Aamu Song and Johan Olin of design studio COMPANY get to know and work with local artisans on their travels. The result is distinctive and warmly humorous products with influences from different parts of the world. Design Stories met the couple in their light-filled atelier in the artists' residence Lallukka in Helsinki.
THE CEILING RISES in the spacious room to a height of five meters, with a steady flow of light entering the space through the large north-facing window. This studio in the famous Lallukka Artists’ Home in the Etu-Töölö district of Helsinki was formerly a workspace for painters and sculptors, but now a designer couple works there. They are Johan Olin and Aamu Song.
Another participant in the creative process, sitting on his favorite spot on a giant desktop, is Yaya, the couple’s shiba inu dog. “Yaya is the welfare officer of our company,” Olin says.
One wall of the workroom is covered up to the ceiling with shelves stacked with neat rows of cardboard packaging tubes. Their labels show that the tubes contain the products of Song and Olin’s own COMPANY, which are made by artisans in different fields around the world.
The tubes contain Russian matryoshka dolls, Japanese kokeshi dolls, and Mexican papier-mâché works of art. And much more.
Design expeditions and letter mail
The couple have developed a unique design and manufacturing process. The design of new products begins with a research trip to some part of the world. Song and Olin first get to know people and the culture of the country, and then look for local traditional craftspeople and visit their workshops.
When a promising artisan is found, they suggest a partnership. This is followed by the first sketches of the items to be made. They are sometimes drawn immediately on site, or in the evening at the couple’s accommodation. And the artisan may already start preliminary work on the piece. Often the designers and artisans don’t have a common language, but this doesn’t stop them – the ideas are presented in drawings or through gesturing by hand.
“Businesses often talk about subcontractors, but we call our artisans supercontractors,” says Johan Olin.
“We tend to fall in love with products with a long history, a strong identity and proud makers. If we feel we can bring something more to them through our own design work, we suggest working together. We prefer to work with slightly stubborn people who don’t immediately warm to our ideas,” Olin explains.
The duo has managed to build up an extensive collaborative network with artisans working on different continents. Communication is not always straightforward, as many of the artisans do not even have a telephone, let alone an email address. “We correspond a lot by mail,” Olin says.
Olin and Song have traveled to many countries around the world over the years, including South Korea, Mexico, Russia, the United States, and Japan. Their most recent trip was to Peru and Bolivia, just before the restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic came into place. They plan to return to those countries when the world eventually opens up to travel once again. On that trip, they were fascinated by the local tradition of miniatures.
“People buy a scale model of something they dream of. We visited a town full of scale model retailers,” says Song, clearly excited and showing examples: skillful models of houses, of bundles of banknotes and a variety of foods.
Secrets of Finland
In addition totheir own COMPANY business, Song and Olin also design items for other companies. Some favorite products of late were a sauna stool they named Culture, manufactured now by Nikari, and the Secrets of Finland collection launched by Artek in 2019. It consists of fun person-shaped vases, candlesticks and coin banks.
The idea for the series took root when the duo was asked to design products for Artek to celebrate the centenary of the official connection between Finland and Japan.
“We started thinking about the kinds of artifacts diplomats could take with them from Finland to Japan as gifts. Our starting point was the Finnish rituals related to the annual cycle, such as Saint Lucy’s Day, the tradition of children wishing health and happiness on Palm Sunday, and Midsummer. In Japan, many different rituals are highly valued.”
The high shelf of the workspace holds the original clay-shaped character models in the series. They are a long way from the final, simple and graceful products.
“In this project also we wanted to work closely with the manufacturers. So, with some rough plans in hand, we went to the factory in Portugal where the objects are made. The final shapes were created by model master Diogo. When he carved a model for the Pauper Coin Collector based on our sketches, it unmistakably resembled his colleague Fernand.”
The COMPANY designer duo didn’t mind that in the least. Whether it is their own work or art or a collaborative project, the end result must always express a little something of its creators.
Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Niclas Mäkelä