Teaching 13-year-olds how to use wood and metal in the workshops of a Helsinki school has been as much of an education for Timo Niskanen as it has for his pupils. The product designer grew up with Lego and laments the cultural shift away from making things that he perceives in the younger generation. ‘The main problem is their lack of access to the equipment with which to make things, especially when living in a big city, which means they don’t see people making stuff either,’ he notes. ‘I remember all of my dad’s tools in the garage and him out there making things. Children are still willing to learn, but the skills are being lost because they’re not being passed between generations.’
Niskanen’s experience in schools has, in part, inspired his move towards a more DIY approach to his specialist lighting design. He broke on to the scene a few years ago with his award-winning design Benchmarked. Each chair (though Niskanen prefers to call it a ‘service concept’) features a bar or block-code which, once scanned by your mobile phone, takes you into an augmented-reality tour of the piece’s lifetime – how it was made, who owned it before and where it has been housed, for example. Change, another of his designs, is a lamp worked by a coin-operated slot: this is a clever visual reminder of the cost of energy, and also ensures you have to switch it off to get your money back.
'Product is key'
‘They’re ideas that work well in public spaces, but less so in the home environment, and they’re not very commercial,’ Niskanen concedes. ‘Although I’ve exhibited in Milan, New York and Berlin, the product-development process [for such pieces] is such a difficult one.’ So difficult, in fact, that Niskanen considered quitting design altogether. Thankfully, he changed his mind and recently launched Himmee, his first collection of less conceptual, more homely lighting designs: the Lento pendant lamps with their black-and-white 1950s-style flying saucers and the Filly floor lamp with its carefully chosen contrasting materials.
‘The fact is that the internet and social media now mean that designer-producers like me can by-pass the middle men – it’s much easier to get things made, even compared with just five years ago,’ he explains. ‘It also allows us to get the word out, too. It means that product is key. I can’t say it’s about the brand, because the brand is just me, and it’s not about the calculated process of marketing that the big companies use.’
It is also rather timely. ‘People are much more interested in artisanal, handmade products now,’ he argues. ‘There’s a soul in them, and there’s something much more genuine in the process of buying direct from the maker – it’s much more real.’ Of course, it helps that his more home-friendly designs are also rather good ones: aesthetically minimalistic in that Scandinavian way, but with the careful consideration of materials that has become a Niskanen signature.
‘I have a strong preference for natural materials – wood, glass, concrete – because they’re much warmer,’ Niskanen explains. ‘Even concrete is more textural and, if left slightly unfinished, can make a design more approachable, more human.’ The results are also, in part, a reflection of his rather old-school insistence on making every prototype by hand, working through various shapes in styrofoam. His Toad table lamp, surely a future classic, went through more than 20 variations before he settled on the final design.
Freedom in design
‘There’s great pleasure in seeing what you’ve made when you make something tangible. You don’t get the same feeling from seeing something on a computer,’ says Niskanen. ‘I think you come up with a better product if you can see it for real. You certainly get a much faster understanding of the implications if a design is not right. My aim has been to come up with designs that don’t just look good for a few years, but to create shapes that are timeless.’
‘Working with lighting is like creating small sculptures, while a chair, for example, is much more of a tool – it has to be good for sitting on – so there are more restrictions in the design process,’ he continues. ‘Lighting just gives you a freedom – in shape, even in the effects of illumination.’