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Simo Heikkilä

Simo Heikkilä, born in 1943 in Jyväskylä, Finland, is an internationally renowned designer, professor and collaborator who focuses on craft, longevity and simplicity. His first dip into the design world took place when he was around 15 years old, still living in his parents’ house. He created his own bedroom interior, constructing harmony using purely horizontal lines and primitive materials. After graduating from the Ateneum College of Applied Arts in 1967, he worked for Marimekko as an interior designer for stores and exhibitions. In 1971 he started his own design studio where he concentrated on designing interiors for retail environments, offices and small public spaces. After ten years, his studio began to focus more on exhibition architecture and more specifically on furniture design.

In the late 1980s, Simo received a 15-year scholarship from the Finnish state which enabled him to experiment and collaborate freely. During that time, he travelled and exhibited internationally. He was invited to become head of the experimental wood department at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, where he later also taught as a professor of furniture design. Throughout his career he has designed individual handmade pieces to entire series of industrially produced furniture and interiors.

Simo is currently working on a new exhibition in his hometown Jyväskylä, where he will be showing many previously unseen works, including new furniture and LED light experiments.

Tekst 1: Intro Simo Heikkila

Cane Divan

The Cane Divan

The Cane Divan as we know it today is the result of a long period of experimentation with different materials and types. In fact, making divans of all kinds was a real hobby of Simo, who had been ‘interested in relaxed positions for quite some time’ before he made his first Cane Divan around 1997.

'When I was young, my parents had a cane chair in our house. I sat on it many times and found that the material was so nicely elastic, and even though it was maybe 20 or 30 years old, and some places were a little rotten, it could still be repaired.' It was soft, long-lasting, and easy to repair... All important features Simo likes to see in design.

Since Simo found the large radius bends of cane pieces too large and 'soft' he decided to combine it with steel, marrying that certain elasticity and softness with the extreme strength of steel and limiting both dimensions by using the two together.

‘Steel is strong, wood is soft. Steel is cold, wood is warm. These material choices refer to haptic qualities; meaning that people like to touch wood because it's warm, it's warm to sit on. I like contrast, I use it very often to create balance in my work. If you want to create something exciting, you have to use contrast in a clever way.’

tekst 2: The Cane Divan

Cane Divan_ as presented at Milano Design Week 2014

Cane Divan_ suits indoors as well as outdoors but bring it inside afterwards, it can't stand rain

Cane Divan_ as seen at the home of Maarten Van Severen

The Collaboration with Lensvelt

Sometime around 2012, Simo contacted Maarten van Severen's widow, Marij De Brabandere, asking if she knew anyone who could produce his Cane Divan. She told him that she knew a company that could, and that was Lensvelt. Simo wrote an email to Hans with a picture and the question, ‘Do you know a company that could make this Cane Divan?’. The very next day he got a reply, 'Yes I do. We will make it'. Simo recalls, ‘It was one of the most beautiful moments I will always remember. So rarely do things like this happen.’

From the beginning of the prototyping to the first series, Simo carefully followed the production process of the Cane Divan and Lensvelt always actively reported on what was happening. As Simo says, 'We have good contact. Hans is a very nice, innovative and creative company director. One of the best I've had, in that sense.'

tekst 3: Collab with Lensvelt

‘We spent a few days conversing and sharing thoughts and became friends.’

Lensvelt and Heikkilä in Amsterdam

Detail of the rattan seat

An interview with Simo Heikkilä

When and how did you first get involved with furniture design?

I first became interested in design when I was a high school student in my hometown of Jyväskylä, in the middle of Finland. I had my own bedroom, and furnished it in a special way, different from what high school students normally do. I bought door plates and other rather primitive, simple elements to build my own interior. That's where it all started. But the first real contact with furniture design took place when I went to art school in Helsinki.

At that time, it was more like arts and crafts and interior design. So, we had studies there, both interior and furniture design. Pretty soon I started working at Marimekko as an interior designer. I got a fantastic first job with that company. But then Marimekko got some economic problems and threw out the non-essentials like furniture and interior design. They used freelancers so I continued to work freelance from my own studio. After that, I mostly made interiors without designing furniture, but in 1979 there was a company called Vivero in Finland that invited me to make a model. That was a great success. It was called the Visio chair, and had different modifications. We went to the fair in Milan and got some international recognition, and then it stopped for a while. The Visio chair was more interesting among museum people and so on, so it's in several museums in Europe and America.

I got the opportunity to design a wooden collection for a Finnish company and that was my first serious input into furniture, and also to make some money, some royalties. But the real business started in Sweden with my colleague Yrjö Wiherheimo, when we started designing collections for a Swedish company called Klaasens Furniture, or Materia as it's called today. And it involved large quantities of chairs. At the end of the 1980s, I got a scholarship from the Finnish government, a so-called long-term grant for 15 years. 15 years tax-free, so that gave me the freedom to relax and experiment and so on. I participated in exhibitions and went to the Milan Biennale a couple of times. In 1985 I was in Japan for the first time. I was invited by Shiroku Mata who was curating an international exhibition there. So that was an international period for my career, ending with teaching jobs. I first became the director of the Wood Studio in Helsinki at the University of Arts and Crafts in 2001. For eight years I led the experimental wood studio there. Then I was invited to become a professor of furniture design at the same university, and I continued that job until I retired in 2013. There is a law in Finland that forces teachers to retire at the age of 68. I was able to continue for another five years without any problems.

Which words would you choose to describe yourself and your practice?

My colleagues and friends describe me as a minimalist. Nowadays I am craft-oriented and like to do only essential works and essential objects, which you can use every day.

As for craft, what does the future look like?

I have a very extensive network of crafts people that I keep in touch with, so I don't have to make drawings myself. I just call them and describe the object, the thickness, the color, the material, and dimensions without a drawing... And they do it. So, crafts people have a great future, because every work should start with craft and handmade prototyping. Even cars are made by hand.

What is the most important thing about craft?

Understanding and knowing the qualities of materials. This is the most important, for sure. Many people I know take pride in the materials they use. They collect certain materials to get the best results.

Why do you continue to make work that upholds the craft tradition?

When we talk about the Cane Divan, there are two components. The cane, the seat, which is made by hand in Indonesia, as far as I understand. And then the steel part, which is made by more advanced machines in the Netherlands. When you put those together, you get something interesting.

How did the idea for the Cane Divan come about?

I had been interested in relaxed positions for quite some time before I made my first Cane. The first Cane came, as far as I remember, in 1997. I was making all kinds of Divans. This was my real hobby. I was experimenting with materials and so on. The current Cane Divan is the result of a long period of time. It shows how long the process can be before the final producer is found.

What where pivotal moments in the design?

The first Cane prototypes were for my exhibition in 1999. Two pieces. I couldn't find anyone to make the Cane prototype in Finland because rattan craftwork was, and still is, a monopoly for blind people in Finland. They do all the cane and rattan work in Finland, so it was very difficult to find a model maker for it. Then Maarten van Severen came to Alvar Alto in Finland in 2001. He saw my prototype here and presented it to a Belgian company. They produced it for maybe two or three years, then they finally stopped their furniture company and the Cane came back to me.

This was the beginning of the story of the Cane... From about 2005 to 2012 there was hardly any activity around it. And then in about 2012 I contacted Maarten's widow, Marij, asking if she knew of anyone who could produce the Cane. She told me she knew of one company, Lensvelt. So I wrote an email to Hans with a picture and the question "do you know a company that could make this Cane Divan?" and the next day I got a reply from him "Yes I know. We are going to make it". One of the most beautiful moments I will remember forever. So rarely does something like this happen.

Did you become friends afterwards?

Yes, we kept in touch several times after that. After making a small series of the Canes, he invited me to come to Amsterdam and organized an architecture evening at Lensvelt Studios. He was kind enough to drive me around and show me his summer house, somewhere in Belgium. We spent a few days conversing and sharing understanding and became friends.

Would you consider it a collaboration or is it a different kind of relationship?

I closely followed the production process from the beginning of the prototypes to the first series. And they actively reported what was happening. We have good contact. He's a very nice, innovative, creative company director. One of the best I've had, in that sense.

You got to know Hans through Maarten van Severen. Can you tell us something about your relationship with him?

I had been following Maarten's work for a while. Every single designer from around the world has come to speak at the Alvar Aalto Design Seminar. In addition to Maarten, the 2001 edition featured Carlo Vince, Kengo Kma, Konstantin Grcic and James Erwin. The theme back then was skin and soul, and since Maarten had just designed a new chair for Vitra with a secret construction inside, he fit the theme well. He came to Jyväskylä with a broken leg, but had the most interesting lecture for me during that seminar. He decided to stay one more day in my studio and more or less in those days we became friends. After that he invited me to come to Ghent. He showed me many beautiful designs and we visited nice places. He came to visit me again a few times in Finland, he even came to Lapland around 2003. It was -37 degrees when he came, but he loved that part of Finland. I was invited to write an article about our friendship for the book accompanying his exhibition of completed works. It's a sad story that he found out he had a serious illness while visiting here in Finland, but we were friends until the last moment. Two great moments in my life: meeting Maarten, and meeting Hans. 

tekst: An interview with Simo Heikkila

Cane Divan_ available in red and green steel frame

Milan Design Week 2018 featuring the Cane Divan in the court yard of the museo Diocesano