Weekly Studio: Studio Joanna Laajisto

Weekly Studio takes us to the work places of designers. This week, Weekly visits the workplace of Studio Joanna Laajisto, in Helsinki.

Since you’ve just moved into a new office space, why don’t you tell us a little bit about that. 

We looked for a new space for over a year and it was quite challenging to find something that we really liked. Our previous space was getting a bit small, but we managed and it was in a very nice location, so there wasn’t an urgency. We really took our time until something special came up. As with many things, we found this place by asking regularly on social media if anybody knew of a good space. Finally, a client of ours, Minna Parikka, said that they were about to move out of their old office. We moved in December last year after a month of renovation works.

What did you like about the space? 

It’s a neo-Renaissance building from the late 1800s. Inside, there’s a lot of light and the ceilings are almost four-metres high. There are a lot of original features. When we renovated, we painted throughout and changed the lighting and electrical outlets and did work to the kitchen and bathroom, but essentially it just had a very good feel to it.

How many people in the studio? 

We are four to five people, all interior architects. But we do work with architects, graphic designers or service designers depending on the project.

Given that you’re an interior architect, do you have a strong view on the importance between working space and work? 

For me, the most important thing is that a space is functional. That there’s enough light, enough surfaces, spaces to communicate and to lay out material; so, the functionality is very important. But in a creative business, be it creative writing or advertising or music or interior architecture, it’s also important that you have the kind of environment where you feel comfortable to be creative. It doesn’t have to be super stimulating, but it needs to be comfortable.

Having said that, I do think everybody should have a comfortable environment to work in, not just creatives. Most people think of home-like environments as comfortable, so when we do offices, we tend to incorporate domestic elements, things like a big kitchen or a large dining table for meetings.

I know that you used to be a professional snowboarder. How did you move from the world of competitive sports to interior architecture?

After high school, I travelled for five years as a snowboarder all over the US and Europe. When I was around 22, I thought I should get an education, but I wasn’t quite ready to go back to Finland. I had sponsors in the US, many of them in California so I looked at schools there. I found an interesting school for interior architecture which was accredited as that meant I could receive Finnish government support. In the US, the internship programme is a key component of education. I did my internship at Gensler, a big architecture firm, and after graduation I continued working there.

How did you decide on interior architecture for your studies?

I went to a music school from kindergarten and then a performing arts high school in Helsinki, all of which was artistic and very creative. At some point in high school, I found an alternative scene—skateboarders and snowboarders—which led to a lot of travelling. I went to Japan and travelled alone through sports in Europe. It was an interesting phase in my life, but I always knew that I wanted to do something creative as well. I thought about fashion design, but even then, I felt strongly about environmental issues and ethics. The pace in fashion design is just so fast that I didn’t want to be involved in it as a designer.

What kind of projects were you involved in at Gensler? 

It was interesting as they do very high-end, big projects. I mostly worked on the workplace team where we did large corporate headquarters. There was always an architectural team and an interior team on the same project. So, as interior architects, we would be discussing how and where to place the rooms or the staircases. Many of these buildings were designed from the inside out and I still think that’s a good way of designing buildings. We did a headquarters for a large creative artists agency in Los Angeles, and another big headquarters for Station Casino in Las Vegas. At one point, I was travelling to Vegas once a week. They were all big budget projects with a lot of attention to detail.

And then you came back to Finland in 2008? 

Yes, I was expecting my first child. I didn’t feel quite ready to start my own studio so I went to work for a Finnish company for a little while. I had been trained to work in inches rather than centimetres, for example, so I had to relearn certain things. I started carrying a tape measure around with me all the time to check measurements. It’s something that I still do, actually.

That combination of cultural and education perspectives must be a real benefit to being a designer though? 

It’s funny because a lot of people try to put our design in a box, they want to label it Scandinavian design. But we draw influences from so many different things and places. I think design is really about your own particular way of seeing the world.

Finally, you founded your own studio in 2010?

I felt like I was ready. This is a very difficult field, that’s what I always tell students. You need to know a lot and you have to be prepared to take on a lot of responsibility. It’s very easy to make mistakes. At that point, I felt like I finally understood the whole picture and that I was ready to take responsibility for my own projects. This was about six years after I graduated so it wasn’t right away either.

The other key thing is that I’ve always been very strong minded when it comes to ethics. I always knew that I wanted to do things my own way. With my own studio, I can talk to clients honestly and be transparent and only take on projects that I believe in. I started the company because I wanted to do design, rather than run a business.

Are you enjoying the business side now that you’re more established as a studio? 

The business side is fascinating, but given how the studio is growing, I’m beginning to feel that I need some help with it.

As in taking on a business manager? 

Not necessarily, as I do want to do it myself. But if I want to grow and become bigger and be able to take on bigger projects, I need to dedicate as much time and energy to the value of business as well as the value of design.

There’s more and more discussion of the role of Instagram in interior design and architecture, particularly as certain briefs now include Instagramable clauses. Is this something that’s had an impact on your work?

I think it’s something that we can’t ignore. For example, I’ve heard certain lectures on millennial culture where they talk about how millennials choose their cafes based on Instagramability rather than price or location. It is something that you have to take into consideration, but I’m not willing to make it a driver of design.

We want to design places where the feeling is foregrounded, that there’s a good feeling and that people enjoy being there. Of course, if that results in a beautiful space that people can take photos of, that’s a bonus. But sometimes, amazing spaces aren’t Instagramable. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible to take a beautiful photo of certain amazing spaces. I still believe that can be considered a successful job, but some people would consider that a failure.

In jobs where we’re working on cafes, especially for smaller clients who don’t have large marketing budgets, we definitely think about things like table surfaces and whether or not you can take a beautiful photo. Because good design can help the client spread the word and get more business.

In a previous interview, you said that you aren’t so interested in designing residential spaces because the personality of the owner is the most important thing. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the relationship between your style, for lack of a better word, and the client’s vision?

 It’s unfortunate, but I think that interview slightly misrepresented what I meant about designing residential spaces. I do like doing residential design and we’ve done some amazing residential projects, but I think it’s a good project when the personality of the person is highlighted. The individual brings their own spice to a project. But that goes with anything, with restaurants or offices or retail. You need the personality of the client to provide a real substance from which to build up the design concept.

So, in terms of there being a relationship? 

It’s always a conversation. We always listen to the client and to their needs, and if there’s an end user – like a restaurant or a hotel – we make an end-user study. Based on all these different sets of information, we then give a suggestion of what the design should be and most of the time, the client agrees with us.

What’s the typical timescale for this research process? 

It can take a few months or it can take a few days. With young café owners, you might have one interview; it’s easy to quickly grasp what they’re looking for. In a retail project, on the other hand, it can take a few months and involve a lot of complex, end-user research.

Would you say that there are certain material or aesthetic qualities that repeat across your designs? I was looking again across your portfolio of previous projects and I noticed, for example, that you use a lot of wood and very little colour.

That’s amusing as I was just in Paris last week for a talk and the woman who organised the event commented on how much colour I use compared to other Scandinavian designers. We do use colour, but the palette is quite muted and toned down. For me, these kinds of colours leave more room for interpretation. Some people see a certain colour green, others see the same colour as a certain shade of brown. In part, it means that you don’t get bored, but these shades tend not to evoke very strong emotions either. I do feel that different tones are important and we do spend a lot of time specifying colour in projects. I couldn’t only use black and white and grey.

In terms of what you just said about colour, do you think it’s important to leave room for users more generally?  

I think that interior spaces should support the user, should enable them to feel good. Interiors play a kind of supporting role in people’s lives, but I think that they can still evoke feelings. I usually have a certain feeling in my mind—a feeling or a kind of personality—when I’m designing. That’s how I start building an interior.

I also want to pick up on what you said previously about ethics being an important part of how you think about design.

We like to do projects that are good quality, that will stand the test of time in terms of aesthetics, as well as in terms of wear and functionality. For me, one way to do that is to use materials that age and wear well, which is why we use a lot of natural materials. We believe that patina makes materials more beautiful. Things like plastic, when it cracks, it doesn’t look nice and you want to replace it. But when you have a stain in marble or a scratch in wood, it makes it more beautiful.

In interior design, the pace has gotten faster and faster, perhaps linked to social media, but we’re really trying to encourage our clients not to select trendy, inexpensive furniture that won’t last. Instead, we try to encourage our clients to invest in furniture that will last and that they can take with them when they outgrow their current space.

And do you have clients who have done that?

Yes, we do. We have clients who have gone on to their second or third office and who have reused furniture. Fjord is a good example. We designed their previous office and spent the time to learn about their company culture. When they moved, we did their new office and it was very easy to get into that design process because we knew what they already had and we reused a lot of what they already had in addition to adding new pieces to their collection. We try to encourage clients to reuse, but we’re also trying to use second-hand furniture as well where we can.

I know you’re very busy at the moment. What are you working on?

I think the strength of our studio has always been that we do different fields of design. We do retail and offices and restaurants and in the last few years, we’ve been doing hospitality as well. I think they all feed off and into each other. It’s really good that we’re not stuck in just one sector and I’d really like to maintain that. And we’ve had amazing clients in all those fields, so I’m very grateful.

At the moment, I’m really excited about hotels. We’re doing a Pavilion hotel extension in Jyväskylä with things like two-story penthouses. We’re also working on a renovation of a more historical building here in Helsinki, but I can’t say much about that unfortunately. In general, I think we’re interested in expanding into hotel design. It’s something that we’re excited about and that we feel passionate about.