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The essence of things

The offices of Friends of Industry, Harri Koskinen’s design agency, are located by the sea, a stone's throw away from Helsinki’s bustling Hakaniemi district. It is a place of silent industriousness. The corner room, former shop premises that now serve as a meeting room and lounge area, features furniture, lighting and other objects designed by Koskinen. In the course of the interview it is easy to perceive how composed, natural and functional these are: there is nothing superfluous about them, nothing flash and yet the lines and shapes are so beguiling, there is so much to catch the eye.

Harri Koskinen is often named alongside Finland’s most highly regarded contemporary designers. His career got off to a stellar start in 1996, when his coursework project, the Block light made of a cube-like piece of glass, was taken into production by Design House Stockholm and subsequently, in 2000, included in the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) permanent collection.

It is a rare experience to come across a new design that is completely unprecedented, when you know, from first sight, that it will go on to become a classic – even iconic. Block was one of those rare designs. It first came into being as a piece of coursework for a glass-making study module where students were asked to come up with ideas for a new gift item of the future. At the time, it wasn't even the final submission by Koskinen himself. It was, however, picked up for a student showcase at Artek, where it was spotted by a Swedish talent scout.

Harri Koskinen ended up studying design because he “had to pick something” and he had always had an interest in the creative and practical subjects at school. He commenced his studies at the Lahti Institute of Design before following coursemates to the University of Art and Design Helsinki (UIAH) in 1994. While the tuition provided in Lahti had focused largely on product design and materials, his time at UIAH allowed Koskinen to expand his understanding of design as a professional pursuit. To craftsmanship and creativity he now added entrepreneurship, conceptual thinking and wide-ranging problem-solving skills. Discussions with like-minded students at university and, later, at a shared studio also proved hugely influential.

The glass course was run by designer Markku Salo, together with Oiva Toikka. They offered Harri Koskinen a summer placement at the Nuutajärvi glass factory in 1996. His time there resulted in small-scale product development projects with Iittala – and the Atlas candleholder, Koskinen’s first ever mass-produced design, that preceded the now legendary Block. At the beginning of 1998, he joined Iittala as a designer.

Iittala’s marketing and communcations consistently showcased the company’s in-house designers. Harri Koskinen was young, interesting and brimming with potential. The press were intrigued, as were the consumers. For his part, Koskinen does not have much time for personalities as brands though he is aware of the benefits. “Clearly it has worked out very well in terms of the professional opportunities, but I certainly never made a conscious decision to pursue something like that. I simply lacked the skills to forge a career for myself that way... I just saw no reason to go after the spotlight.” But are people not perennially fascinated by success stories? “I can certainly see why a colleague would have an interest in how or why certain things have come about. But I just fail to understand how that could be interesting to a larger audience,” Koskinen says.

The media played a key role when Koskinen embarked on the next stage of his career in Japan. At the turn of the millennium, Issey Miyake extended an invitation to Koskinen to exhibit at his gallery. “I was working at Iittala at the time and the British Blueprint and the Japanese Axis magazines carried double page spread interviews of me,” Koskinen tells. “Both dispatched their journalists to visit the Iittala factories and take photos of the setting as well as me.”

The Atlas candleholder and the Klubi glassware were by now in production and the Lantern candleholder had just been launched. Miyake’s interest had also been piqued after seeing the Block on display at MoMA. When the curatorial team at Miyake’s gallery put forward their proposals for possible exhibitors, Miyake was already familiar with the lamp. In 2000, Harri Koskinen got the opportunity to give a private exhibition at the Tokyo gallery.

The Tokyo exhibition marked the beginning of Koskinen’s career as a furniture designer. The gallery space needed furniture to fully communicate the designer’s identity and ideas. “It was clear to me that the exhibition needed to include a range of objects that could communicate what it is that I had been trying to do so far,” Koskinen explains. “That was the first time I had a larger batch of furniture manufactured to order. I created a shelving solution, a seating system and a series of objects to fill the human space, the functional space. The exhibition served as the launch pad for the SofaBed and ShelfSystem designs."

Harri Koskinen had first got to grips with furniture design during his time at Lahti, where his main focus had been wood. “Furniture is an excellent medium through which to realise your sculptural ambitions,” he reflects. Furthermore, manufacturing costs are reasonable. “And who hasn’t dreamed of making their mark on their immediate environment...?”

Harri Koskinen is known for the clear lines and precise concepts that define his furniture – the sofas, shelves, tables and chairs designed for his own Harri Koskinen Works brand as well as the Finnish Artek, Lundia and Nikari, and a number of international manufacturers. In 2004, the Woodnotes K chair was featured in every design magazine. Light, too, continues to fascinate, with Koskinen’s lamps sold by Marimekko, Iittala and Muuto, among others.

“What fascinates me about furniture design is that pursuit of vision and the unconditional,” Harri Koskinen explains. There are a number of visual and functional elements that appear throughout his furniture designs. He is increasingly interested in the fundamentals in design: “I am growing ever more interested by why you design certain things. During the studies you had that drive to work hard and put your heart and soul into your designs so you could use them in a portfolio, which you could use to market yourself. But as you slowly end up with more and more designs, you begin to take a more critical view: why to do something new yet again. But as long as you have your fundamentals straight and that hunger to prove yourself, you will still be driven to create."

Although he readily admits to being a nature lover, Harri Koskinen has never turned to nature for inspiration. On the contrary, he has consciously eschewed that. Where do his ideas stem from, then? “If you don’t draw your inspiration from nature then you need to aim for a sort of natural simplicity,” Koskinen explains. He is always seeking out solutions that are well considered and carefully thought through. In doing so, he is continuing the Scandinavian design tradition. “I have done things in a very rational way... And thoroughly enjoyed my fact-based approach. After all, that is my background and my roots, that Scandinavian tradition. There was never any room for irrationality there. When you have, in the past, lived a hand to mouth existence, it certainly means that you don’t do things without carefully thinking them through first."

Koskinen’s role in fostering the Scandinavian design tradition was also cited by the jury that in 2009 awarded him one of the world’s biggest design accolades, the Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize, worth SEK 1 million. The jury commended Koskinen’s unique, severe and consistent design idiom, rooted in functionality, simplicity and the characteristics of the materials employed. Together these generate enduring value – something that Koskinen underlines. His natural and well considered solutions are also timeless and, as such, environmentally sustainable.

The outcome is rooted in tradition and a common sense approach; when you choose materials and processes that are long-lasting and sustainable, environmental considerations are included as a matter of course.

Harri Koskinen is widely considered to be one of the most successful Finnish designers of all time. As far back as 2000, Design Forum Finland bestowed upon him the title of Young Designer of the Year. In 2004, he went on to become only the second Finn, after Kaj Franck, to be awarded the highly-regarded Compasso d’Oro award for the Muu chair for Montina. In 2007, he received the Pro Finlandia medal, and the Kaj Franck Design Prize follows now in 2014.

Harri Koskinen himself chooses to downplay the prizes but does concede that he has clearly got something right. The exhibition at the Miyake gallery was already a testament to this. “I saw it as a clear sign that I was heading in the right direction. That all the hours I had dedicated to my own projects at the studio and at university had resulted in something. I have to say it did take countless hours and innumerable all-nighters. And so it should,” he says. For Koskinen, design is a way of thinking and a way of life rather than just simply business. On the other hand, his success has brought him fame, which in turn has generated more professional opportunities. You cannot run your own design agency without an established client base and a steady flow of work.

Harri Koskinen’s portfolio is impressive and includes furniture, light fixtures, glassware from everyday items to art glass pieces, watches, a perfume bottle for Issey Miyake and a variety of interior objects from a smoke alarm to containers, created for both Finnish and international companies. The Friends of Industry agency also undertakes conceptual planning and a variety of development projects – their remit is by no means limited to just consumer goods even if they remain the most visible part of the team’s output.

Koskinen has a clear view on what it means to be a designer-cum-entrepreneur: the regulatory environment certainly doesn’t make it any easier. In the creative industries, a significant proportion of your time is inevitably spent on non-creative activities. Koskinen is not a fan of being rushed and doesn’t relish a full diary, though the businessman in him appreciates its importance.  For him, it is essential to have time and space for thinking and quiet contemplation.

The design process takes part largely inside his head. “It’s all about the thought process, definitely. I’ve tried to force myself to carry a notebook around but hardly anything ever goes in it... I usually find the way forward just by having a good think. Obviously, you need to make some notes every once in a while to record your own creative processes.” The more complex designs, including 3D projections, are done by computer at the office. 

The much discussed structural shift that has seen the design industry’s focus change from material objects to immaterial concepts such as service design, is evident in Koskinen’s work, too. Many of his commissions now involve conceptual planning, or “problem solving” as Koskinen himself puts it. Of course, as Koskinen himself notes, he could have opted to develop his business, hired mechanical design engineers and a marketing team. “But somehow going down that sort of business route just wasn’t for me,” he says. “If you want to retain a sense of joy and fun about what you do and have the freedom to take your holidays when you want to take them, you can’t let your business grow beyond a certain size.”

Friends of Industry’s clients are based in Finland and further afield. With some, the relationship goes back a long way. One notable example is Finnish speaker maker Genelec, who Koskinen has worked with since 1999. And thanks to the timeless nature of Koskinen’s designs, a previously launched product can often evolve further, like the Woodnotes K chair. First launched in 2004, the seat was recently re-issued, now with armrests. The first draft of the armrests dates back to some time ago but it was not until recently that the natural and carefully considered solution to suit both designer and manufacturer was found.

Iittala, now part of the Fiskars Group, is another major partner; in 2012 Koskinen was appointed Design Director at the company. This role is extremely varied, involving liaising with the in-house design team, conceptual design, briefings and workshops. “I’ve also helped to focus the Iittala design philosophy... and I’ve worked on the general atmosphere and quality control issues and done quite a bit on the PR front. But my main focus is on maintaining the Iittala product portfolio, fostering that Iittala brand spirit.” And, in doing so, he is continuing the work of his predecessor, Kaj Franck.

Alongside his industrial output, Harri Koskinen has continued to produce unique objects and limited edition series, mainly focusing on glass. His internship at Nuutajärvi was followed by a job at Iittala and, in 2003, he visited Italian glassmakers Venini to design a collection of colourful glass art using traditional techniques. His private exhibitions in Helsinki have revealed a more experimental and conceptual aspect to this work.

Koskinen says of his exhibitions: “They are probably like a manifestation of my thought processes... A way of trying out ideas and challenging both myself and the viewer.  An opportunity for doing something a bit more complex… In the context of an exhibition, I feel like I can step away from function and turn my attention to something else. But even that something else is always carefully thought through.”

One of his glass art mentors is Oiva Toikka, who Koskinen got to know as a student at Nuutajärvi. “Back in 1996 when I was working at Nuutajärvi, they still had Kaj Franck’s studio, well Oiva and Franck’s shared studio to be exact, and some of their things were there... It was amazing to visit it with Oiva and talk about the olden days.” It was a unique encounter between the traditional and the modern of Finnish design.

In industrial design, creativity is pushed to the absolute limit. You have to re-think things and question everything, even when the end result might not deviate that much from what has been done before. You cannot recycle old concepts, however, as you are always faced with a new and unique context. The obvious solutions are often the result of huge effort and hard work as well as a thorough process of elimination.

While Harri Koskinen’s work is characterised by certain instant recognisability, and that certainly is something he aims for, he would nevertheless prefer not to talk about a “style”. “I don’t have a lot of time for this idea that designers have a certain style, it smacks of a sort of artistry to me,” he explains. “However, the word style is of course open to interpretation... maybe you could say that my style is just a considered one.”

Harri Koskinen and his designs convey both a sense of discipline and control as well as a desire for freedom. Here, discipline equates to a desire to do a job well, with ambition and to the highest professional standard. In Koskinen’s work it is expressed through his utter mastery of form, the almost austere sense of utility and quiet tranquility of the designs. The desire for freedom is the freedom of thought, to be able to see afar – in his designs it lies in their sense of lightness, simplicity, their natural ease. Simply by being there, they imbue their surroundings with a sense of calm.

© Anne Veinola 2014