Jóhannsdóttir, 27, has been using tongues in her designs for almost two years. The Reykjavík-based designer started knitting from a young age and eventually pursued it during her studies in fashion at Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art. “I do love machine knitting, but I love knitting with my hands, and I always go back to strange faces,” she says. Before masks, Jóhannsdóttir had mainly focused on clothing, which included chunky knit sweaters dotted with 3D tongues, or sleeves embellished with faux mouths and teeth. Her more extreme pieces have been exhibited at Iceland’s Gallery Port, including a traditional Icelandic sweater in a lopapeysa print with a gaping, toothy mouth in the middle and two flopping hands protruding from it. And while Jóhannsdóttir has experimented with other types of body parts and appendages in her knits, tongues have been her main obsession. “Maybe because they are kind of rude, sticky, and strange,” says Jóhannsdóttir. Her creations have caught Erykah Badu’s eye—the musician personally purchased a few of Jóhannsdóttir’s sweaters this past January.
Jóhannsdóttir began to translate her love of tongues into face masks when COVID-19 began to appear in Iceland. Currently, there is no government mandate to wear a mask, but citizens are still covering their faces as a precaution. “The government has only asked us to clean [our hands] well, keep our distance, and wear gloves at the supermarket. We also covered our mouths around people but used more scarfs or fabric,” she says. “Some people have been wearing masks, though.” It took her about two days to create her first mask, a simple-knit mouth plug that included a lone tongue sticking out, which she marketed as a cheeky add-on to a regular mask.
As time went on, Jóhannsdóttir’s knit masks became more outré, like the cartoonish mouth of a green monster with jagged teeth, and then a lopsided mask with a squiggly tongue that reaches up across the face and touches the eye. At first, she received messages that her masks were unsafe to wear, but Jóhannsdóttir views her coolly grotesque tongue masks as solely an art project—more sculpture than clothing—that encourages mask-wearing and self-expression with masks. So far, she has received encouraging messages from people in Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, London, and the United States. Though the message of the masks is supposed to be fun, the ultimate point of her creations is a funny take on bad-mannered body language: sticking one’s tongue out. “The masks have been used for promoting the idea that using masks can be fun, and I’m very happy they’re being used as awareness,” she says. “Everything we put on us can also be fun if we want it to, and bringing smiles to peoples faces in times like these is also important.”