It’s easy to see how Iceland has informed Gulla Jónsdóttir’s work. The architect’s childhood summers at her grandparents’ country house in the western part of the country were spent crisscrossing the vast lava fields to cacophonous waterfalls and underground tubal caves with names like Víðgelmir and Surtshellir. Even during the warmer months, blades of ice jut out from the blackened, fossilized magma. Glancing at the white stone Volca table with a suspended flow of rose gold from her new, limited-edition furniture collection, it’s not a stretch to imagine Jónsdóttir at the age of six, sketching in Thingvellir National Park alongside her artist grandfather, surrounded by the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s colossal faults and rugged fissures. “Nature is the architecture we all share,” she says.
Over a decade later, as an intern at an architecture firm in her hometown of Reykjavik, Jónsdóttir met an associate that had graduated from the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “I was 19 years old and thought, L.A., that sounds fine,” she says. When her master’s degree was nearly complete, Jónsdóttir applied for only two jobs. She turned down the one from Frank Gehry to instead join Richard Meier’s West Coast office; the geometry of Meier’s work was especially appealing given her upbringing in the shambolic geographical zone of drifting tectonic plates. “Meier taught me that architecture could be peaceful,” she says, citing the curvilinear Getty Center, with its landscaped gardens and soothing water features, as a project that had a heavy impact on her career. “After something so monumental, how could I go back to Iceland and design houses?”
So she set down roots in L.A., doing a stint at Disney Imagineering creating rides for Tokyo Disney Seas, then joining the firm Dodd Mitchell Design, where she oversaw renovations on Hollywood’s legendary Roosevelt Hotel. In 2009, Jónsdóttir launched her eponymous firm. Though the converted Californian has found a new home in L.A., she returns to Iceland regularly to refuel and reconnect with the place that continues to inspire her work many years later. “There are no straight lines in nature,” she says.
That principle certainly applies to Iceland, whose striking landscapes seem to be emerging in Jónsdóttir’s designs more and more. At the just-opened Roosevelt outpost, in Macau, the curvilinear topography seems almost superimposed in the form of shapely carvings on the stone bathroom walls; burnt oak floors in the 347 guest-rooms recall the lava fields of her youth. Similarly, the black and white refracted glass dome ceiling she fashioned for Jean-François Piège’s Le Grand Restaurant in Paris last year strongly evokes Vík í Mýrdal, the black sand beach studded with rock formations.
It appears in her second furniture collection, too. The Northern Lights manifest as a chair, a table embodies fire discharging down the face of a volcano, the 20-foot chandelier references an ice cave. When the Jónsdóttir-designed Kimpton’s La Peer Hotel opens in early 2017 near her West Hollywood studio, the penthouse will feature an entire 12-piece, three-dimensional “map” of Iceland, wrought in wood, metal, and marble.