Kaj Franck Design Prize 2021
The 2021 Kaj Franck award was granted to textile designer Johanna Gullichsen. In her work, she continues the strong Finnish traditions of textile art and design, bringing them to the modern day. The fabrics designed by Johanna Gullichsen are weaved using traditional techniques, but their design is fresh and modern. Gullichsen herself describes them with the term “urban graphics”.
Johanna Gullichsen’s inspiration for making things by hand and weaving came from her mother’s mother, her understanding of an aesthetic environment from her father’s mother. Grandmother’s home was Villa Mairea, a house designed by Alvar Aalto, where every detail was carefully thought out and planned. Gullichsen was interested in both a career as an architect and studies in the University of Art and Design Helsinki, but ended up first studying art history and literature. Her interest in fabrics was born during evening courses at the University of Art and Design and she went on to learn weaving at a handcraft school in Porvoo. She got herself a studio and set up her own company in 1989.
At first, Johanna Gullichsen did commission work and released small series, held a few exhibitions and enjoyed encouraging reviews in magazines. She went to a French school as a child, so she felt drawn to France. She spent some time in Paris for a few times, including a residency at Cité des Arts in 1995 with the help of a stipend. There, she had the idea to set up her own boutique in Paris. In 1997, she opened the boutique at the heart of the city.
Johanna Gullichsen had her breakthrough first in France, then in Finland. It was brought on by her Normandie collection; the fabrics are still sold as popular classics. Gullichsen’s clear style, its graphic appearance and authenticity fit in well with the minimalism of the turn of the millennium.
The Johanna Gullichsen brand’s fabrics are woven in Finland from natural materials: wool, cotton and linen. The classic square patterns allow for a great deal of variation and the fabrics can be used for many different purposes: in interior decoration items, bags and pouches, rugs and kitchen textiles. They are also sustainable, rather easy to care for and, thus, ecological.
Many of the weaves used by Gullichsen are familiar from traditional folk textiles, festive table clothes and linen towels. Johanna Gullichsen has renewed these by applying various colours, different materials and new purposes of use. The traditional and the modern are approaching each other, she thinks: the same simplicity and purposefulness, perhaps from different starting points but with similar end results.
Johanna Gullichsen is inspired by urbanity and culture. “I am more of an urban person,” she says. “Somehow, I just like the built environment… I get more ideas from buildings and things happening in cities.” The fabrics show the rhythm of streets and city blocks, their patterns resemble the rectangularity of building facades. The optical play of lines and the impression of depth bring to mind the reflections on shop windows. The colours are calm; the shades of clouds, lights and shadows.
An idea for a new pattern often stems from an existing design, applying different dimensions and a different combination of colours. This creates a desire to develop the themes and experiment further, Johanna Gullichsen says. Before, she used to weave the prototypes herself, using a loom, designing by weaving. However, creating the desired warp in a loom is time-consuming and making any changes difficult – that is why she today also uses computer software to help with the process. She usually creates her sketches by drawing them or painting with watercolours.
“I have a great deal of respect for handcraft traditions… People have made things at home, using their hands, they have used their creativity to make something beautiful and delightful for themselves or others, for their daily life.”
Everything starts from the material, according to Johanna Gullichsen. She gets her ideas and her vision from the thread; she must touch it and get a feel for it. This gives her the understanding of what kinds of weaves or patterns are possible. Implementing patterns and colours by weaving requires professional competence and know-how of the various weaving techniques and methods. It demands a great deal from the designer, but also from the makers. The award jury praised Johanna Gullichsen for her persistent and consistent work of modernising weaving competence and methods.
“I have a great deal of respect for handcraft traditions, it is the aspect that I find the most interesting,” Gullichsen says. “People have made things at home, using their hands, they have used their creativity to make something beautiful and delightful for themselves or others, for their daily life.” She believes that making things by hand is a strength and that the makers of the future are also its winners.
A similar trend – maintaining traditions by modernising them – can also be seen in Japan, a country which Gullichsen has a long, close relationship with. The cooperation started early on. The Japanese partners became interested in her work after seeing her exhibition at Artek and came to find her in Paris. Since then, the Johanna Gullichsen brand has been on the Japanese market.
Starting sales in Japan was a lucky coincidence, according to Johanna Gullichsen. Trendsetters became instantly interested in her style and the fabrics became highly popular very fast. Right now, Gullichsen is designing new types of products with Japanese partners, e.g. tatami mats made of paper instead of the traditional reeds, and lined with patterned ribbons that are characteristic to Gullichsen. Ceramic wall tiles manufactured in Japan came to market in spring 2020.
Johanna Gullichsen is enthusiastic about new products and the opportunity to learn more about various production methods and materials. Until now she has designed fabrics and textile products for her own brand, so this has offered her the possibility to try something new. “Even small partnership projects are inspiring as doing things together is meaningful,” she describes.
She has had quite a few of such projects. Combining her fabrics with Terhi Pölkki’s shoes. Notebooks for Bookbinders Design. Fabrics for Anna Ruohonen’s clothes brand and joint showrooms. For La Parra she designed floor tiles made in Spain from pressed cement.
According to the award jury, Johanna Gullichsen has been able to combine her artistic and creative work with sustainable serial production. The products she has designed combine timelessness and modernity as in all best Finnish design. Trends can be seen in her use of effect colours, in new shapes or new product ideas. An understated world of forms, yet with interesting implementations. The strong idea – urban graphics – carries far.
Design Forum Finland