This month, writer Crystal Bennes drops by the studio of COMPANY to talk with Aamu Song and Johan Olin about their fascination with manufacturing processes, the joys of communicating without language and the attempt to bring a little bit of happiness to hospital patients through art.
When I visited Harri Koskinen for this series, he mentioned your work as an example of a less-traditional, more-creative approach to building a successful design business in Finland. Why did you opt for this particular route?
Aamu: It’s funny, because at the moment we are making a book about our work over the last ten-fifteen years, trying to ask ourselves this same question and put down all our thoughts. But because it’s our own work, it’s really difficult to curate and to talk about it.
In the same way that you said to us how much you like to meet people in their studios to talk about their work, we love to meet people in their factories, and drink coffee with them and get energy from them.
Johan: Find out their secrets!
Aamu: They really are a one-of-a-kind species.
Can you identify a starting point for this interest in manufacturing? Was it an accident or always something you were interested in?
Johan: Kind of, yes.
Ha! So, yes and no, then?
Johan: We were asked to do an exhibition in Kiasma [in 2007]. We were quite lost in the beginning about what we should exhibit, and then somehow this idea of everyday items crept up on us.
Aamu: We were so lost. We rented a cottage in the Finnish countryside, near a lake with a sauna. You could say that we went to receive inspiration from the countryside. We made food and chopped wood and heated the sauna.
I still remember so strongly this candleholder which we found in the cottage, made of copper in a kind of cat shape. When we lit the candle to read a book there was this giant shadow of a cat projected in the room. It was so nice. We just kept looking at it, and we were like, ‘who makes these things?’ We saw on the bottom that it was made in Finland.
We were just city people, living in Helsinki, and what we knew of design we knew from books and the furniture fair in Milan, but we thought that maybe these everyday, hand-made objects will be able to connect with people. After that, we travelled all over Finland to meet with different producers.
Johan: First, we went to flea markets and small shops to find these kinds of products and then we travelled around to track down the makers. We just knocked on people’s doors. Many of them were like, ‘how did you find us?’
Has your relationship with the manufacturers been more about trying to understand their existing process and work within what they already do, or has it been more about trying to understand the processes in order to do something completely different?
Aamu: I think when the manufacturers are good at one thing, they are so good at that. But then we as outsiders or foreigners come with a different perspective about our own cultural traditions. So, we have a kind of small power to hopefully give a fresh point of view.
Johan: The best comment that we’ve heard… and all respect goes to the maker, because that’s what really fascinates us and that’s the process we first consider. But the best comment came from one of the matryoshka makers who said that even though the product was a very new thing, it felt like it belonged to the tradition. That it was something which they had always made.
These are your designs that are being made by the manufacturers, or is it a more collaborative process?
Aamu: It’s both. They are our designs, but it’s a very collaborative process. We learn their manufacturing techniques, we eat their food, we listen to their music. We try to somehow get inside the culture, so that we can try to figure out what they would be happy to make before we design it.
Often this is exactly the opposite of how the process works if it’s purely commercial. People only thinking of money bring designs to the manufacturers which they think will sell, so the makers don’t know what they are making and it doesn’t really matter. We think there is something wrong with that process.
The bear or onion matryoshkas are a good example of this. They’re a new kind of matryoshka, but they’re very Russian things because they use existing cultural symbols.
Johan: We always design after visiting the factory and learning about the process. In fact, quite often the design is made when we’re there during our visit.
Much of your work feels very craft-oriented, but I wonder whether your interest in manufacturing culture extends from ancient techniques to super modern, high-tech factory processes?
Johan: Yes, we’re interested in all of it. Or at least, any kind of manufacturing technique that we manage to understand.
Even things like Injection-moulded plastic?
Johan: Yes. Actually, that same method is used in candy factories, which is slightly more understandable, plus it’s edible. We tried very hard to design and make candies a few years ago, because there’s a large candy factory within the borders of Helsinki that uses very industrial production methods exactly like injection moulding. The mould costs are much cheaper with candy, but the quantities required were still too big for us.
It didn’t work out because of volume?
Johan: Yes, and it’s for the same reason that we haven’t done much injection moulding. As a producer, we cannot use all of the techniques, but we are interested in all kinds of manufacturing. We end up using techniques where we can create reasonable amounts of products.
Aamu: The Car Shoes [from Secrets of Korea] are injection moulded, though.
Johan: And that’s why we have only three sizes!
So, in terms of volume what are you topping out at?
Aamu: Less than 1,000.
That’s interesting. You can really see, then, how the limitations of volume effect the kinds of people you work with and what kinds of products you make.
Johan: Also, I think that we are quite greedy because we want to work with as many techniques as possible and we’re always searching for new makers to work with. But our aim is to have a long relationship with most of the makers we’ve worked with.
So how do you balance those two desires?
Aamu: Well, we continue to work with everyone unless their factory closes, which happens, sadly.
Johan: We become very good friends with all the makers and that helps. Every year, for example, we take a trip to Russia. It takes a few days to get there, we have ten minutes of business chat and then we talk about family and eat great food and enjoy each other’s company.
What about language? Do you have difficulties communicating when you travel to new countries?
Johan: That has been a very, very big part of the Secrets projects, the communication.
Aamu: For the first Secrets project with the Finnish factories, I remember the first factory that we went to. They showed us everything and then said, ‘what do you want from us?’ I didn’t speak Finnish very well at the time and I just started crying because I couldn’t communicate with them and I was so excited to discuss ideas. But, my Finnish eventually got better.
And now Johan speaks quite good Russian, so that helps with the Russian trips. We’re so happy that we have been educated as designers as drawing is really our main form of communication. Is that productive? Or frustrating?
Aamu: It makes things really calm. You don’t have to talk chit-chat. On our most recent trip to Japan – we don’t speak any Japanese – I had the feeling that we understood the makers so well, and that they really understood us, too. Without being able to talk, you have to be able to make yourself clear with gestures or drawings. In a way, that simplicity makes everything clearer.
Johan: We’ve been working on a project with Amish people in the US. We explained what we were doing, very simply, and there was a long silence. So then, I drew a picture of what we wanted and showed it to them.
Aamu: They looked at the picture and said, ‘Wow, you are so good at drawing. Let’s work together.’
How did this project with the Amish come about?
Aamu: We were invited to have a show at a gallery in New York, and we were wondering how to explain the idea behind the Secrets project in the US. We thought we should try to find a manufacturer to work with in the US, but it’s so big and we weren’t sure where to start.
Eventually, we realised that the Amish community has a high value as makers in the US and we thought it would reflect similarly with US visitors. But, it was funny because we couldn’t find a way to get in contact with any Amish people. We had to physically go there and knock on the door.
Johan: It felt like going back to our roots. As with the first makers we visited in Finland, we just went there and knocked on the door. We’ve collaborated with a hat maker, a belt maker and a furniture maker, all of which will be shown at the exhibition in NYC this autumn.
How do you present the process behind the objects in a gallery context? Here in Helsinki, you have the shops, but how do you deal with the representation of the process in an exhibition?
Aamu: It’s so difficult. I mean, we went through these processes. It’s our life and when we have to present it for sale it’s so hard.
Johan: For example, in our Salakauppa shop, there’s such a weird mix of things on offer. In the beginning, we tried to explain everything, like which category each project belongs to and information about the process. But later on, we just decided to simplify the information.
Aamu: If people want to ask, then we tell them, but we don’t explain so much anymore.
Is that because you don’t feel so anxious about trying to prove the value of the objects though the story of the process, or because now that there are so many things, you can’t go into that level of detail for every product?
Johan: I think we’ve recognised that it’s a battle you cannot win. I think we are always very excited by the new Secrets pieces and, when we do an exhibition, we put all the stories into the exhibition and talk about the different processes. But this can take different forms. Last time, for example, we talked about the spirit of the things rather than about the process.
And in the shop, we just tell the shopkeepers to explain to people that it’s not a normal shop – we won’t make something in a different size or different colour for next week or whatever.
I know you’ve been involved in a project to bring art to the new Espoo Hospital in Jorvi. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Aamu: It’s a commission to make new artwork for the patient rooms.
Johan: It was commissioned by Emma [Espoo Museum of Modern Art], there are, I think, three artists making three different artworks across the hospital in Espoo, which opens later this year.
Aamu: We spent a lot of time by ourselves in the hospital, and we noticed that when people bring flowers for patients staying in hospital, there’s always this process of looking around for a vase or for something to put the flowers in.
Johan: So we designed a metal tree for each of the 20 wards and there are 450 vases which rest upside down on the tree when not in use. The vases are mouth blown into a wooden mould and each one has a colour gradient.
Aamu: Glass is such a warm and genuine material. We really wanted to celebrate the vase as a way of providing a small kind of happiness for each patient.
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Helsinki Design Weekly is an online design publication presenting timely phenomena in the field of design and raises discussion about the future of the industry bolstered by top writers on the front lines.