Design in Finland played a key part of the country’s rebuilding effort as well as a sense of identity in the post-war period. It forms part of the Nordic Design tradition which is characterised by the persistent aesthetics, peaceful functionality, devoted craftsmanship and forthright articulation. In Finnish it could be summed up in one expression sisu; meaning rational resilience in the face of hardship, synonymous with the Finnish national identity itself.
In this month’s interview I sat down with Jurva-based Finnish furniture designer, Mikko Hannula to talk about his works, inspirations, experience in furniture-making, advice and future plans. Mikko’s furnitures beautifully combine elegance, simplicity, quality and purpose. They all have a delicate, clean, natural and multi-purposeful quality about them as he pays tribute to the notion of traditional via the crafty and digital technologies while keeping the roots intact. There’s certainly a visible balance between the traditional and innovative, as often seen in more contemporary furniture design these days.
Mikko Hannula during the 2013 MA Art & Design Show at Bucks
First and foremost, thank you Mikko for taking the time to talk with me. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your design background?
My pleasure, Daniel. My name is Mikko Hannula. I am a Finnish designer specialising in furniture. I did my BA in Industrial Furniture Design at Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences here in Finland, after which I moved to the UK to do an MA in Furniture Design at Buckinghamshire New University. After completing the MA, I worked as a designer for a big British kitchen company for several months before moving back to Finland for another design job. Currently I am taking on projects through a design cooperative called YOSK. Also, I’m the vice-chairman at Jurva School association and we are just starting a new international residence programme for designers, artists and craftsmen.
What prompted your interest in furniture-making? Did you always know that you wanted to work as a professional designer or did you have other plans in mind?
I’ve always enjoyed drawing and modelling things and at some point I had a dream of becoming an architect but it wasn’t until I actually applied to university, when I realised that I wanted to do Design. Furniture as such was never of great importance to me. However, I was inclined towards 3D rather than 2D design so I wanted to do something product-related. Furniture design happened to the only product related course in my old university so I ended up studying that and eventually fell in love with this particular field.
There was a time, before I applied to study Design, when I wasn’t really sure what to do in life. Back then I was studying Mechanical engineering and doing some engineering-related summer jobs. Pretty soon I realised it wasn’t for me so I gradually quit my studies. It wasn’t all waste of time though because I made some good friends in those years and probably learned something as well. At least now I know what I don’t want to do. Switching from Engineering to Design was definitely the right choice for me.
You are currently working as a designer at YOSK (Young Skills Co-operative Society & Design) which is run by the South Oshtrobothnian-based Jurva School. Can you tell us about the School? What are your main responsibilities at YOSK?
YOSK was originally founded by local companies to facilitate collaboration between them and Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences. There is a significant cluster of furniture companies in Jurva region and the university’s Design department also used to operate in Jurva. For political reasons the department was moved to Seinäjoki and then partially closed down. One of YOSK’s main goal has been to promote entrepreneurship by providing students a platform to test their business ideas in practice before setting up their own business or continuing to work through the cooperative. There are still some active members, former students, teachers and other local people working through YOSK. Basically most of us are working as freelancers, so we are constantly looking for new clients and projects to take on. The work can really be anything design-related and can vary a lot from one project to another. Even though being a member since 2012, I’ve only just started to become active in YOSK.
Jurva seems like a unique place to be situated as you also have a little hub of designers and makers. How did you become part of the Jurva Design community? What particular elements of Jurva inspire you, could you point some out?
I used to study in Jurva when Seinäjoki University’s Design department was still here so I lived in Jurva for about four years. After moving out I stayed in touch with my old classmates, friends and teacher. When I moved back to Finland in 2014 I became involved with YOSK again. So basically I’ve spent a good amount of time here and even when I’ve been gone, I have still been aware of what has been going on in Jurva.
Jurva is a really unique place. It is a small and remote village in South-Ostrobothnia in Western Finland with a rich history in furniture making and woodcarving. The environment is quiet and peaceful, surrounded by beautiful nature. For me, this kind of serenity is crucial for creativity. The other essential thing is a functional working space where you can develop and test your ideas. It is very difficult to find so diverse and well-equipped workshop facilities anywhere else in Finland, that we have here in Jurva. Also, there are a lot of old mock-ups, prototypes and interesting old furniture lying around to get you inspired. For intense short-term design work Jurva is an ideal place. Finally, there is still lots of furniture industry in this region, which is of course very beneficial from a furniture designer’s point of view.
Jurva School (Left to Right: woodcarving workshop Hirvelän verstas and Sella)
When you begin a new piece how do you begin the process? What comes first, the materials, the design or sketching? How does your day look like? What tools and softwares do you use? Is there any part of the process that you find the most rewarding?
I guess it all depends on the project, how much experience you have with the subject matter and what you wish to achieve. I usually start by immersing myself in the topic at hand. Once I have some kind of direction for my project, I start producing ideas, usually by sketching. I like to sketch a lot. For me, it is the key tool for generating and developing ideas and I often find this stage of the process very enjoyable.
Although I love sketching, I think it is important to start working with the actual materials from early on. In my opinion, the materials and techniques should guide the process when designing a physical product because in the end that product will be made out of real materials. To design a feasible product, you have to know how the material behaves. There are no two identical projects though. Some projects are more technology-driven, involving more work on the computer whereas some are more hands-on.
I have only moved back to Jurva and started working on my current projects about one month ago, so I don’t yet have a set schedule for my daily work. Usually I start my day at the office doing some administrative work, then as soon as possible get into my design work, which can be anything from research to ideation to 3D modelling. Ideally at some point during the day I get a chance to go to the workshop and build some actual stuff. But as said, the structure of my work day has only just started to evolve.
I mainly use Rhino for 3D Modelling because I have an access to it. It is also a very handy software to use for products like furniture. For graphic work I’m using Adobe software, especially Photoshop. For the Windsor project I experimented with Autodesk 123D Catch, which worked perfectly for that job. The traditional pen and paper are still my most important tools when I need to get my ideas down quickly, explore and develop them. Definitely the most rewarding part for me is when the actual piece is done and you realize you have actually achieved something you can be proud of.
Birch plays a huge part in your designs as a master material. It is also one of the national symbols of Finland. What does birch personally mean to you?
I have used birch mainly for practical reasons. In Finland it is probably the most accessible hardwood and it is ideal for furniture making and carving because of its high density and straight grain, which makes it very durable and easy to work. Also, it looks great. Birch also holds a special place in Finnish culture and it evokes strong associations amongst Finns. For me personally, the scent of the birch brings back childhood memories, warm summer days and birch whisks used in sauna.
Following your Bachelor studies in Seinäjoki, you moved to England, where you completed your Masters at Buckinghamshire New University. High Wycombe has a long history with chair-making. How has this influenced your design? How did you find the transition to the new surroundings?
High Wycombe seemed like a natural choice for me to continue my studies in furniture design because of its history in furniture making and I felt there were lots of good resources for me to draw inspiration and knowledge from. In the MA we had great tutors and an amazing course leader, who was also very well-connected to the local furniture industry. Those connections helped me to get a part-time design job from a local furniture company whilst still studying and another job after I completed my MA. Living in High Wycombe definitely had an impact on me and my work. For instance, my major project Windsor 2.0 was inspired by the world-renowned Windsor chair originated from High Wycombe. Moving to England wasn’t all easy for me though. Coming from sparsely populated Finland, I felt quite claustrophobic in the crowded cities of the UK but got used to it quickly. It was a great experience for me though and now afterwards I do miss all that bustle. There were always something going on, new things to see and experience and I got to know some great people.
Chiltern Bodgers (Chilterns-based craftsmen specialized in making chair-legs in the 1920s)
Your graduate piece, the Windsor 2.0, received a great media coverage in 2014. You were interviewed by several design magazines. Please tell us about the birth of the chair!
At the time I was writing my MA thesis on objects of sentimental value and how people cherish their valuables because of the positive memories and associations these objects evoke in them. So for my practical work I wanted to create a piece which people could connect with on an emotional level. I wanted to give something back to the local chair making tradition as well. One day on my way back home from the university I came across this old worn out Windsor chair next to a skip. It was in really bad shape and someone had thrown it away and I thought, maybe I could use it for my project.
So I scanned the chair and started to experiment with the digital model. I wanted to transform its shape but still maintain its familiarity, so I simplified it as much as I could without losing the essence and the basic structure of the chair. I ended up with this really cool polygonal shape and started to experiment with different materials and processes. A folded metal structure seemed like the most feasible way to build it so I went ahead with that and after several weeks in the workshop I managed to put it together with a huge help from the metal workshop technician at Bucks.
Credits: Mikko Hannula
Prior to the Windsor 2.0, you also collaborated with fellow designer Jalmari Laihinen and sculptor Kaj Lindgård, where you designed Portal, Fossil, Nikkari and Juhta. Their characteristics both bring a subtle and decorative element to your lovely pieces. Please, tell us what was the inspiration behind these joint-projects? How did you find working with Jalmari and Kaj?
All of these projects were realised as part of my BA. The ideas for Portal and Fossil came from my thesis where I was looking at ornamentation, or the absence of it, in functionalist modern design and trying to come up with new applications for decorative woodcarving, which has a long history in Jurva region. With Portal I wanted to combine a functional, modular design with decorative elements. Fossil was more of a statement piece symbolising the dying tradition of woodcarving and manufacturing period style furniture. My friend Kaj Lindgård, who is a master woodcarver and sculptor, made all the sculptures for Portal bookshelf and added some details to Fossil chair. Working with Kaj was easy because he knows his craft so well and can tell you right away what will work and what will not.
Portal with sculptures made by Kaj Lindgård
Photographer: Juha Mänty
Fossil with woodcarving done by Kaj Lindgård
Photographer: Juha Mänty
Nikkari (Fi. “Carpenter”) started as a student project for a local sofa company and I continued developing it further as I went on with my studies. It is probably the most functional and commercially-oriented product I designed during the BA. I still have it at home and I’m using it almost daily and it works very well. My classmate and friend, Jalmari Laihinen, who is a designer and a cabinet maker helped to realise this project. Jalmari is a talented maker and it was fun to work with him. Earlier during the course, we had a joint-project where we designed a multifunctional and ecological product for Habitare EcoDesign exhibition. This project resulted in Juhta (Fi. “Beast of Burden”), a product that can be used as a basket for carrying firewood, rack for magazines or, by turning it around, as a rocking horse.
Nikkari, prototype built in collaboration with designer & cabinet maker Jalmari Laihinen
Photographer: Juha Mänty and Mikko Hannula
Mikko’s joint-project Juhta with Jalmari Laihinen
Credits: Mikko Hannula
What designers have influenced you over the years? Is there a particular era you draw from? How would you describe your style?
I am always struggling to name any specific designers who have had an influence on me. There are so many designers I admire and I’m constantly finding new interesting projects from emerging designers. I’m a bit eclectic and my interests are constantly shifting from one field to another. So probably there are many designers and other creatives who have influenced me over the years. Also, I would say that different movements and phenomena in design have influenced me more than any particular designers.
I guess I was into Dutch design when designing my most elaborate pieces. I admired designers like Marcel Wanders, Tord Boontje and Studio Job. Their powerful storytelling and experimental use of materials really appealed to me back then. I also remember being into Parametric and Algorithmic design at some point. I didn’t really use any algorithmic software for my work but I was highly excited about what you could do with it and I think I tried to mimic that form language through more traditional means. But also, the Finnish Design and culture must have had a big impact on me because I have been surrounded by it for the most of my life.
I find it difficult to name a particular era that has had an influence on me. For projects like Windsor 2.0 and Fossil it was the story behind the piece that defined their style rather than me being keen on those particular eras. As said before, Windsor chair was a natural choice because of its iconic looks and special meaning to British people and the local furniture industry. For similar reasons Rococo style seemed right for Fossil chair. It is a widely recognisable style and made a good archetype for a period style chair, which they still produce here in Jurva.
I don’t know if I have any specific style but I think we all have our own unique way of looking at the world which effects on everything we do, also our work. So I guess you can call that a “style”. As long as I have been in this field, I’ve always been intrigued by mixing old with new, traditional with contemporary, low-tech with hi-tech. And I’ve always wanted to tap into the local resources and stories and make the most out of them which is probably quite evident in my work. Finally, I would say that my work is quite “poetic” in a way that I am always trying to convey a deeper meaning or a story through my work.
Tell us what were the key factors in your life that made you reach this position in your career?
You should ask this question in about 10 years from now and I would hopefully have a better answer. I only completed my MA 2,5 years ago and have been doing bits and bobs after that and at the moment things are only just clearing up workwise. But I can tell you that I’ve always worked hard and put in lots of extra hours and I think that dedication is crucial when you wish to achieve something. I hope that my dedication for what I do is going to take me much further in future.
How would you define success and what tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in furniture-making?
In terms of your career, I think success is to discover your talent and passion and then be able to make living out of it and eventually get recognized. And of course to be happy and content with what you do. I don’t know if I’m in the right place to give any advices yet but I would say the typical things like follow your dreams, work hard and never give up. But I also believe we all have a purpose in life and I would say finding that purpose is the most important thing.
When it comes to furniture making/design, I would advice one to be self-initiative and never stop learning. There are many great courses but it is mainly up to you what you will get out of your education. This applies to working life as well. It is a massively competetive field and it’s constantly changing so you have to work hard, be agile and keep on developing your skills in order to succeed. Finally, get noticed and get connected. These connections can often lead to a new job.
Finally, what does 2016 hold for you? Is there any projects you can shed some light on?
This is an exciting year for me but also a daunting one, because I have no idea how things will work out. I have recently become the vice-president of a new association called Jurva School, which purpose is to foster, develop and promote Jurva’s rich traditions and local expertise in furniture-making and design, woodcarving and other related fields. This spring we received the first visitors for our international residence programme for designers, artists and craftsmen, which aims to bring new life to the premises that once were packed with students but are now almost empty. We have great workshop facilities, up-to-date machinery, very knowledgeable personnel and inspiring work environment. Also, we are starting a private education programme with courses in various design, craft and art related topics. Our first course is in modern woodcarving and will start this autumn.
When it comes to my personal work, I am currently building a stand up paddle board out of wood. At the moment it is just a personal DIY project for myself but I have plans to take it further and actually start developing these boards and maybe someday produce something commercially viable. I’ve got loads of other new ideas as well but let’s just see how things go and what the future holds.
It was a pleasure Mikko for having this conversation with you and finding out more about your work. I wish the very best for you and Jurva School in the future!
Thank you very much Daniel! I wish you all the best as well!