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At the roots of design

"Wood is wood, and metal is metal," says interior architect Professor Simo Heikkilä when asked for a suitable quote for the invitation card to his exhibition. The honest use of materials has always been important for him. Known for his furniture design of clear and distinct lines and revealed structure, Heikkilä is the recipient of the Kaj Franck Design Prize of 2011.

"I used to decorate my own room already as a schoolboy," Heikkilä recalls. "At the time, there was no furniture designed specifically for children of school age, so I used what was available. I found a plain door somewhere that I could use as a module. It could serve straight away as the base of a bed, the back of shelving or a desk. It somehow aroused my interest."

Like many other designers in Finland, Simo Heikkilä came to know people in his field during his national service in the army, where he met an interior architect who had recently graduated. His boyhood interest was revived and he decided to apply to study at the Institute of Industrial Art.

Simo Heikkilä studied under Kaj Franck, from whom he learned that while no material is better than another one, each must be used in its most characteristic and natural way. The basics of design as taught by Franck also played a role. "Basic design or composition became an absolutely essential part of everything that I did," Heikkilä recalls. "The emphasis on composition led to an almost automatic way of working. Franck's manner of teaching proceeded from surface to the three-dimensional, and from there to specific professional subjects."

In the final stages of his studies, Simo Heikkilä was found by Yrjö Kukkapuro to work for Marimekko, where he designed shop interiors and exhibitions. Heikkilä's long professional collaboration with interior architect Yrjö Wiherheimo began in 1969 with the founding of the Vivero company. In 1971, Heikkilä established his own studio. Most of his work at the time involved the design of interiors and exhibitions. "I did a lot of exhibition design. For example, export exhibitions of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design and joint projects of the Society and the Museum of Finnish Architecture. This was how I got to know architects and began to understand what architecture is."

It was not until 1984 that Heikkilä had the opportunity to truly engage in furniture design. The Pentik firm of Posio in North Finland, known for its ceramic and leather products, wanted to expand into furniture and established the Artzan furniture factory in the Koillismaa region of Northeast Finland, far away from the cities. Simo Heikkilä designed the Tartzan furniture collection for the factory. Furniture made by Artzan was widely noted in interior design magazines for the next five years, but the factory closed in 1990.

The prototype carpenter and cabinetmaker at Artzan was Kari Virtanen who went on to establish his own renowned furniture company at Fiskars in South Finland. Product design proceeded well in collaboration with Virtanen. "I have to say that I learned the basics of wood at that time, how you have to think about it," notes Heikkilä. Skills in wood became a permanent aspect of the designer's professional profile and he became especially known for his work in wooden furniture. Since the 1990s, Heikkilä has been increasingly involved in furniture and exhibition design, with less focus on interiors.

The name of Simo Heikkilä's studio, Periferia Design, was coined at an early stage. He was in the city of Jyväskylä, some 270 kilometres from Helsinki, and in the periphery when viewed from Finland's capital. "I thought this place was far away… At the time, the word 'periphery' had a negative ring to it. But in Ancient Greece, the periphery, the interface between the urban and the rural was something very fruitful," says Heikkilä. "Something could be created at that very boundary, and so I thought that 'Periferia Design' wouldn't be a bad name."   

Simo Heikkilä usually finds his ideas for new furniture in materials. "It's the material where it starts, no doubt about it," he says. "Consider metal, for example. What if I would make a chair from an angle bar? And then I would start to consider if it would have an L or T-shaped profile, or a combination of them. Would I then make a table leg or the base of a bed, or whatever..." Even in the final version of the piece, Heikkilä wants the specific nature of the material to remain visible, and he says that he is even a little adverse to finish in designed works.

Heikkilä has made fewer commissioned pieces of furniture. "It's what I want to do myself that is more important!" Exhibition design, in turn, is always commissioned work.

Unlike many other designers, Simo Heikkilä does not sketch. "I draw very little… I have the need to sketch and draft things in my head. My sketches are mostly scribbles… I don't need to draw, I outline everything in my mind, down to the colour of the screws. I can design structures without paper. I still have this ability."

Heikkilä makes the first prototypes himself, although he admits that he's no carpenter. The proportions of the piece come forth in a prototype made to the right scale. Only then does he go to the prototype carpenter or a metal craftsman, and the actual development of the product comes under way.

Alongside work in solid wood, Heikkilä has designed a large number of objects in form-pressed plywood. There, too, the properties of the material, rigidity, lightness and plastic design properties, interest him. His clients have included small and middle-sized furniture manufacturers in Finland and Sweden, where Heikkilä is also well-known.

Simo Heikkilä waxes enthusiastic when talking about craftsmen: "I like to talk about that! It's a basic condition for everything that a designer has to establish a network of craftsmen. Understanding crafts occupations and the role of the craftsman in today's world helps to work. These often lead to long-term contacts that you can't afford to lose. I've sought to have experts in all materials in this network." Heikkilä complains about the lack of training for craftsmen. In many crafts fields there is no longer any basic-level training in Finland.

"In Sweden, for example, work is valued and young carpenters are trained. This, too, is completely neglected here," he says. "Training for cabinetmakers should definitely be restored if we still want to make high-quality objects here."

On the other hand, Heikkilä praises young students of design. "There are good people in this new generation of designers. They get all the information they need just by pressing a few buttons, practical information or something that they didn't know before. From then on, the only thing that's really needed is the ability to apply it."

Simo Heikkilä has many years of experience in teaching furniture design. He has taught at the departments of architecture at the Helsinki and Tampere universities of technology, in Bergen, Gothenburg, Porto, Tallinn, and of course at the University of Art and Design Helsinki (the present-day Aalto University School of Art and Design), where he led the Wood Studio from 2000 to 2007. Simo Heikkilä was Professor of Furniture Design at the School from 2007 until 2011, and in 2007 he was made an honorary member of the School of Art and Design.

When teaching, Simo Heikkilä is interested in making students think for themselves. "The satisfaction comes from noticing how someone gets it," Heikkilä observes enthusiastically. "It's unbelievable that when you have young people of all ages anywhere, and when you pull the right strings, things start to happen. Perhaps my role as a teacher has specifically been to try to find the ends of these strings and tug them."

In addition to a broad network of former students, colleagues and craftspersons, Heikkilä has a wide range of international contacts. "It's just that I have the leading names of European design, in quotation marks, as my friends. It's really very easy to get them to join in these projects, such as the Leuku knife project," says Heikkilä. International contacts make it possible to find suitable lecturers and speakers from abroad, or even someone to design a unique, one-off sheath knife, as in the Leuku exhibition. At the same time, Heikkilä can serve as a messenger of Finnish design and spread information about it.

In January 2010, Simo Heikkilä held an honorary lecture at the Aalto University School of Art and Design. His topic was "A Good Designer". "A good designer creates objects that are necessary, durable, easy to use, and things of beauty," he noted. "At best, objects are unnoticeable, innovative and locally made… Many people feel that reduced and obvious structural solutions and, where necessary, emphasis on a detail, create the basis for high-standard furniture. Things that are simple are beautiful and easy to understand," he continued. In his own work, Heikkilä has sought to realize these principles in particular.

Heikkilä is highly aware of the designer's responsibilities, especially in the present-day world. He says that a good designer should also know how to be critical, and even turn down assignments – there are already too many things in the world. The recycling of materials and their inventive re-use interest him, although he admits that he has not studied recycled production as such in any deeper manner.

Simo Heikkilä can be regarded as a good designer in many respects. His work has been noticed. He has received state artist grants, the State Award of Applied Arts, awards from the SIO Association of Interior Architects, the Asko-Avonius Prize, and the esteemed Swedish Forsnäs and Bruno Mathsson Prizes. In 2001, Simo Heikkilä was made an honorary member of the Ornamo Association. In 2003 he received the distinction of Furniture Designer of the Year and the Pro Finlandia medal. The list of exhibitions displaying his work is long and impressive.

Alongside facts about Simo Heikkilä's work, the webpages of Periferia Design include a section with the title Inspiration. It contains a few photographs presenting, among other objects, an old wooden boat and a wooden rake with a broken spike. These pictures reflect well the starting points of the designer's work. "The material culture of old carpenters and farmers was so fine. Functional objects… they're elegant in many ways and they serve the purpose for which they were made. The right design without any basic course in the subject!"

The forest is a significant and natural place for Simo Heikkilä. "You can make all kinds of things from the forest. It's raw material, material for many things," he says. He also regards wood to be a possible answer to the requirements of the ecological attitude.

Simo Heikkilä has designed a great number of items in wood. Many Finns remember his Hukkapuu benches, made from discarded boards leaving the incomplete edges of the boards, the stamped markings on the lumber, blue patches and other discolorations visible. The bench appears to be cut straight from stacked wood from a lumberyard. Many items of furniture by Heikkilä are combinations of rough and unfinished surfaces with carefully considered proportions and details. He is careful not to finish pieces too much lest the idea is lost. "It's not leaving a piece incomplete, but… I've also stressed in my teaching that you mustn't over-finish things. Warning bells start ringing when the sandpaper appears…"

The most important thing about wood as a material is its feel. "The haptic feel is the most important thing," Heikkilä explains. "The touch of wood. Another thing is the patina that an object gains. In a sense, the idea of lived life… An object can become highly personal through use." Wood is also easy to work, a familiar and well-known raw material that does not require specialized tools or techniques. "And then, of course, the organic form specific to wood is always fascinating in some way," Heikkilä observes.

The classic question for a Finnish designer is which comes first, form or function? In Simo Heikkilä's work, function mostly comes first. "Form will come if there is room for it," he says. The work always proceeds from dimensioning and structural thinking, details and proportions. He also notes that ergonomic aspects are a self-evident part of design work. It entails useability and the fact that an object works and functions.

Simo Heikkilä has become increasingly interested in reduction and simplification in design. "The frills have been left out," he notes with a laugh. Furniture and small objects by him are as simple as possible, even archetypal: benches, shelving, chairs, tables. They are universal and timeless, and can be understood everywhere without words. While a connection with vernacular furniture can be seen, Heikkilä's furniture exhibits a refinement of proportions that is not often encountered in vernacular craftsmanship. It reveals the designer's training, long career and keen eye. 

Furniture designed by Simo Heikkilä is often described with terms honesty, localness and Finnishness. The honesty is that of the use of the material, the basic starting point of design. The local aspect is important, even fundamental, in Heikkilä's philosophy of design. In addition to ecological considerations it gives the object its roots and preserves skill and culture. The user, the object and the environment are in mutual harmony and balance.

Many of Heikkilä's design projects address the disappearance of localness caused by globalized production. The two exhibitions organized by Heikkilä to display new forms of the traditional Sámi leuku knife aroused interest also on the international scene, by no means least because he was able, through his networks, to engage leading names of the design world to create these knives.

Heikkilä often notices that he is some kind of representative of primal, honest Finnishness in the international area. "Finnishness, by the way, is perhaps precisely and ultimately this way of reducing and simplifying things. You go to a lumberyard and make a bench." Nor must we forget Heikkilä's subdued humour, which is also evident in many of his works. 

Simo Heikkilä is a recognized name in the design of Finnish exhibitions of design and architecture, and it was in this area that he began his career. Also in exhibition design Heikkilä prefers honest materials, often with only a small degree of finish. He uses colour sparsely, mainly the natural hues of the materials enhanced with a few colours for emphasis. The exhibits and the story of the exhibition are the most important considerations. "In a good exhibition, you can achieve something a bit stronger than usual on the terms of the materials," he says. "Entrances, long views or symmetry, strict symmetry; elements of this kind are available… It's about taking possession of a space, nothing very complicated." It is important spatially to create a dynamic and interesting entity and to separate the exhibition from the actual building, keeping both separate and independent. Lighting is the final element, used to pick out the exhibits.

At the end of the interview, Simo Heikkilä looks into the distance and is quiet for a moment. Then he says, "At least I've understood my own role in all this so that you only make things that seem necessary. You try to create things as well and as locally as possible and with the fewest possible materials possible. It's no more complicated than that."

The remaining three photographs referring to inspiration on Periferia Design's webpages present a stand of birches in the spring, winter fishing in Inari in Lapland, and birches on a Lapp fell in the bluish semi-darkness of winter. They are a good summary of Simo Heikkilä's work – at the roots of design.

© Anne Veinola