Best known for his creative rethink of the Finnish summer cottage, industrial designer Robin Falck talks to Weekly Studio about sustainability, the limits of labels and his dedication to a cradle-to-cradle design philosophy.
How you came to be a designer?
For me, it really started with the Nido, the first cabin I designed and built when I was 19. Although it sounds cheesy, I’ve always been a fan of making things for the pure pleasure of doing. I’m quite a pondering soul. I like to spin ideas in my head and then discuss them with others before trying to actually create something.
What set me on the path to becoming a designer was the validation that followed from the cabin. It was purely a personal project with no aim other than to build my dream getaway. But I had a bit of luck and it got published; people really liked it. This gave me the idea that it might be something I could do as a living.
I didn’t really know that industrial design existed as an occupation or education programme until about a year before I applied to Aalto. Actually, I initially applied to architectural studies, but I didn’t get in on the first try.
Given that you studied industrial design, but a lot of your projects have been quite architectural and you work for a design agency, I wonder if you consider yourself to be operating within the field of industrial design?
I definitely see myself as an industrial designer in the sense that industrial designers can design anything from toothbrushes to airplanes. That’s how the discipline was sold to me when I was studying and it’s an idea I fell in love with. That’s also how I frame it when people ask me why I’m designing cabins given that I’m an industrial designer and not an architect. But my question is always, well, why not.
What I really loved about industrial design education was that it was so limitless; it’s a generalist’s dream education. It bothers me how often amazingly talented people limit themselves because they label themselves too soon. That’s why I have a personal problem with labels because they are a limiting factor if you don’t know how to deal with them correctly. You know, I’ve had architects call and shout at me over the phone. Like, how dare you design houses. But, I mean, we’re talking about a small cabin.
But, despite what you just said about labels, it’s not like you’re calling yourself an architect?
Exactly. That’s something I’ve been really careful with from the beginning. That’s why I often just say I’m a designer, especially if people don’t understand industrial design. But there have been slip ups and I can’t control everything that’s out there. I’ve seen a couple of places where articles state that I’m an architect. Even in architecture books where I explicitly said I’m not an architect, they still publish the project and give me the title of architect.
That links to something I wanted to ask you about the small cabins being designed to slip under planning regulations. Do you think there’s a parallel to be made in looking for ways around labels or ways around regulations?
I think there’s definitely an element of breaking boundaries and questioning how things should be done and how things have been done in the past. But not in the sense that I don’t respect certain facts. For example, if someone asked me to design a library I’d say of course not because I don’t have the qualifications.
But outside those certain facts, I don’t think we should limit ourselves. What’s interesting is that people have different experiences and different backgrounds which contribute to skills outside of formal qualifications. Since I was a kid, I’ve been building things with my dad and that fed into wanting to design my own cabin. In any case, we’re living in an age where we can very easily obtain information.
For me, for example, when I was working on the Nido, I designed the idea based on the limitations that were given to me–the maximum size to avoid planning regulations and having no running water. From there, you start to fill in the gaps. And it was interesting to see that when I started studying industrial design, the process was very similar; finding the limiting factors and then working to come up with the best possible solution.
When you describe it like that, it sounds quite clinical: you set out the parameters and the limitations and then fill in the gaps. Where does the subjective or the aesthetic come in?
For me, aesthetics are part of the entire process. I’m very aesthetically minded; I love beautiful, well-made things. In the same sense, I can really appreciate, for example a Dada painting or a grotesque sculpture, because I understand the thinking behind it.
The main driver for how I am attentive to aesthetics and incorporate them into my work is through the limitations and the key structure of the idea. I suppose it aids me in justifying the way that I fill in the gaps and to find a fitting visual style for doing so.
I want to ask you about sustainability in design. Designers often claim that the problem is an endless parade of cheap products and that the problem can be solved by making beautiful things that stand the test of time. But there’s still a sense of guilt–explicit or otherwise–because of the irony in contributing to produce new products for the market. What are your views on this paradox?
It’s a wonderful subject. It’s something that should be handled with care, even in terms of education. I actually took a break from my studies and started working professionally due to some of these questions, how do you justify your work when you’re so aware of the fact that you are part of the problem.
Personally, the way I deal with it is twofold. On the one hand, I simply say no and don’t design. I don’t take on any design work if I don’t believe it will be part of creating a better future and a better tomorrow.
On the other hand, I have to think about how to get money. So, I started working as an art director in design agencies doing graphical work and service design, neither of which harm the environment as much as producing huge arrays of stuff. I created a situation where I could cherry pick my design work by not forcing myself to take everything offered. Because, unless you’re operating at a really top level, the reality is that you have to take everything offered to survive. Now, I can choose design work that I feel wholly comfortable with and build on that.
I’m really lucky and grateful for the position I’m in now where I can go into a meeting and not ever feel forced to take a design project if I don’t feel that it aligns with my own personal values. What I’m now adjusting to is the balance between being a senior creative in a design agency and having more time to work on my own design studio. I’m cutting down all my costs so that I can go back to do design full time.
Long term, are you trying to go full time with your studio or do you like having the balance between your design agency work and your studio work?
I’m playing around with the idea of being 50 my design work / 50 agency work, because I’m really enjoying it. But I’m also experimenting with whether I can do better design work if I had 50 percent more time to dedicate to it.
Would you ever think about a model like COMPANY, where you apply for research grants for certain design projects?
It’s interesting that you bring up research, because the more my career progresses, the more I feel like an explorer or a researcher who then interprets his findings. For example, I’m hugely interested in building Greenland kayaks. Whatever I learn from that research then gets retranslated back into my own work. I could see myself spending more time exploring new techniques and cultures in future.
Were sustainability discussions part of your university course?
Yes and no. They were discussed and there was some good material studied, for example, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things book which I think is one of the most important pieces of design literature for young designers.
But I think the issue was handled a bit brutally. It was after a particular course where we looked at how bad products can be and how much waste exists in production lines that I stepped back and went to work for a few years. I would have liked a more constructive approach, perhaps a course on how we could recycle the waste. It’s good to discuss these critical, serious themes, but you don’t want to depress everyone. We’re all trying to solve the same problems.
Let’s talk about the more recent cabin project, Nolla? Did Neste contact you?
They contacted me regarding their ‘journey to zero’ renewable energy campaign. They wanted to connect to the Finnish market, hence summer cottages. Their initial idea was to rent my original Nido cabin to make content for their campaign. But I proposed a new cabin specific to the campaign because, although I designed Nido as sustainably as I could at the time, I knew I could do much better now. They bought into that idea and I incorporated some other thoughts I’d been having about sustainability and mobile housing, but scaled them down and added other components.
We also had a really nice contract. I own the design, but Neste was able to use it for their campaign.
We had a transparent discussion because of course Neste is a fossil fuel company. We exhaustively discussed everything because I needed to make sure it wouldn’t end up as a greenwashing campaign. They were happy to talk about the problems they are a part of and were very open about not trying to hide their flaws. Their attitude was: ‘We know we aren’t perfect, but we’re trying to improve.’
And how was Nolla received in Finland?
Well, it was designed really specifically for the Finnish market. And the whole concept we developed with the PR agency was that it’s about more than just a cabin. In terms of environmental issues, our summer cabins in themselves aren’t so bad. It’s rather the fact that, every weekend, we Finns drive in the car for at least an hour to get to our cabins, stopping by the mall to buy a bunch of stuff wrapped in plastic. When we get to the cabins, we’re so tired that we aren’t really thinking about recycling. And then we do it all over again the next weekend.
So really, the project was about looking at whether we can experience going to the summer cabin in a different way. It’s been an inspiring project for me in particular because it’s encouraged me to push my own work more towards the idea of a broader holistic economy instead of just making artefacts.
And what are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m working on a project that widens the whole idea of living sustainably which I’m really excited about. Hopefully, it will launch early next year.
Another architectural space?
It’s more of a concept, but it will also be realised as an architectural solution with linked products. I can’t speak much about it at this point, unfortunately, but it’s more like a product system or a product range.
Something else I’ve been working on is a more sustainable way of designing kids’ furniture and kids’ clothing. Some of my older friends are now having kids and, as an outsider looking in, it’s interesting to see that the market for kids’ stuff is not very interested in sustainability.
So, the furniture component will be a transformative collection which is a bed, desk and seating area combination, a bit like a bunk bed. The concept is that you buy this for your kid when they’re small but the pieces are all reconfigurable so that they can take the furniture with them to their new apartment when they’re grown up. You can disconnect the bed, the frame of the bunk bed turns into a shelf, one of the steps turns into a cutting board–it’s an application of the cradle-to-cradle idea.
I love the idea of designing a system that people can modify without fancy tools or complicated joinery. My dream is that people buy the furniture now for their kids and then in 20 years I meet some of these kids and they’ve still got the furniture with them. Then I’d feel like I’d really accomplished some kind of important mission.