When Marja Arola sold her first piece in Artisaani six years ago, it marked something of a benchmark in the career of the Finnish jewellery designer. The gallery, store and designers’ association had, by then, already been operating for more than three decades –this year is its 40th anniversary – and had become something of a landmark among the designer-craftspeople of Helsinki. Here was a small shop that gathered together the best of the city’s up-and-coming talents from many creative fields, including ceramics, textiles, fashion and prints, and gave them an audience. Today, the shop and its managing association (a revolving core of six established designer-makers, including Arola) still work in the same way.
‘The artists working with the association are changing constantly, which keeps the products in the shop, and the spirit of the enterprise, fresh and moving forward,’ Arola explains. ‘It allows new artists to show their work in a marketplace in which it’s not easy to get your own shop. In fact, the purpose of Artisaani is really to help artists get more established – if you’re on your own it’s hard to do everything yourself, to market and distribute as well as do all the creative work.’
Not that all of the designer-makers at Artisaani (situated on Unioninkatu in Helsinki) are ingénues. The shop also stocks works by more heavyweight names in the Finnish craft industry – who also form the core of the management committee – such as Ulla Fogelholm, who hand-throws ceramics to make pots and cups with a traditional Scandinavian sensibility, and whose works are used in small restaurants across the city.
The work of other featured artists reflects the diversity of the shop’s product range. For instance, Heta Järvimaa-Luoto, a trained seamstress, makes one-off recycled leather bags in bold colours and asymmetric shapes, while Paula Taipale, one of Artisaani’s founders, makes hand-printed textiles, though her latest work includes her painstaking-assembled Rossikruunu mobile chandeliers, surprisingly crafted from sweet wrappers and plastic drinking straws. Both artists’ work reflects a typically Scandinavian emphasis on sustainability.
Arola’s own work is more nature-inspired, and uses rare moulding techniques to take impressions from actual plant forms which are then cast in metals, mostly brass and silver (or in gold by commission). ‘That interest in nature is not especially Finnish,’ she counters. ‘After all, nature is the best designer there is. Although we do have quite a lot of nature here in Finland …’
As members of Artisaani’s association, these designer-makers are also tasked with sourcing and selecting the work of others to show in the shop. In recent years, the products of some 60 designer-makers have found their way on to its shelves, with prices varying from €2 for a card to €300 for jewellery and €700 or more for some ceramics. ‘Some of us think the remit is too broad, or that there is too much mixing of different types of craft, so we don’t always agree – we have our fights,’ laughs Arola. ‘And certainly when you see other design shops they tend to have much simpler products and less of them, which means their displays are always attractive. Ours is a much busier, more crowded store – but that is part of its appeal.’
‘What matters is that to be represented in Artisaani you have to be a real artist, with your own ideas, and producing at a very high level – we just want the good stuff,’ Arola adds. ‘We spend a lot of time looking at exhibitions and markets to find artists, and the response is usually positive because most people here know about Artisaani.’
Artisaani certainly has a strong reputation among the city’s residents. As Arola puts it, ‘it’s a well-known place in Helsinki and we get mostly local Finns in to buy things, but its reputation is growing such that we attract international visitors as well now.’ Helsinki has also promoted the part of the city in which Artisaani is based as its Design District, which has driven further interest. Indeed, the store, which has been on its current site for 15 years, is now looking to make a move to bigger premises.
‘We want to keep evolving, to keep growing, to keep looking for new members, because the world is changing and we should keep up,’ says Arola. ‘We want both the shop and the arts we promote to survive.’