More than just form – Juhani Salovaara

“The form was not enough for me. I wanted to have something more in designing,” says Juhani Salovaara, the Kaj Franck Design Prize winner of 2016, when speaking of the early stages of his career. Design only as working on the form of objects was not enough for him – there had to be something more. In Salovaara’s case that something was ergonomics. In the 1970s, when he began his career in design, things like consumer experience or user-based design were not yet discussed, but this was about them. Not just creating forms.


Early stages

Juhani Salovaara had an easy choice of career. Actually, he had dreamed of becoming a sculptor, but that was not a profession according to his mother and so he applied for the art teacher course at the Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki. He was not accepted, but he noticed that the school had other things to offer. In the following spring, in 1963, he applied and was accepted to study metal arts, where a programme in industrial product design had been introduced in 1961.

In the 1960s, new contemporary currents were felt at the school, and leading names of the period had an active role. The ideas of Kaj Franck could not be avoided. He taught the basic concepts of design and the designer’s professional role. Juhani Salovaara points out how Franck placed importance on an understanding of materials. Many of the student projects involved the study of materials and working methods in concrete assignments. The important aspect was to find one’s own identity and personality as a designer. Mannerisms were not allowed, Salovaara recalls. One had to find one’s own way of making and designing things.

Another important teacher was Börje Rajalin, who had the title of senior teacher and was head of the Department of Metal Arts. Rajalin had good connections with industry and he made students of product design visit industrial plants, even a tobacco factory. Börje Rajalin also arranged Salovaara’s first job after graduation, at the Upo home appliances factory in Lahti, South Finland.

The late 1960s were years of political activity, and industrial design was also a topical subject. There was discussion on the relationship of skills in design and applied art with industry, change in the status and role of designer, ecology, and social responsibility. Design was regarded as a means to improve productivity and the quality of exports. At the same time, it was a way to connect people and products.

Juhani Salovaara did not remain long in Lahti. Only a few weeks after starting there, he heard that the Philips corporation’s design department in Holland was looking for Scandinavian designers. Salovaara travelled to the job interview and to his surprise was invited to come and work for Philips. He managed to negotiate the situation so that he could first work for a year at Upo and move on to the Philips Design Center in Eindhoven in the following autumn.



Holland was far ahead of Finland in industrial design. Philips had a large design department in Eindhoven. “At the time there were some 160 designers in the office, and I remember there were 16 different nationalities among us,” Juhani Salovaara recalls. The working language was English and the professional community was multicultural. The products included hospital equipment, home appliances and electronics, all of which were areas that were still in their infancy in Finland. Ergonomics was also a new discipline, which had been developed to prevent work-related injuries and strain and was now being vigorously applied in the design of products and tools.

Salovaara worked in the Netherlands over two years, from 1968 to 1970, after which he returned to Finland. He did not immediately find employment, and at first he worked as a freelancer in his Citroën, which he had converted first into a camper van and later into his office. He was then offered a job by the Wallac company of Turku, which made measuring devices and clinical diagnostic instruments. The time to set up his own design office came in 1973, when the Wallac firm urged him to do so. Heikki Kiiski joined him as a partner and the result was Ergonomiadesign, one of Finland’s most renowned and largest design agencies of the period.


Ergonomics and design

At the time when Ergonomiadesign was founded, Finnish industries were growing at a rapid pace, with the goal of developing domestic industries to replace imports, and exports to the Soviet Union were also significant. This coincided with major advances in technology – and that meant demand for industrial design. Juhani Salovaara recalls how the company grew. “It just grew, along with the increasing number of assignments. Finally, there were 13–14 of us and we even had our own building…” In between, there was the recession caused by the oil crisis, but it came to Finland with a time-lag and recovery did not take long.  “It must have been the early 1980s; we did very well indeed at the time,” says Salovaara. “Strange as it sounds, we were the most profitable company in Southwest Finland two years running. Profits were 25% of turnover.” For a design studio, this was quite a unique achievement.

Ergonomiadesign had many large and solid clients. Several of them were in the technology and electronics sectors, and the firm also began to design Finnish-made home appliances: washing machines, cookers, television sets and refrigerators. Home appliances were made for a long while, some twenty years.


It all proceeded from the user

In keeping with its name, Ergonomiadesign was a pioneer in ergonomics in Finland. This was something that had been brought along from Holland, a discipline that was still quite unknown in Finland. “You couldn’t study something like that,” says Juhani Salovaara. “You had to teach yourself. Office ergonomics, for example, emerged at the stage when computer terminals were introduced. People had all kinds of aches and pains from stationary working postures. It was an almost endless field of work…” Salovaara designed equipment at the office and toured the country with occupational health experts, talking about correct posture, equipment and working methods.

Ergonomics was one of the first disciplines to consider the user of an object, tool or piece of equipment in the design of a product, up to the point of studying the matter with observations or even scientific methods. Factual information steered design and was the basis for choices. Perceptual psychology was another important area, influencing, among other things, the design of indicators, instruments and displays – user interfaces in modern terminology. This work was predominantly done in teams, since the various aspects of design required the contribution of experts in different fields.

Juhani Salovaara liked this, for he was averse to the notion of being a ‘star designer’. “The identity of a designer or star designer did not suit me. I felt it was not right in a social sense just to make objects of beauty!” He goes on to say: “Perhaps it reflects my own attitude, too…. I felt it wasn’t enough, it felt kind of selfish. I’ve always had the goal that there has to be some other good cause alongside it.” Ergonomics became that goal.

Another innovation that came from Philips was electronics. “Also in Finland, it began to emerge around this time,” Salovaara recalls. “They happened to be the two things that weren’t mentioned at all in school. We lagged behind in those matters.”


The essence of being a designer

But design school taught something much more important. “What the school gave us was the belief that if there’s a problem and I’m accustomed to doing things in a certain way and I do it like this, then that problem will be solved,” Juhani Salovaara observes. “And you’re not at all afraid that it won’t be solved!” Skill, professionalism, the ability to learn and confidence in one’s own ability are essential. Everything but attitude can be found in books. “It has to follow the path of trial and error. You have to find your own approach,” he notes.

The process of industrial design involves more parameters than many other areas of design. Salovaara describes it as follows: “The path already exists and there are so many limitations or parameters. Quite often there is already a product category; you can’t stray from it too much. You try to apply facts to design work, not forgetting the preconditions of manufacturing.” Salovaara has liked the challenge of existing set boundaries, and the fact that the work is teamwork.

Juhani Salovaara’s work proceeds from what already exists. “The starting point is that you have to have food in the larder, a lot of things in your subconscious.” Ever since he was a student, he has followed architecture and the visual arts, especially sculpture, the career dream of his youth. “It’s been something to draw upon. The problems in industrial design are of a highly concrete nature, clearly defined: you have to develop goods of certain kind. It’s quite clear-cut. You just have to dig up all the facts first, the parameters. And then I suppose you go on to sketching from there…” Salovaara has always made notes and drawn. On facing pages in his notebook the facts are on the right and the ideas go on the left. Sketching is also a form of background work: the solution will be found when enough mass is accumulated. The best projects are the ones where you proceed with knowledge and experience towards the design of form. “Of course, my favourite ones are those where the whole thing just unfolds naturally, in a sense.”


Teamwork and management

Requiring expertise in many different areas, industrial design is not a job for loners. Juhani Salovaara learned the importance of teamwork already at Philips, and it was important when running his own office. “All the time, with more work and people, it was important to have command of teamwork,” Salovaara observes. It has been easy for him to manage the work of others and in particular to inspire them to achieve shared goals. “This has been natural for me. The important thing is how you succeed when recruiting people.” Salovaara’s employees have always been international and there has been no lack of trainees. The talented ones came from Eastern Europe, where solid theoretical skills were combined with the Beaux-Arts heritage in design education.

In 1989, Ergonomiadesign merged with Destem Design, another large design agency in Turku. The new office was named ED-Design and it is still in operation. It has created many of the flagship products of Finnish design, from Mobira and Nokia phones and Valtra tractors to Konecranes cranes and Oras taps – demanding multidisciplinary projects not within the scope of every design office. They all share a deep knowledge of the user, careful background work and research, and the successful combination of innovation and technology with the aid of design.

Juhani Salovaara found a new international perspective when he was elected to the board of Icsid (The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) in 1975 for a three-year period. During this time, the role of design in solving a wide range of problems was reinforced as the public sector also began to show interest in it.  Salovaara points out that things have developed a great deal from that situation, as the methods of design are now generally regarded as a fruitful way of thinking in the operations and even management of companies of all kinds.

Juhani Salovaara’s long career and experience have been awarded prizes on many occasions. He is an honorary member of the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo and the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the present-day Aalto University. He was given the distinction of Industrial Designer of the Year in 2003. Alongside his career in design, Salovaara served for many years as a professor of design and design management at the University of Art and Design and Aalto University. He was involved in founding the successful IDBM (International Design Business Management) programme bringing together students of design, marketing and engineering. Here, too, it was important to inspire people to work for a common goal. After his professional career, Salovaara has found a new interest as one of the founders of the Brinkhall Sparkling company producing sparkling wine from Finnish apples.



How does Juhani Salovaara see the future of design? Design – or design thinking – is successful, as this creative and agile problem-solving combining facts and intuition has been recognised as useful in a wide range of fields. The role of design in the product development process has also changed: the designer is quite often included already in the initial stage, and not just when the appearance of a product is considered. This increases influence, but also responsibility. And that is when the work is truly significant.

“Nonetheless you have to make the effort to do things as well as you can,” says Salovaara. “It has been damn fine to work with many people… with surprisingly few arguments. That’s all there is to it, you have to be relaxed and have fun.”

Ecology, sustainable solutions and responsibility for one’s own work have always interested Juhani Salovaara. At present, he is a shareholder in, among others, a company called Ecolution developing composting bioreactors. One of the successful products of recent years is the Miinus kitchen system developed with the Puustelli. In this system, the frames of kitchen furniture are of biocomposite plastic, making them lighter with a small carbon footprint and less emissions. “I think it’s a brilliant piece of work, we got everything in it on a total factual basis,” Salovaara says enthusiastically. “It’s a way to learn about life-span thinking and the carbon footprints and possibilities of materials, down to their indoor air emissions. And to be able to realise all that felt fine.”

The attitude that problems will be solved, learned as a student, has remained and will be of essential importance for designers also in the future. Juhani Salovaara observes: “I don’t think the core of things will change in any way. The basic element of the future is precisely the one that is learned first: to stand uncertainty. To believe that even though things lying ahead might look as dim as possible, a solution will nonetheless be found there.”


Anne Veinola 2016

Photo: Heavy crane Smarton, Konecranes Oy, from Juhani Salovaara’s archives