Builder of opportunities – Tapio Anttila

Tapio Anttila’s design office is located in Lahti, in an old red-brick industrial building just outside the city centre. The windows on the fifth floor show a wide view of the lake, over the forests and small houses. However, Anttila does not draw inspiration from the forest and nature’s designs, like so many other Finnish designers. His work springs from a missing product or the user’s need.

Having built a career as an interior architect and a furniture designer, Tapio Anttila is thoroughly familiar with the customer’s desires and needs. They may need a certain kind of dining table, a delicate shelf, small containers. Anttila meets people – retailers, marketing people, fair visitors – and the discussions provide the best ideas. Retailers know the market and can tell what is requested and hoped for, furniture fair visitors tell about their own desires. ‘I talk to people and pick up ideas. And then I can quickly make my own version of them,’ he says. A new product is expressly his own version with a personal look in his own style and design idiom. Over the years, Anttila has produced an extensive collection of design, which has now been gathered under a brand titled Tapio Anttila Collection.


Early career

Tapio Anttila became involved with interior architecture almost by chance. He did not have set plans after school, but his girlfriend gave him the idea of applying to the University of Art and Design Helsinki, and he got in on the first try. A whole new world with enormous possibilities opened up; one that he had no idea about. Particularly furniture design was interesting to him. He also happened to have good teachers, the first being Ilmari Tapiovaara, whose last year Anttila got to attend.

Tapio Anttila remembers Tapiovaara as an inspiring teacher. Tapiovaara also provided the right attitude towards work: ‘A kind of humility. And a kind of… we didn’t talk about a consumer-oriented approach in those days, but making the piece for someone specific…’ According to Anttila, design always has a customer, a user: the products are not just made for yourself.

There were just not that many open furniture designer positions in Finland. During his studies, Anttila already designed furniture as commissions for companies. As an interior architect, he worked for architectural firms. He came across some large projects, as well, such as the extension to the Helsinki Airport with PES-Architects – a responsible project for a young designer. Then began an eight-year career as an inhouse designer with Isku. It was a good and versatile course in large-scale manufacturing with large production volumes, which was not very common in Finland. With Isku, he also learned the significance of sales: the product must sell.

In 2005, Tapio Anttila left Isku and established his own business, Tapio Anttila Design. He designs for several Finnish manufacturers: furniture for public spaces, various home furniture, light fixtures; h e has even designed bird feeders and letterboxes. The work also includes a lot of exhibition and fair designs, and some interior design projects.


Starting point for design: missing product

Tapio Anttila’s design process always starts with a practical need, missing product or solution. ‘But then the actual design – that just comes from somewhere. By making. Lots of drafts,’ he describes. ‘First, I make drafts by hand, and may even show them to someone and talk about them and make changes.’ The next stage depends on the project or product: computer modelling or building a model out of cardboard or wood, for example. The team at the office continues the work and makes more models and prototypes. Finally, a new product is created.

Design often springs naturally from the functionality of the product. Indeed, this is one of the strengths of Tapio Anttila’s design: design does not have intrinsic value, but it is an integral part of the structure or the function of the piece of furniture, or it fits the chosen material. The designs are not, however, obvious or ordinary, but they always present something insightful or new, in the spirit of Scandinavian modernism. The selection of materials is intentionally limited – solid wood, plywood, metal tubes. They are ecological and light, fit the style and give the products a consistent look. Details, like showing the striped edge of plywood in a shelf support or on the side of a table, are minimalistic and carefully deliberated.

The colour scheme is also subdued and neutral: white, black, natural wood. According to Anttila, variation and colour is preferably created with upholstery and textiles. This kind of design and colour scheme also guarantees that the products fit in many kinds of interior designs. ‘We have specialised in so-called sensible furniture,’ says Anttila. ‘Everyday solutions for average people’s problems.’ One of the main goals is to create products that stand the test of time. ‘It’s a kind of timelessness. Whether it’s going to work, we don’t know this at the moment… we’ll see it then.’


Tapio Anttila Collection

Around three years ago, Tapio Anttila had a new idea. As the products designed for different manufacturers anyway represent the same design idiom, could they form a collection of their own? And so Tapio Anttila Collection was created, including basic furniture like sofas, tables, chairs, light fixtures and interior accessories. Products that were already in production by several companies were gathered under a single designer brand. The collection is designed for consumers who are looking for functional furniture and a consistent and clear line.

Tapio Anttila Collection is a design and marketing brand that functions as an umbrella organisation for different manufacturers. So it does not manufacture anything by itself. Another connecting factor is a large retailer that gives the products visibility and a market. The manufacturers are offered both design and an existing sales channel, with variable forms of cooperation. Some of the manufacturers also market Anttila’s products with their own brand, for example abroad; some do not really want to be brought forth. A majority of the manufacturers are Finnish.

The concept has clear demand: The products in the Tapio Anttila Collection sell well. It is easier to get on the lists of large retailers if you can offer a full concept, instead of individual furniture. In three years, the collection has found its own path. The collection grows in a constant yet controlled manner with new products that continue the same look and line. They aim to keep the prices reasonable and the quality good. The Tapio Anttila Collection has received quite a lot of media publicity, which has in part been affected by successful marketing and exhibition campaigns.


Networks and cooperation

The manufacturers receive benefits from being included in the Tapio Anttila Collection. Having your name in connection with a known brand is a guarantee of the quality of the production and the visibility in furniture fairs is greater than with just your own stand. Tapio Anttila has developed functional forms of cooperation, one being the partnership with various house manufacturers. A small house or space is brought to a fair and furnished with pieces from Anttila’s collection. The house receives an interior and the furniture a frame, and the look and style of both complement each other. The costs are naturally divided between the involved companies and manufacturers.

In other ways as well, Tapio Anttila has strived for flexibility. ‘This whole thing is flexible,’ he says. ‘We act where it’s profitable and in a way that’s profitable. With the furniture market being not so large in Finland and it being hard for a designer to live on commissions, we’ve found this kind of a new business concept.’ The concept is exceptional, even internationally. Suppleness to act, a different and flexible way of thinking and the right partners have brought a competitive edge.

Of course, the model is imitated, but an equivalent model does not exist quite yet. Finding a functional solution took several years, even for Anttila, and of course not all the products in the collection have been successful.


The customer

The needs and desires of the customer, consumer and user or the company behind the commission are the starting point of the work. Tapio Anttila stresses that the work is not done for yourself but for the customer. When he designs products for Tapio Anttila Collection, they must fit the idea of the collection. ‘But in the same way, if I work for Lundia, for example, I must consider what fits the Lundia brand. I don’t design for myself. Many designers fall into the mistake of designing for themselves and then trying to offer it to some company. They don’t see the big picture. The product may be very good, but it doesn’t fit the company’s line.’

Tapio Anttila does not find this to affect his own expression or identity as a designer. He says that the freedoms are almost limitless anyway. And, of course, he is contacted by manufacturers that already know his design idiom and want exactly that. He is not afraid to talk about commercialism and sales connected to his work in any way. He thinks that if the design is good, it sells. ‘When I established my own office, I decided that if I can’t live on this, I will quit. Well, I haven’t had to quit yet,’ he laughs.

Attracting the public, for example, with trendy colours or designs, must not be the foremost criterion when designing a new product, but the product must appeal to buyers and fit the retailer’s selection. Anttila says that the great classics of design still sell, and their design and sales are not in conflict.

Many of Tapio Anttila’s products have been awarded over the years with various design awards, so we can say that this is a case of quality design. His works can also be found in design museums around the world. Tapio Anttila was chosen as the Furniture Designer of the Year in 2012.


Brand and personality

Tapio Anttila finds building and managing his own brand interesting. ‘It’s its own kind of work that designers don’t usually get to do,’ he says. ‘Of course, I still design the products, but we’re also building a brand. We choose what we want to do.’ Normally, the manufacturer decides what will be produced, but now Anttila and his team are ultimately responsible for the collection. And everything related to it, from marketing to fair stands. Their cooperation partner is the long-time retailer Vepsäläinen, whose design-oriented selection is excellent for Tapio Anttila Collection. The network functions well, and the retailer also delivers feedback and new product ideas.

Managing the brand naturally takes time from designing, but Anttila thinks that it is worth it. A strong and distinctive brand offers a competitive edge in the market. Today, it is also more and more important that there is a designer behind a product, with their own name and face. Customers want backgrounds, roots and stories. And you must be able to stick your neck out, over and over again – at furniture fairs, at various events, in the public eye. Furniture fairs are always as exciting to Anttila: you stand there, the products are ready, and nothing more can be done. But if you are looking to impress, you must be there and be seen, also personally.

Tapio Anttila is often asked to talk about his furniture collection and brand. He says that he tells everyone that having a good product in a poor brand is worse than having a poor product in a good brand. According to Anttila, building and managing a brand is not easy, however, as it is not exactly taught anywhere. Work has to be done in all areas, he says. ‘Of course, the product is part of the brand and, especially in this case, so is the person. Everything is connected, all that is done.’


New challenges

Tapio Anttila’s designs have been discovered abroad, as well: there have been international commissions. In China, Anttila cooperates with designer Jonas Hakaniemi with the Anttila & Hakaniemi brand. Completely new things include the outdoor furniture manufactured in Vietnam, launched next spring, as the new Tapio Anttila Outdoor Collection. The manufacturer asked Anttila to design a couple of product families – Anttila made five different suggestions to offer room for choice, and they were all accepted for manufacture. This meant that busy times would be ahead at the studio, as the designs had to be finished quickly.

Tapio Anttila sees the internationalisation of his profession as the only way to grow. The Finnish market is quickly gone through – after all, the customer base is very small and there are only a few manufacturers. For him, the growth has come little by little, yet down to earth, systematically and consistently. Exportation of his collection has started, and the first products manufactured with a license are entering the market in China. Then there are the new projects, of course. All of this requires new kinds of skills.

Challenges are also brought by new customer needs and environmental factors, among other things. A designer must follow his time and the ways of the world: you must be able to offer products that the customers do not necessarily even know they want yet. The ecological aspect, in turn, comes naturally when you strive for timelessness in design, according to Anttila. It is most ecological when the product’s life cycle is as long as possible. And that is what he is going for – a certain timelessness.


Building opportunities

Tapio Anttila is still excited about the work of a furniture designer. ‘The reason I keep on doing this is, of course, because I find this to be almost like playing. I’m constantly looking for and developing new ideas. And having been able to achieve so much just the same is probably because of having good cooperation partners, a good team. And then you just don’t stay put.’

Indeed, he has consistently looked for new routes without staying still. ‘Maybe my career has been slightly different. I’ve looked for different kinds of paths… not settling for what was offered, but building my own opportunities.’


Anne Veinola 2018


Photo: Limi chair, Tapio Anttila Collection, photo by Teemu Töyrylä