Weekly Studio: Susan Elo

Weekly Studio takes us to the work places of designers. In December, we wisit the designer Susan Elo in her Punavuori studio in Helsinki. 

How did you get started as a designer?

I always liked sports. I did football, cross country skiing and many other athletic things. But I also drew and painted and made scale models. In high school, I liked PE and art, but I wanted to be a PE teacher. Actually, my first exam to get into university was to train as a PE teacher, but I didn’t get accepted. I thought that if I’m not going to be a PE teacher, I could become an architect or an interior architect and I then got into the University of Art and Design.

What did you do for the BA?

At that time, education was different and we started straight away with the MA. I studied interior and furniture design. I found furniture design very difficult. Interior architecture and architecture were fine, but because I felt I needed to work on my furniture design skills I spent two months at Leeds Polytechnic. I then did an Erasmus at the Royal College of Art in London to continue my training. It’s funny, because now I teach furniture design at Aalto.

I have always been interested in things which I don’t understand or find difficult. I’m interested in learning new things. Especially if I can’t really do something, I have a tendency to want to try to figure it out.

It’s interesting that you went to the UK for furniture design training as today Finland has such a strong reputation for furniture design education while the RCA is known for its creative approach to design education.

I have always been interested in experimentation and the conceptual. And in teaching, traditional furniture design doesn’t really interest me. I’m always trying to find new and creative approaches with the students. I want to see mistakes and experiments. At the moment, I’m teaching second year furniture. We (Timo Ripatti and I) just finished a course this semester. For me, the best thing is when students get really experimental! It’s interesting to try to think about how to teach so that students really move towards more original approaches.

The work you did on design for the elderly where you looked at furniture, but also housing and social systems, would you say that’s representative of your approach?

Yes. That project was about a number of things. For one thing, all of the products and furniture designed for old people are quite ugly. I thought, when I’m old, I don’t want to be surrounded by ugly, badly-made things. We have to have a choice. It was 2010 when I came up with the senior design idea. It could be a huge concept, even bigger than IKEA, from cups to housing and everything in between. I really think it could and should be a big business, but here in Finland we tend not to look at things that way. I don’t know, maybe they will do it in Sweden instead.

You started your own studio in 1998, almost immediately after graduating?

Yes, because for my final design I had a mix of some functional items as well as more conceptual products that were more like art pieces. There was a store, Skanno, that wanted to buy some of my pieces so I started my own company. But my family already had its own company, so it was quite natural for me to start my own. I always knew that I didn’t want to be an interior architect in an office because the work wasn’t very interesting. I really wanted to do what I liked. I made my final works in 1996, but officially graduated in 1997. And that’s when I had offers of work, so I need to have my own company. Plus, I had already been doing a bit of part-time teaching as well.

When did you start taking on more teaching?

I think this is my sixth year in Aalto, but I started already around 2000 in Lahti institute of Art and Design. At the moment, the situation at Aalto is very interesting because for the first time we are based in the architecture department and things are changing quite considerable. I can see a number of interesting possibilities opening up.

Such as?

I don’t really know yet. It’s just a feeling, because there are so many new things going on. It’s actually quite chaotic. But this slightly chaotic situation means that something new could emerge. Also, because we are now on the same campus with architects and engineers and business students, so it feels quite promising.

Do you keep your teaching and your practice separate or do they inform each other? 

They feed into each other. I enjoy setting topics for the students which I feel interested in myself at that moment. It means I’m always learning, otherwise it could get a bit boring. Recently, for example, we worked on a wooden stool without any glue or metal joints. It means that at the end of its life, you can leave it in the forest to break down. It doesn’t harm the environment or the planet. This sustainable point of view is important for me, because we have to be wise and reuse materials. We can’t just take and take from the planet.

This must feed into your state grant project, Minä ja metsä?

Yes, I received a five-year grant. I happen to have a small pine forest by my summer house, near the sea. I have been learning how to care for the forest through natural forestry. The soil is very sandy and so the forest grows slowly. There aren’t many large trees and we’ve had to remove some to allow light to reach others so that they can grow again. Now, we have older and younger trees in the same forest which is very different to economic forests where everything is cut at the same time and replanted with saplings. A real forest includes trees of different ages and stages of development.

For me, trees are an ecological material because, if you care for the forest, the material regrows. It gives you everything you need. You can enjoy it as a beautiful place, but you can also use it as a material. The process of managing a forest is so interesting. You have to plan which trees to cut and then figure out what to do with the cut trees. Some we sell locally. Some we keep for ourselves. But it’s a lot of work and quite expensive. I have a great deal of respect for wood as a material because these trees have taken some 100 years to grow. The material is older than I am and the process really takes time. I think that if people understood where the material comes from and how much work is done by different people to process it for use, then maybe we would start to consume more wisely.

At the moment, I am working on making furniture from my trees. I’m trying to bring the sense of the forest to each piece, so the legs are peeled trunks. You don’t have to cut the material into a thousand pieces and glue them back together again. I’m interested in a raw design where you can see the forest.

So, you aren’t using any glue at all? 

Well, I’m learning. You can use traditional wooden joints without glue, for example. I’m trying to find a new way to make forest wood into furniture, a way that makes the forest visible. Or maybe, in the end, it’s just an old way of doing things. I don’t think we always need to develop new, never-before-seen ways of making. For me, it’s enough if there’s an easy quality to the pieces, a lightness of touch. And there’s a smell and a certain energy around these pieces…

In the forest, the tree trunks are not very large as most of the trees in this area have been grown according to economic forestry methods. The trees which we cut down, for example, no one really bought them for building because they are too small. I could have sold them for pulping, but I didn’t want to do that because in the Hanko area the trees grow so slowly that they are very dense.

Who did you sell them to in the end?

I sold some which I couldn’t use to the local government department who manages forests for land owners who aren’t interested in doing it yourself. They didn’t understand that I wasn’t interested in their services. They called me all the time and every time I said that we’re taking care of the forest. But, here, the expectation is that you can’t just leave the forest be. You have to manage it economically or you have to sell it. Our country has such a big forestry industry, but it can be quite old fashioned.

You’re now in the second year of the grant?

Yes, it takes such a long time to process the wood. Although I’ve been experimenting a little with the wet timber, now I can finally start working as I’ve mainly been waiting for the wood to dry. It’s been almost three years of drying and waiting and now I can start working. For me, it has been a strange process, all this waiting. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just start working with the wood right away.

For someone who has had their own studio for 20 years, you have very few projects on your website.

I’m quite minimalistic. I try to concentrate on the essence of things. I removed everything that was unnecessary. That’s my design philosophy as well. I always try to take away everything which seems extraneous. I want the core of something and no more. When I was younger, I used to contact furniture companies. I made a few pieces with some of the larger ones, but it was so much hassle. We made prototypes, but they rarely went into production. I didn’t get paid a salary and I used so much energy dealing with these companies. Eventually, I just thought that I didn’t want to waste my energy and I stopped contacting them. Design is my profession and I need to earn a living. My energy is limited and I want to use it only on things that are meaningful and interesting to me.

Do you see your work, particularly more conceptual projects like Minä ja metsä, as design? Or a blurring between art and design?

Perhaps I’m somewhere in-between. When I was younger, I was very interested in contemporary art and I also made it myself. With a group of two other designers, we used to make these spatial installations about design and communication using empty spaces in the city. We did quite a few, but ultimately, I couldn’t continue because it just didn’t pay. I’m a designer at the end of the day.

But is it important to you that there’s a functional product at the end of the process? 

Actually yes, that’s quite a natural way for me to think. But I would like to work a little bit on learning to let go of some control. Of course, I also like functional things. For example, the last piece I designed was a table. I think that we need tables. And it’s nice that I can now create a sustainable table from a source which I know hasn’t harmed the environment, which is non-toxic. But this is just an example of how to work with nature on a very small scale.

There’s a video from 2012 HDC where you say that ‘design requires childishness, but at the same time exactitude and precision; one should combine the skills of a poet and engineer.’ Does this still hold true for you?

Absolutely. I still believe that because in developing ideas you need to think creatively and differently. But it should be a natural way of thinking where you don’t have to try too hard. Then, when you want to realise these ideas, you really have to become an engineer and use a more precise, rational side of your personality.

And what about your space. How does this space, which is as much a shop front as a studio, affect your way of working?

It’s so important. I have had this space since 2000, so I’ve been here for 18 years. It’s my own place, I don’t rent it. Maybe that’s why I’m still here, because it’s also a kind of investment. When I got this space, many of the nearby offices had curtains on windows. I took everything down because, at the time, I thought that I could show off my work. I don’t feel there’s anything shameful about showing the fact that I’m working here. And although the space is quite small, 34 square metres, the façade is all glass so it opens everything up. I like the feeling that I am on the street.

Do people look at what you’re doing?

I’m so used to it now, but anyway Finnish people are quite shy and they try not to look at me. Even if they do, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve made many good contacts just because of this space. I have an agent in Sweden who I met just because they passed by the studio, saw what I was doing and came inside.

Do you show unfinished things in the window?

Sometimes, but I don’t do much prototyping myself and also my space is quite minimalistic. I don’t like to leave a mess. I tend to develop ideas in my head and figure out how something works before I work on a prototype. Having said that, I started to feel like I was moving towards a stage where I wanted really clean spaces without mess or chaos. I was in this place where increasingly I was like, ‘don’t disturb me, I’m working’ and I thought I had to do something about it. So, I got a puppy. I didn’t know anything about dogs before; we’d never had one as a pet, but it forced me to put myself in a new situation, to make a new connection and to have a completely new experience. Sometimes it’s stressful and I think, why am I in this stressful situation again. I always think that the next time, I should remind myself to just live a peaceful, easy life. But it doesn’t work because I get bored. I always find a way to make life difficult for myself.