Designer Katrín Ólína disappeared, plunged herself headlong into the fantastical realms of the self. After a spiritual journey that lasted many years, she finally returned, bringing with her talismans that serve as embodiments of man’s archetypes.
Text by Elísabet V. Ingvarsdóttir, Photos by Arnar Fells og Sebastian Janson, Translation by Sindri Eldon
A mysterious woman stands dressed in a dark robe in the high tower of Helsinki Observatory, a venerable white building dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century. She receives her visitors one by one as they ascend the narrow spiral staircase into a forgotten world; the old telescope with its rusted gears, the creaking floorboards, speak to a time long past. Haphazardly arranged display cases can be seen, each one containing curious artifacts. More are displayed in vitrines leaning against the walls of the circular space. Upon closer inspection, the artifacts are revealed to be necklaces, aspects of designer Katrín Ólína Pétursdóttir’s latest work.
We are at an exhibition, one of many at this fall’s Helsinki Design Week, where the necklaces are being unveiled. The necklaces are part of a collection of talismans dubbed the Primitiva-Talismans, forty bronze talismans that Katrín designed in collaboration with Helsinki-based Finnish jewellers Kalevala, and are influenced by the archetypes of the human collective consciousness. They dive deep into the inner workings of the self and personify man’s deepest desires. The talismans belong to a conceptual world with its own symbological language, and inherent in their design is an attempt to resurrect ancient traditions, traditions that harken back to a time when objects were imbued with protective powers or other supernatural attributes.
Primitiva-Talismans is the product of Katrín Ólína’s research at the Digital Design Laboratory at Helsinki’s Aalto University. For the past two years, Katrín has dwelt in Helsinki while researching digital technology and 3D printing, in an effort to create talismans based on infinitesimally small building blocks she calls Primitivas. The project was years in development, and incorporates diverse factors such as philosophy, art, design, technology, mathematics and cosmology. The project speaks to Katrín’s strength and maturity as a designer in the broader sense of the word. It is absolutely unique as a work of design, and the purpose and symbolism of the talismans is unlike anything ever seen before. “This is the first project where I feel like I’ve realized every aspect of my vision, something I’ve been working on for a long time,” Katrín says. “It’s not been easy, tackling subject matter that’s this broad and finding the right medium for it. This is a language of shapes expressing various philosophical concepts, most of them pretty abstract. These are objects that speak to people in the language of the soul.”
A Quest into the Unknown
A well travelled woman in both the literal and metaphorical sense, Katrín has been journeying through the realms of the mind as long as she can remember. She has always been driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a thirst that’s brought her to where she is today. A turning point in her life came about eight years ago, when she was forced to reassess and take stock of her life. Alongside this period of reconstruction came a time of extensive research as Katrín worked to create her own conceptual universe, one which she planned to release in printed form. It was said that Katrín had retreated into her cave; had gone on a journey. Few truly understood her obsession, where she was going or why. She herself describes it as an essential element to the maturity she sought: an odyssey into the unknown, but nevertheless a journey she had to make. After years of work and time spent analyzing ideas on creation, darkness and light, repetition and patterns in nature, multiple drafts of a book came into being, a book that would interpret this conceptual world Katrín had created. When a publisher was sought, however, it became apparent that no one dared risk publishing such an abstract work. However, building this universe was still useful as preparation for Primitiva, and laid the foundations for its methodology. Hence, a certain result had been reached, one with limitless potential and angles of approach.
“I wanted to understand both life and myself better, and I used creativity to find that understanding. I started trying all these different methods to partition and connect ideas together. I read, listened, drew, travelled and experienced a lot during this time. When I went to Helsinki in 2014, I took one more step into the unknown. You could say that what stayed with me was a basic building block, a tiny speck that I thought of as a kind of result. To me, that building block was the condensed truth of everything I’d ever learned. It was good to come to Finland and feel the earth energy there, feel undisturbed and connect with an engineering-based work environment. When I look back, I see how that difficult inner journey and all that work was a necessary part of the bigger picture, and in fact crucial preparation for the Primitiva project.”
A new chapter began at Helsinki Design Week 2013 when Katrín met Kivi Sotomaa, founder and design director at the Aalto University Digital Design Laboratory. Soon after their meeting, Katrín laid out her ideas for developing a conceptual world based on her building block, the Primitiva, to the Digital Design Laboratory. Katrín’s ideas were rooted in the utilization of the Primitiva to physicalize philosophical concepts and design objects using 3D printing. She was immediately encouraged to apply for a research position at the Laboratory, and after securing a grant from the Iceland Design Fund, Katrín set out for Helsinki.
Everything is Connected
Once at the Digital Design Laboratory, Katrín promptly began developing a methodology, using programs originally meant for architecture and game and CGI design. Forming the constant basis for her work was the Primitiva, which is shaped like a three-dimensional “S”. In the world of computer programming, a primitive data type is a kind of building block upon which a programming language is constructed. The word “primitiva” itself is from Latin, the feminine form of primitivus, which denotes the first of its kind—the primitive. Katrín developed an approach geared around replicating shapes found in nature. She utilized repetition and rhythm to create a wide variety of basic three-dimensional shapes that were then used as foundations to shape the talismans. She says that she was quick to bend the rules of the program and shape it to her will, and that this experimentation greatly affected the evolution of the project. As the project developed technologically, Katrín’s research continued, this time delving into philosophical questions regarding life in the information age. She examined the effects of being continuously connected to the internet and overloaded with information on a daily basis. Katrín believes we must take our full body into account in our daily lives and see ourselves holistically. We must not forget who we are and where we come from, and not lose touch with ourselves and the life around us.
“I often see life as a theater where we must all adopt different roles and parts in order to become true selves. It’s important to celebrate diversity. Life is neither simple nor black-and-white, it comes in all colors. We are all connected to the past through our genes. I remind myself each day of the fact that I am here, a living being with a given time on our shared planet. You can find a lot by looking into yourself for a moment each day. We are the perpetual sum of ourselves and those who came before us.”
It was on the basis of these ideas that Katrín’s focus began turning to Primitiva as a way to view the human being in totally inclusive way, connecting body, mind, energy and soul, and to listen to the body as a whole, rather than assuming all knowledge comes from the head. From this sprang a new concept, that the talismans could be thought of as remedies: objects with healing powers, imbued with the ability to unify the whole. This concept brings together the project as a whole, and unites the talismans and the disparate things they each represent. There is something extraordinarily alluring about the talismans. They carry with them the past and the present and perhaps even the future. And there is something within them that touches the mind’s eye and uniquely affects those who experience them.
“The aim of the project is to bring together different fields and show how everything is connected. My intent with the conceptual system is to bring together a variety of different fields and show how everything is connected. Man always seeks ways to understand the chaos of his existence. One way we try to achieve this is by organizing, finding patterns and connecting different ideas. Whether they consist of information, behavior, shapes or rhythms, patterns help us construct our reality and our understanding. I believe we are all larger beings than we think we are. Our collective wisdom connects us all, but we tend to forget this. Nature and love are the best teachers, but art is also important. The artist—or designer or poet or whatever you want to call a creative person—can help us remember what we know but have forgotten. I believe that if we develop our senses, if we watch, listen, feel and express ourselves more, the world will open up and enhance our life experience immeasurably.”
Though the talismans can be worn as necklaces, they are in no way to be considered traditional jewelry, but something far greater. These are objects that speak on many levels and connect to different ways of thinking. Behind them lies a world of ideas. They draw upon knowledge that has been brushed aside over time, arcane wisdom, nature, Greek philosophy and poetry from the Eddas, not to mention Eastern teachings—especially how Eastern philosophy seeks to connect and consider the whole, while its Western counterpart deconstructs and individualizes. The purpose of the talismans is made clear: they possess their own power and are collectively human. Each talisman speaks to a particular desire or need that the wearer wants to connect to. The bronze is earthy and helps people to ground themselves.
The World of Talismans
Olina’s first publication, titled Primitiva Book of Talismans, accompanies the collection. Written in English, the book is intended as a guide to the objects, but it also stands on its own as a collection of ideas and inspirations. Set up as a book on taxonomy, it divides the collection of talismans into four kingdoms—Kingdom of Seekers, Kingdom of Doers, Kingdom of Connectors and Kingdom of Visionaries—which are each in turn divided into three tribes. Each kingdom is overseen by a single guardian figure. Thus, in the Kingdom of Seekers on can find the Journey, the Self, Roots, Memory, Science, Spirit, among others. The book contains frontal view line drawings of each Talisman. Interestingly, the highly technical raw blueprints manage to recall engravings from natural history books of the 19th century. Simultaneously, diagrams that Katrín Olina created as a shorthand for each talisman evoke symbols from spell books and grimoires of past centuries. These visual references lend the project its many layers, mystery and hidden power.
Katrín Ólína’s next task is preparing the project for exhibition at DesignMarch 2016 in Reykjavik, along with other exhibition plans internationally. She is also busy working on communication, distribution and marketing and would like to develop the Primitiva collection further into a means to connect people and different disciplines by encouraging a dialogue between science, design, art and technology.
It is only fitting to end this journey through her mind with a quote from Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iceland and a guest lecturer at the University of Helsinki in 2014-15:
“Katrín Ólína has designed a collection of talismans that speak to something within ourselves and have a profound meaning. She unveiled her talismans in an old observatory tower on a hill in central Helsinki. The talismans were arranged in vitrines around a monumental telescope from the 19th century, an instrument that offers a view of the stars, planets and the unfathomable depths of the universe. Katrín Ólína has an affinity to the thinkers of the ancient world. Our journeys into the universe through technology mirror our inward journeys, our exploration of that inner cosmos which still remains so mysterious to us. The quiet revolution of our time drives more and more of us inward, in search of what connects our bodies to our souls, ourselves to others, our bodies to nature, ourselves to the universe, to explore the unreached worlds of our consciousness. Enchanted as Katrín may be with the wonders of science and the beauty of the universe, the talismans are as much the result of Katrín Ólína’s inward journey as they are of any external quest. She is a pioneer in that she attempts with her project to bridge different fields and ways of thinking and does this in a manner never seen before. The talismans she has created connect with us and to something deep within us. The Primitiva-talismans are pieces of jewellery that can resonate with the chords of the universe we each carry inside.”