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A professional

The studio of the Creadesign agency is next to Hietalahdentori square in Helsinki. The street goes down to the waterfront, with the cranes of a former shipyards rising beyond the dock. The number 6 tram makes its way along the seafront. It, too, was designed at Creadesign.

The offices on the fifth floor are spacious and well lit. Located in a former printing house, Creadesign is one of Finland's best-known design agencies. It was founded in 1981 by industrial designer Hannu Kähönen, the recipient of the Kaj Franck Design Prize of 2009.

"When I was young I didn't know that I was actually interested in design since I liked to carve and draw, and make objects in general," says Hannu Kähönen. "But I decided from an early age that I would get into this field, to study either architecture or graphic design. I was admitted to the department of graphic design at the Institute of Industrial Art, but at some spring exhibition there I simply observed that industrial design is more my line of work and I transferred to it."

Hannu Kähönen was already employed by the Ergonomiadesign office in Turku before graduating. This was Finland's first major design office operating in an international manner and Kähönen was happy about being hired. He was also invited to become a partner and the next six years were spent in Turku. Returning to Helsinki in 1980, Kähönen continued to work for Ergonomiadesign for a while, but then an office of his own began to appear as the best alternative.

Creadesign was established in 1981. It is now known for its thorough background work, comprehensive skills and good command of even complex design assignments. Core considerations are a client-based approach and awareness of specific client needs. The office's work ranges from Nordic walking poles to medical equipment and from buses to fireplaces.

Hannu Kähönen's work in design always proceeds from needs, especially in the case of his own products. "Almost all my own ideas have evolved from needs. Initially, one doesn't even think of them as commercial products. I just make them and if someone is interested, so be it," he explains. "This work of creating one's own products is partly therapeutic, a counterbalance to commissioned work. You cannot avoid ideas; every designer gets dozens of ideas a day, but only a fraction of them can ever be realized. But then you get a clear conception of something and a burning passion to get it done."

The Trice chair, folding like an umbrella, is a good example of an idea based on a specific need that became a successful product. Kähönen's family moved from Turku to Helsinki into a smaller apartment, and Hannu Kähönen began to think how a chair could fit into a smaller space to give children more room to play. The idea of the construction came from a traditional folding yarn reel. It has crossing members joined flexibly at their ends that can be bunched together or opened in one simple movement. The same idea was applied in the legs of the Trice chair. The seat and backrest are of thin canvas and the chair can be packed into a carrier bag. The three-legged chair is stable even on an uneven base.

This unconventional chair differed from other furniture on the market and aroused a great deal of attention. It was featured in many design books and publications. The Japanese Popeye Magazine chose it as its Design Product of 1986. Originally designed for temporary short-term use – at concerts and picnics and on boats – the chair also found its way to dining tables and use that was different from what Kähönen had actually intended. 

"Every designer is naturally looking for something new," says Kähönen. The requirement of making anything new is that the product will be improved. "My principle is that you should always be taking a step forward. There's a possibility for this in all products. There are many solutions that can make the end product somehow more valuable, cutting manufacturing costs, improving use properties or reducing the use of materials which is sensible even for environmental reasons. These properties, however, often remain unseen."

A good example is a series of bus and coach bodies designed for the Lahden autokori company. At first, the company had three different types of bus bodies: a low-floor version for urban traffic, a higher one for long-distance use, and a third one in between. Kähönen came up with the idea of raising the low-floor bus by approximately ten centimetres, thus making the same body fit chassis of three different heights and creating the required types of busses. Now one production line instead of three was sufficient, and the number of all the required parts was in principle reduced to one third. A simple idea spelt major benefits for the company.

Many of the products designed by Kähönen and Creadesign involve innovations, even solutions that can be patented. Kähönen notes that a few years ago Creadesign was Finland's fourth largest applicant of legal protection for designs. The firm has hundreds of legally protected designs and some ten patents to its name. One of the patents is for S.O.M.A.®. The acronym comes from the Finnish Samoista Osista Muodostuva Aine (Material Consisting of the Same Parts) – a "mass" made up of identical pieces. The pieces can be made in different size and of different materials to be combined in endless arrays. The result is a material that can be freely shaped to create almost anything.

Hannu Kähönen's work continues the solid tradition of functionalism in Finnish design. "The context and properties of use are just as important as the aesthetic aspect," says Kähönen. "I'm quite constructivist by nature. I like the idea of aesthetic properties created through structure. Plastic design is much more difficult. But if the assignment involves a structural feature, idea or material from which you can proceed, it suits me better."

Design by Kähönen has in fact been described in terms of "industrial aesthetics". Kähönen notes with a smile: "All right, now we've come back to Kaj Franck and minimalism. To discard everything unnecessary, to process the essential and bring it forth, and to find value in it." Kähönen already came to know the ideas of Kaj Franck in his student years at the Institute of Industrial Art and as a summer trainee in Franck's design team at the Arabia factory. The influence lives on. "The important thing about Kaj's teaching was that it established a certain mode of thinking. He thought in such a clear manner that he did not have to argue for his choices – they just emerged." Most of Kähönen's and Creadesign's works have been ordinary everyday objects. "The life in which we spend our days… Perhaps I prefer it."

Hannu Kähönen is also known for his design principles taking ecology and the environment into account. This is a trend today, but he has done it throughout his career. "Kaj Franck's philosophy of avoiding anything unnecessary was one that could be adopted very easily," he says. "In my opinion, if a product is of high quality, it could well be much more expensive so that people would use the same things longer and manage with less. Life-span costs must always be considered in design."   

Many of Kähönen's designs address issues of responsibility in design and manufacturing alike. He has studied, for example, quickly growing bamboo as a material and has designed a bridge of small recycled plastic elements that can be easily assembled and transported. Following the same structural principle, temporary shelters for the homeless can be made from corrugated cardboard. Useability and the principle of 'design for all' are also important. "Environmental considerations have influence on the kind of projects that I choose. Or want to do. It's a choice whether to design cars or public transport," he observes.

Hannu Kähönen and Creadesign have clients of many years' standing. Their association with the City of Helsinki has been one of the longest. When the city began the process of obtaining low-floor trams from a German manufacturer, Kähönen was included in the design work. This was perhaps the most demanding and difficult project in which he has ever been involved. "When it was finished I thought to myself that after this I don't have to be afraid of anything any more," says Kähönen with a laugh.  

Trams are an important aspect of local identity in Helsinki and greatly loved by its residents. Renewing the trams was thus no ordinary assignment. Kähönen set out from the concept of the low-floor tram as a kind of moving tram stop that can be entered with a single step, a continuation of the street and a natural part of moving about in the city. The low-floor tram was a German concept created for use in Central Europe. In Finland, legislation, climate and cultural differences required alterations. It was necessary to consider the driver's working conditions. Safety regulations affected the design of the front part. Even the thick winter clothing of passengers made it hard to grasp overhead handrails. Facing seats, required by the wheel housings, did not suit the Finnish spirit of individualism. ("So I came up with the idea of putting a table in between to separate them. And you can use them a bit, too. But the main reason was the issue of privacy.")

"I continuously tried to remind myself not to get involved in details in the initial stage," says Hannu Kähönen. "The tram has to serve for forty years! And if I couldn't find a satisfactory solution to something right now, the main thing was that the broad lines of the design functioned.” The technological parameters were demanding, and there were many things that one could not influence at all. “It was creative work under the most restricted circumstances possible," he observes with a laugh.

According to Kähönen, the design of technological products in general requires a great deal of background information that has to be researched before the actual design work can begin. If the work sets off in the wrong direction there will come a moment when it is too late to start over, and it may be necessary to make poor choices. Thorough background research at Creadesign is a sign of high standards of professional ethics. The designer's own personal approach comes into play when all the requirements – manufacturing, functionality, useability, technological properties and the client's wishes – have been taken into account.

Hannu Kähönen has been active not only as a designer but also as a teacher and in positions of trust in his field. He has a wide-ranging view of design as art, profession and business alike. While happy to see expanded uses of design, he also recognizes drawbacks. When he launched his own office, design projects were still something special for companies. Matters were handled with factory managers or CEO's and the strategy and goals of the company were clearly expressed.

"The applications of design have now expanded, but at the same time they have been trivialized, even to the degree that design services are purchased by the same department that, for example, buys nails for the company. They do not necessarily have any understanding of what this is all about," he remarks. Price alone begins to dictate decisions, and when competition involves pricing it also affects the amount of time to be spent on work. As a result, research and background work and, in particular, the quality of the end product will suffer. Design sprees organized like competitive sports in design schools he sees as a sign of change in values. Twenty-four hour design marathons offer no way whatsoever of estimating aspects such as manufacturing requirements or the durability of products – considerations that have always been central to his work.

The Kaj Franck Design Prize is an addition to Hannu Kähönen's impressive CV, which includes positions of trust, exhibitions, prizes, awards, honorary titles and distinctions. In 1992, he was chosen Industrial Designer of the Year, in 2001 he received the Pro Finlandia medal, and in 2006 he was appointed Artist Professor. Hannu Kähönen has followed a long and impressive career. The career of a professional.

© Anne Veinola