IT IS A COLD WINTER'S DAY when we meet in Reykjavik, but the warmth of Soley Stefansdottir quickly fights the brisk wind. With her partner Halldor Gislason (Dori), they work as designers and educators, individually and collaboratively, in Reykjavik, Oslo and Maputo, with the vision of a more sustainable, creative and happy future.
We faced a lot of challenges teaching in Mozambique.
S: I felt like I was a facilitator more than a teacher. They had lots of ideas and they could do lots of things, but often we didn’t even have a sheet of paper. The infrastructure is weak, then the money is over in two days, suddenly. You have to find ways of making things happen.
D: They got internet fairly early in my school. In the end, all my graphic design students had a laptop. They were given to me by professors here and various other means.
I remember we were teaching pattern, to mirror and copy etc., teaching in five different programs. I was like, ‘there must be a fucking mirror here somewhere!’ Haha. These students learned pretty fast.
S: They are very resistant. They are so used to … ‘the electricity is gone’ or ‘there is no water’. So often.
Resources are like gold.
D: I brought one sewing machine, and I had to take it in and back every day. The students wouldn’t steal it, but someone would. And then, in the classroom there was only one socket, so I brought a cable with three sockets.
S: The extensions are like gold! It’s so precious. Everyone is running around, ‘can we have an extension?!’
S: When I came, there were four old mini macs. There were 14 in my class. They had to be in groups and switch computers, you know, it was a fight, haha. There was supposed to be 10 new computers when I arrived. Of course, there were none. But in my last months, they were given by the Norwegian embassy. They were nice big iMacs, with a mouse and keyboard. Wireless.
I was like ‘oh my god, you can not have wireless’, because soon, the batteries were over. And I had to fight to get them to buy 50 rechargeable batteries – three in the keyboard, and two in the mouse. ‘Professor, my batteries are over!’, ‘OK!’, running, charge that and get another one. And of course they would be stolen, so it always had to be in a locked place.
The computer is the tool of choice.
S: We remember, maybe 20 years ago or something, when everything was about the computer, and the computer style. And now it’s quite fashionable to make with your hands. Craft-like.
D: But they just want computers! [thumps his fists like a hungry child at the dinner table].
S: They could make beautiful things by hand, and then horrible things by computer. They didn’t make the transition. Fortunately we took along a little portable scanner.
Starting a school in Mozambique was not unlike starting in Iceland.
D: Of course there were differences. But it was quite primitive here also. This winter here is the 12th winter. I started the design faculty up, with many other people.
The first year, almost all the software on the computers was hacked stuff. There was not enough money then, slowly, the school wanted to buy licenses.
The best time for architecture is crisis.
D: I wanted to be an architect when I was young. I was drawing buildings when I was nine or something, but when I came into Masters I was kinda bored already. I have worked as an architect of course, because I had to make money.
S: You had an office for seven years.
D: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we designed houses and things.
S: He’s the kind of person that knew what he wanted to do from childhood. I always envy people who know this.
D: I guess to me, it became boring because architecture is so, how should I say, focused, or disciplined, that it actually closes off a lot of possibilities. There are architects that are fantastic. But, I would say 90% of architects are crap. Having a walk by the shore [in Iceland], and you look at these buildings, like how can you make something so horrible, you know.
This is what all architects agree, the best time for architecture is crisis. It also happened in London. After the war, there were a lot of bad buildings. Then crisis, much better architecture. It’s natural.
Design can be an important catalyst for gender equality.
S: For me, this project developed because I did gender studies in the university. Then I went into graphic design, but the idea was still there. Our ideology is ingrained in our reality. And our ideology is gendered. We have that history. So that is part of it, just collecting examples with that in mind, with the idea that we can use design to further equality. We could do more.
Like the bicycle … bicycling has done more to emancipate women then anything else in the world. It threatened the social order, because women were travelling beyond their limits. And, haha, without the surveillance of a knowing husband nearby! Not only that, she had ‘sexual’ stimulation from the bicycle.
D: They had to change the bicycle seat. The man had to re-design it. Because it went too far up here ... it’s true! There is documentation of it! It’s just so funny! But this was 100 years ago.
S: And of course they had these dresses. It was difficult to walk fast, and suddenly you can go so much further and faster. The bicycle was one of the reasons the bloomers came in, so it pushed fashion too.
D: There is a plan to run an exhibition in later 2014. So we are waiting for funding, blah blah blah.
S: It would be nice to have an exhibition, not just do a report, to show people.
D: I am an architect in the beginning. I did not start architecture because I was interested in these issues. This is really only the last 10-15 years, when it’s like, oh, yeah, shit, what have I done?! You start to realise the impact you have.
Find out more about Soley here.
*Sadly less then a year after we met the passionate and inspiring Dori, he passed away after a two-year battle with cancer.
Interview: Siobhan Frost & Bec Worth
Words: Bec Worth