Our HOUSE interviewees often throw us curveballs but Icelandic designer Bjorn Bjornsson gave us more than pause when we realized only part-way through his account of working on a hotel in Baghdad, that the design stand-off he was describing was in fact with … Saddam Hussein. You’ll have to read on to find out more. Bjorn, whose full name literally translates as “Bear, Son of Bear,” has worked all over the world including projects in Australia, Saudi Arabia and Japan and, here was another thing that we didn’t quite take seriously until we realized that he was indeed serious: while his mother was alive, he used to fly to Iceland every weekend.
We’ve interviewed quite a few Scandinavian designers who have migrated to New York – is it simply because there’s more to do here than in Scandinavia? Scandinavian interiors are not exactly full of stuff and they don’t seem to hire interior designers in the same way as here.
Our education [there] is interior architecture. They don’t really have interior designers in Scandinavia. What they do is they draw the plans and give it to the client and say “you can go from here.”
So the client is supposed to figure out everything else? They pick the rug and the curtains.
Yes … but we can do that too. We’re educated in that but the education is more advanced. It’s not an education of just put a sofa there and put a little table there. You draw. You even draw the furniture. You have to understand the structure of the building too. I’ve designed five homes from the ground up.
So it’s design not decorating?
Yes … but [decorating] is more what you are when you come here.
We meet designers who prefer to be called decorators. They say that’s really what they do and they’re not bothered about it sounding less serious.
You know something? I really don’t care what you call me. [laughs] I’ll be whatever you want me to be!
When you first came here, how did you manage the adjustment?
I didn’t really adjust very well. I first moved to L.A. I was asked to come by Scandinavian Design to look at their stores and make their stores more attractive.
Why did they ask you?
They found me because I did a lot of jobs in Baghdad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and it was published. It was from 1983 to 1985.
Wow. Tell us about that then.
Saudia Arabia was the most interesting. I was doing five guest homes for the royal family. They didn’t believe in—how can I put it—fake stuff. They didn’t believe in things like lamination. If you wanted to use white gold, then it was, yes, use it. They really didn’t care about the money. So I got a little spoilt. I got the jobs [initially] because a Swedish firm liked my [design] school presentations so it was a jump start from a school project to spending millions of dollars on these guest homes that probably weren’t even used that often—and they were around six or seven thousand square feet.
Was each one meant to have its own distinct style?
Yes. There was different plan for every one. I have never drafted as much as I did for at that time. I drafted my butt off.
So I have this image of Saudis having this over-the-top lavish taste. Was that true for this project?
They do have [lavish] taste but what I learned about it was that they wanted to hire designers that were not from their country.
Why? Is it just more prestigious or do they not have the skills?
No, they do have the skills. I got into trouble with the Baghdad people when we were doing the hotel there because I wanted to use one of their artists. I saw what that lady did but because she was a woman, that was a huge problem and I wasn’t allowed to do it.
[Annoyed sigh from us]
They had a sort of design panel and we answered to them. They answered to the president because this hotel was done for the president.
You mean …. Saddam Hussein?
Did you meet him?
Um … what was that like?
The first time he said my skin was too red. And the second time he said I was too blond. So I thought, I guess I can’t help you there. He wasn’t supposed to be talking to me at all. We were just workers. But I met him because of the artist—there was a huge scandal … well problem with it. She had done a beautiful mosaic piece and I wanted to use it in his VIP lounge.
I asked if it would be acceptable if we had a man supervising her.
You mean it was her presence in the room that was the problem?
No. It was just the fact that she was doing it [by herself] and the fact that she was Iraqi. They didn’t want that either. But if a man was supervising her (i.e. as her “boss”) then it would be allowed. She wouldn’t be allowed to have her name to it. And they accepted that.
Surely under those conditions, if she was an artist, she would just have said “Well, F-you, I’m not doing it.”
She accepted because I really begged her to do it, so she did it on my behalf. The president himself got involved because he was so mad that I had done this. But I persisted. For me it was the only person I would use. The panel gave me five options but they weren’t what I wanted. Then after it was finished, he [Saddam Hussein] loved it. The second time he met me was to tell me that he really loved it—and he did.
What was your impression of him?
He was very soft-spoken. I don’t know if I can say kind of scary … but yes. I didn’t feel afraid because I’m not afraid of anybody but what I didn’t like about him was that he never really looked you in the eye. He was always either looking past you or looking this way or that way so that [when he spoke] I was never really sure if it was my hair that was [too] blond or somebody else’s hair he was talking about.
So I suppose that is a way of controlling people. You’re never sure where you are with the situation so he’s got the advantage. Or I suppose it’s also just a way of saying you’re not important.
Yes, that is true. But it’s strange because I got friendly with someone on the panel. I asked her if she would like to have designed all this and she said that none of them would ever be allowed to do this. It’s always foreigners. It’s prestige and Scandinavians were used because they were from Scandinavia.
Gosh, who would have thought that when you went to design school, you would have ended up arguing with Saddam Hussein!
Or the royal family of Saudi Arabia! They asked me if I would like to be their designer and I basically said no to that because I realized I would just be designing for them. It was way too limited for me.
I guess it would have been safe but not interesting. You sell your soul more.
Yes! Thank you. I once met … you know the royal family is huge … but he was either the son of the prince or the son of the king, I’m not sure. But he was on the flight with me from Riyadh to Paris. It was a private plane and I remember talking to him and he was saying how lucky I was. I said, “In what way?” and he said, “Because you’re free.”
Well, let’s move on from the Arabian Peninsular towards Iceland. Do you find Scandinavian design a bit boring?
I think it has a home … but it’s cold. You could soften it up a little more but I also think it’s beautiful design.
I suppose here clients expect to forge a personal relationship with you whereas in Scandinavia it’s just a practical problem to be solved and a professional transaction.
Yes. Here it’s more like being a friend and you have dinner with them. And they have homes here and there, so I can stay with them all over the world! It’s like a friends with benefits kind of thing! [laughs]
Tell us about what it’s like to grow up in Iceland.
Great memories. It was very free. We never locked our doors. We played outside every day because there was really no TV.
Is it true that at one stage the Icelandic government declared that it wasn’t going to broadcast TV on Wednesday nights in order to get people to do other things?
Yeah … let me see. We had American TV because of the American military base but no one actually had a TV set. In the ’70s we got Icelandic channels and they were off on Wednesdays and absolutely no TV in July! Bars were open on Wednesdays but on Thursdays bars were closed … so we watched TV!
How do you think it’s affected you, having that kind of childhood?
Imagination. If you put, like my daughter or my granddaughter, in a room with nothing in it, they wouldn’t know what to do without a TV or an iPad or a phone.
How do you feel when you go back?
When I was a kid, I remember watching planes taking off and I was like, “I wish I was on one of them.” You know your dreams are always somewhere else. But now I love going back.
How often do you go?
I go back a lot. When my mom was alive, I used to go there every weekend.
Are you serious?
Yes. Thursday night I left. I was there Friday night and Saturday and I left on Sunday.