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07 Feb 2018

Off the Scale: Uggi fish lights made from dried cod

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Handmade from dried cod by two Icelandic designers, the Uggi light is a uniquely sustainable tribute to their home country 

A lamp made of whole dried cod skin. Sounds pretty far-fetched, doesn’t it?

Perhaps not. Iceland (plus other countries across the globe) has used the traditional method of drying fish for various products and food preservation for many years. The Vikings established the practice and it’s still used today, particularly in rural areas and especially when preparing Haròfiskur – a popular Icelandic snack and export product.

Fanney Antonsdóttir and Dögg Gumundsdóttir made innovative use of this Icelandic tradition in 2001, when they created their unique Uggi lamp, sourced from hand-skinned dried fish (uggi means fish fin in Icelandic). Since the product was showcased at DesignMarch – Iceland’s annual design festival – in 2017, the 1m-long lamps have generated huge interest and have been bought by various public buildings, restaurants and homes. 

The duo first met at Danmarks Designskole, the Danish Design School in Copenhagen, where they shared studio space with a group of other designers and artists. “We came from different fields of design and craft but we both shared an interest in using various materials and the different ways to use them,” Antonsdóttir explains. 

At the time, Antonsdóttir had already worked with fish skin, experimenting with its use for drum skins among other things. Similarly, Gumundsdóttir had been working with several materials, including bird feathers, and had an interest in applying fish skin to design. And that’s where their alliance formed. 

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“After we started to work, we brainstormed further together,” Antonsdóttir says. “The idea developed from using fish skin as a kind of ceiling tapestry, to the use of the skin as a whole, uncut and illuminated in an installation. We’re heavily inspired by the old preservation method that is still used in Iceland.”

She then continues to describe their practice as an “ode to Iceland”. Keeping the tradition alive, the duo mix together old techniques and modern technology, with food preservation providing a keen focus point. 

“But still,” she explains, “knowing these old methods has to do with knowing your resources. Uggi reminds us of the nature outside of our doors, of something living in a town has distanced us from, and therefore the knowledge that there is no ‘us v nature’, but ‘us in nature’.”

Location is of high importance to the production, although the lights themselves can be made anywhere, “as long as we have access to fish and dry air”, says Antonsdóttir. Visually, the lights also maintain a clear reference to the image of drying fish that hang in clusters over the Icelandic landscape. 

Before the traditional method of drying the fish takes place, the process is simple: the duo catch the fish, which is then skinned by hand before being reshaped into its original form and turned into an illuminated object. The production method also highlights this highly sustainable way of creating – the rest of the fish is used as a food source, avoiding any waste whatsoever. 

“The topic of sustainability is more acute than ever today and I think that is one of the reasons the Uggi lights generate so much interest,” says Antonsdóttir. “Doing sustainable design is often a practice of meeting in the middle, as the production of materials often happens in one place and the use of them in another. But here we know exactly where our fish skin comes from.”

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