided by the economic crisis—and Vík Prjónsdóttir’s reputation has grown along with it.