Emilia Borgthorsdottir’s story is proof that you can never truly see where a person is going unless you know where they come from.
Borgthorsdottir made her design debut this past June at NeoCon when her first product, Sebastopol™—a pair of occasional tables—was introduced by Coalesse. The pieces, as well as Borgthorsdottir’s choice of manufacturer for her first collaborator, are a representation of an amazing journey that started out in a small fishing town on an island off the southern coast of Iceland, and has landed her most recently in California with a new career and a beautiful family to boot.
It’s no surprise that her greatest inspiration is nature, as Iceland’s Westman Island is also home to an active volcano—not to mention many of Borgthorsdottir’s family members, who still reside there.
“It really shaped who I am,” she says. “It’s a very small island, so you don’t worry about the same things we worry about here in the States. It was very freeing growing up with nature all around.” When your family has to evacuate their home in the middle of the night because of an impending volcanic eruption, you tend to gain a certain respect for your surroundings.
Borgthorsdottir was born in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, after an eruption washed over one third of her town and lasted seven months. She and her family moved back when she was just three months old.
She says her aversion to waste is something instilled in her by her parents. “They started composting 25 years ago. It’s the way I was brought up and why I try to reuse as much as I can. I’m always thinking about sustainability.”
The design of Sebastopol, besides being heavily influenced by one of Borgthorsdottir’s favorite genres, 1950s Scandinavian design, is by nature sustainable, as it is so adaptable. With two different units and two different heights, as well as a variety of finishes and colors, “you can just rearrange it if you move to a smaller or bigger place. It adapts to the environment and the crowd.”
It’s also a perfect fit with Coalesse’s belief that the boundaries between work and life have blurred. “I think that’s how people work today,” she says. “They make my design even stronger with their execution. I feel very lucky and honored because, as you know, it’s not enough to have a great design. There are many other factors, such as function, that need to work out.”
Coalesse has not just helped Borgthorsdottir create a product that can fit into either of your worlds—they’ve also helped bring her two professions together into one design. And therein lies yet another leg of her life’s journey. While she was always passionate about architecture and design, Borgthorsdottir decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in physical therapy. She wanted to find a master’s degree in ergonomic design, but couldn’t. She’s thankful for her education though, as she’s “always designing for humans. I’m always thinking about the human body.”
Borgthorsdottir moved to the States in 2006 and graduated from the Art Institute of California in 2009 with a degree in industrial design. She and her husband and three children (who reside in San Francisco without a car) have been trying to explore the country and take in all the variety the States have to offer. Thus far she’s been the most affected by the intensity of Yosemite National Park.
It comes as no surprise that two artists she particularly looks up to are Icelandic visionaries who take the mystical nature and pride of the country’s beautiful environments, and channel them into their work: sculptor Einar Jónsson and painter Jóhannes Kjarval. Similar to her own designs, which embody her story in a way that is visible only to those who look closely, the works of both artists contain many hidden faces. She recalls a Jónsson sculpture in the center of her town that features a woman with long hair and men drowning in her flowing hair. This sculpture is called “The Wave of the Ages.” It hit home for her, as growing up in a fishing town many were lost at sea.
“Always be true to yourself,” she says. Borgthorsdottir holds extreme pride in her heritage and past. “Some people might ask why I spent four years of my life studying physical therapy. But I was a flight attendant also. There are so many things that are irrelevant to design, but they’re always there in my mind to pull from.”
Her greatest lesson to give to others is never discount any of your experiences in life. She uses them all to create products that help people live better.
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Her favorite food is any Icelandic fish.