Weekly Studio: Hanna Anonen

One of a new generation of young Nordic designers exploring whimsy and pop colour over restrained minimalism, Weekly Studio catches up with Hanna Anonen about showing at Stockholm Furniture Fair, her obsession with details and why laundry drying racks need a redesign.

One of a new generation of young Nordic designers exploring whimsy and pop colour over restrained minimalism, Weekly Studio catches up with Hanna Anonen about showing at Stockholm Furniture Fair, her obsession with details and why laundry drying racks need a redesign.

At the Stockholm Furniture Fair  in February you were showing new pieces for Made by Choice. How was that?

Yes, Made by Choice launched around 20 new products, some of which were designed by me. I also did the exhibition design for Choice at the fair. I showed the Beebee and Plizé wooden containers, the Bouquet metal ceiling lamp and a series of side tables called Merry. But Choice also had new pieces from other designers like Matti Klenell, Thomas Sandell, Katrín Ólína, Shane Schneck and Saku Sysiö. Actually, one of the nice things about being at the fair was meeting all of the other designers.

Is this the first collaboration you’ve done with Choice? 

Yes, this is the first, but hopefully there will be more in future. It was such a nice process, very fast. Somehow, we started talking quite informally about how we could produce the pieces and what sort of colours there might be and then it just happened. Suddenly, Sebastian Jansson was like we’re going to launch these at Stockholm which is crazy because we only started talking last autumn. Although I already had existing prototypes because I had exhibited them last spring at Salon Satellite in Milan.

Do you find it difficult to work as a product designer in Finland where there aren’t so many manufacturers?

It’s a little bit difficult because there aren’t as many companies in Finland involved in product design. And even when you do have work, the process of creating for product design companies is very slow. For me, it’s nice to also have work designing exhibitions and installations as they’re much faster and more consistent. When I work on an exhibition design, it may take one or two months and then it’s taken down before it’s time to do another exhibition design.

Who are you creating exhibitions design for?

I have quite a few different clients, for example Iittala, Hakola and Grafia. I’ve worked quite a lot for Iittala, creating exhibition designs for shows at the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre. For example, I did a design for an exhibition where Aalto students worked with Iittala on material testing across glass, ceramics and concrete. It was exhibited at the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre.

Did you study exhibition design or did you pick it up on the job, so to speak?

Mostly, I just picked it up. I have a background in carpentry and industrial design and then I went to Aalto to study for a Master’s in applied art and design. It was during my Master’s studies that I created my first exhibition projects. I really like doing spatial design and so since the Master’s, it’s been something that I’ve done more and more. At the moment, I’m working on designing the scenography for the graphic designer of the year exhibition that will open at the Design Museum in April.

Do you have a method for how you approach exhibition design or is it a more intuitive process?

I would say that it’s very intuitive. I think more about things like scale and size and colours and tones. Do I want the exhibition to be super big and bright or do I want it to feel quiet and really small. I like to think about details as well, in terms of what kind of plinths or tables to use, but it’s all pretty intuitive.

Do you find the budget restrictions hinder or facilitate your creativity in designing exhibitions?

When it’s a really strict budget, I definitely have to think very creatively about how to make something impactful on a low budget. I tend to try to find interesting industrial or household materials, you know I go to K-Rauta and try to find something cheap and then use a lot of that material to create an impact by filing the space.

Sometimes, I’ll use the material as it is, but sometimes I try to tune it with something else in the exhibition design. Whether that’s with colour or cutting or changing the shape, but it’s surprising how much impact you can create with basic, everyday materials. And anyway, I love exploring hardware stores.

I was looking through your Instagram and you seem quite interested in modern architecture, places like Yanowsky’s Arenes de Picasso in Paris or Aalto’s Vyborg Library.

That’s interesting, because I wouldn’t say I’m so interested in architecture in terms of the large scale. Instead, I like to go very close, to buildings but other things as well, and look almost like a microscope at the details. Also, somehow abstracting the details so that nails become dots. I get a lot of inspiration from building details whether that’s colour or materials or doors and windows and balconies.

And do you then recreate these details exactly in your product design or are they more like inspiration?

It’s more for inspiration as I don’t copy exactly over from one to the other. With colours, for example, I’m looking for combinations that give me a certain feeling. But sometimes, when I pick a certain colour for something, already the next day I can completely change my mind and just intuitively feel that a certain colour or combination isn’t working.

Does it take you a long time to settle on colours then?

No, it’s quite quick and quite instinctive. If something feels wrong I just repaint it. I don’t stress about it. I always say to my clients, especially when they’re a little bit worried about painting a wall bright pink or whatever, “it’s just paint”. We can always change it later.

In your product design work, you seem to gravitate towards domestic objects and domestic scales?

I have many small objects in my home which I have bought from flea markets or other shops and my product design really stems from this habit. First and foremost, I want to design and create the kind of products that I want to have and to use. So I make things for myself and then if it happens that another company is interested in producing them, wonderful.

So, is it that you feel there’s something missing from the existing product offering?

Maybe. Usually designers think about weird things like why are clothes drying racks or shoe racks so ugly? Why do they always look a certain way? One common way to think about product design is to think about what we should make better or prettier or whatever.

Are you more on the side of better or prettier?

A combination, because when you’re talking about a functional product it should work well, but given how many people live in small apartments, many of the things we own are visible and out in the open. You can’t hide them anywhere because of limited space, so it’s also important that things are attractive. And this is why I often end up thinking about why laundry drying racks look the way that they do.

And do you think, I should really redesign the laundry drying rack?

It’s difficult not to! But then the next thing I think is that it must be very difficult to design a laundry drying rack and perhaps there’s a reason why no one has yet redesigned it. Maybe there’s a reason why it’s always the same shape and functionality.

You graduated from Aalto in 2013 and started your own studio in 2015. How do you balance between client projects and your own design work?

The balance that I have now between working on my own products and commercial exhibition design was a little bit of an accident, actually. I really like working with different skills and so I gravitated towards different kinds of projects that satisfy different aspects. At the moment, product design is more about what I want and what materials, details and colours I like. Whereas, when I’m doing exhibition architecture for a client, it’s as much about what the client wants and needs, as well as the visitors and the designers or the sponsors. So, it’s a different set of skills and that helps keep things interesting.

But you knew early on that you wanted to work for yourself rather than as a designer in a big company?

When I was younger I always thought I wouldn’t want to be self-employed because many people in my family are and I saw it growing up how difficult it can be. But during my MA, I worked on short projects as an assistant for other designers and many of them said that it’s much easier to work as a designer if you take the self-employed route. So, I think it was the encouragement and advice from more experienced designers that helped me to think that maybe working for myself would be a good choice. I also like that every day is different—you never know who might call or what will happen. You have to be comfortable with instability and the unknown.

Do you find that stressful?

I just take it as it comes. When I started, I stressed about it more but then I realised that if I stress out then I can’t make my work. Rather than use up my energy stressing out about the future, I try to use my energy working on my projects. And I’ve started to believe that from that focus on the work will come new projects and more clients and new contacts. So that’s what I try to do.

What about your studio space? Let’s talk about that. 

I share a studio with five other designers. We are mostly product designers and interior architects, people like Elina and Klaus Aalto. I’ve had a space there since 2015 and of the three rooms I share one with Tero Kuitunen.

Although it’s only really a desk space, I also have a kind of cave space in Kallio where I create my prototypes and paint and do other messy work. I share that with other people, too. It’s so useful to have separate spaces; a clean, table space and a messy workshop to experiment and create.

Would you say you have a consistent design process?

I tend to start with a very quick drawing sketch, almost as a kind of note. Then I work up a 3D model on the computer and afterwards move straight to prototyping. Depending on the material or the product, I either make up the prototype myself or order it. Sometimes it’s just easier to order it, but I mainly do all the finishing, things like painting, myself.

Last year you had a two-month residency in Paris. Did that push your thinking about design in a different direction?

If anything, it meant having more time to think about my work. There’s also the advantage of being in a different landscape which makes it feel somehow like you’re also a different you. Some people prefer to seek inspiration in nature, but I believe that having a change of urban scenery can also be very inspirational.

I made so many designs when I was there and when I came back from Paris, I started making all the prototypes. All the new products that Choice launched in Stockholm were all designed during the residency, so it was very useful.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

As I mentioned, I’m working on the Year of Graphic Design exhibition. Another recent project is the Imperfections exhibition by Iittala and Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec which we showed during Stockholm Design Week. It will travel to Helsinki and open at the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre in April.

I’ve also been working with Mifuko where we’ve made different home products with traditional Kenyan artisan techniques. There are one-of-a-kind baskets made from local materials hand woven by women in Kenya using traditional methods. All these new products will launch later in the year.

I’m also working on a few private home projects. And now that I’ve also got a little bit more time, I will start working on new ideas for product designs and projects. When I don’t have as much commercial work on, I really try to make the most of that time for my own work.