Hirvonen’s background is in management in the design sector, including many years at Tom Dixon Studio and stints in London and Hong Kong.
— However, throughout my career, I’ve always nurtured an ambition to build a distinctly Finnish brand and business that could thrive internationally. Vaarnii is the result, he tells, continuing,
— It represents me and my co-founder Miklu Silvanto’s attempt to define a new design language for Finland. The Finnish design tradition is still dominated by the clean lines and studied simplicity of Alvar Aalto and the modernists. We have huge respect for that, but we also believe there is a space for design that reflects another side of Finland’s character: a sort of rugged, robust practicality — an unapologetically honest aesthetic that we describe as ‘brutal yet sophisticated.’ That’s exactly what we showed during our recent international launch at London Design Festival — a collection of furniture and home accessories by a hand-picked selection of international designers, all of which champions honest materiality, celebrates the physical process of its making, and is true to the Finnish character.
You’ve entered a highly competitive industry, what makes you unique?
— We’re introducing something genuinely new and remarkable. There’s no one else making furniture that looks like this or focusing so strongly on a single material. We’re very conscious that some of our designs can be a bit challenging for certain tastes, but future classics are not created by playing it safe — we know we’ve got to be distinctive and make an impact when we launch internationally, so we’re going in bold.
Your launch collection comprises striking yet simple designs from world-leading designers, all made in Finland by local manufacturers, from wild-grown Finnish pine. Can I ask, what’s so special about pine?
— Finland is Europe’s most heavily forested country but if you want to use Finnish-only timber you are left with two options — birch or pine. Birch has been used in so many brilliant ways previously so the perennial underdog, pine, just felt like a perfect option for us. And quite simply, we love it: rich, almost psychedelic grain, beautiful scent, wonderful texture. It really is an incredible material, Hirvonen explains. He continues:
— Pine was very popular in Finland up until the early 1990s. At some point, people just had enough of it and it fell out of favour. We thought that the pine of old had three problems: It was knotty, it was yellow, and it was shiny. We thought that if we could fix at least two of these three issues we could be on to something truly amazing. Our solution to the knots was to design around them. The shininess and yellowness were mainly caused by the awful cellulose-based lacquering that was used until the 1980s. The modern matt oil wax, by contrast, creates an absolutely gorgeous finish where you can still feel the texture of the wood. The product’s colour will evolve over time and patinate with dents. These are not products that will look the same in a year, let alone a decade. Instead of trying to make the material do something that is not natural, we choose to celebrate what it actually is.
Tell us about your work with sustainability and the materials and production.
— We represent a rejection of the old model of consumption and disposal: wanting more stuff, buying things we don’t necessarily need, throwing them away, drowning the world in plastic, and then buying them all over again because they don’t last. 100 years ago, items were made locally, built to last, and bought to satisfy a genuine need. Our aim is to bring back this inherently sustainable model of consumption and to produce products that are made entirely from an abundant, renewable, and biodegradable material.
And how do you implement tech and innovation in your daily operations?
— Our approach is to combine the wisdom and craftsmanship of the past with cutting-edge manufacturing technologies in a novel, sustainable, and circular way. The bulk of our manufacturing is done by four, soon to be five, amazing factories in Finland, several of which had made things in pine in the past, and we’re very happy to start using it again. In some cases, they had to reach out to retired woodworkers who had worked with pine decades ago in order to bring their material understanding to the current generation. We didn’t appreciate how close we had come to losing these traditional craft skills until we launched Vaarnii — now, we’re proud to have played a part in preserving them. By combining these age-old techniques with the latest making technologies and innovations, we’ve been able to create beautiful, sometimes highly complex, pieces with both human, hand-made character and machine-engineered precision.
After your launch, what’s next?
— This is just the beginning. We will stay as an all-pine business for the next year or so, continuing to introduce the material into new categories — and we have some exciting new pieces to launch in the coming months. In spring 2022, for example, we’re hoping to launch a range of outdoor furniture made from fully non-toxic, heat-treated Finnish pine. In the years to come, we will explore other materials that we can interpret in a similarly unconventional way. There are a few possibilities under investigation — for instance, we think glass could be really cool. Finland has long traditions in glass production and it could be an interesting way to introduce some colour into the Vaarnii range.