The Finnish brand Interface has been operating for quite some time in the sofa manufacturing business. The company recently decided it was time for a change. But how did Interface originally come to be, and what are the central tenets of its design philosophy? We interviewed CEO Tuukka Leppänen, who also let us take a peek at the company’s manufacturing facilities in Heinola, Finland.
Interface is a name that may ring a bell for many Finns – after all, the company has a decades-long history in the Finnish furniture manufacturing business. CEO Tuukka Leppänen, how did the company come to be?
“It all began in year 1963, when Efraim Männistö, a son of a local carpenter, decided to found his own company in the municipality of Teuva, Ostrobothnia. He and his wife Kaija Männistö, who co-owned the company, came up with a name for the company that consisted of the couple’s initials: they decided to call the new company Fake. For obvious reasons they ended up changing the company name quite soon in the 1970s, as it turned out no one wanted to buy “fake furniture”. It was at this point that the name Interface was introduced. It was a portmanteau of the words international faces. The couple sold the company in 1988.
During its first decades, Interface’s main product were leather upholstered TV chairs that were reminiscent of a large boxing glove. These armchairs were very popular until the 1990s recession hit Finland. At best, the company had 130 employees, and 70 percent of its products were exported abroad.”
When did your and Interface’s paths intersect for the first time?
“The company suffered some setbacks during the recession in the 90s, as the more inexpensive Asian TV chairs took over the market. The management decided it was time to turn over a new leaf and concentrate our efforts on manufacturing fabric-upholstered sofas. My father, Keijo Leppänen, who had long-standing experience in the industry, was hired to manage the change alongside designer Hannele Bonsdorff. A few years after this, the bank approached my father and asked him if he might be interested in buying the company. The price was 50 Finnish mark, which equals about 8,4 euros in today’s currency. My dad decided to sleep on it, and in the morning he decided to buy the company. This was the beginning of a new era. Unfortunately, we lost my father in 2000.
After his passing, I had to take over, even though I had not yet finished my MBA studies and was only 22 years old at the time. I moved to Kurikka to manage Interface’s furniture factory without any preparation. I was still wet behind the ears when I started out, but I was also curious, knew a lot about marketing and branding, and was very pedantic about the details of our products. After a transitional phase that lasted a few years, I assumed my new role as Interface’s CEO.”
In Finland, Interface is especially well known for its high quality sofas and armchairs. The company’s modular suites can be found in many different environments. When you are developing a new piece of furniture, what is your main focus?
“The most important thing is that the sofa or armchair must be comfortable to sit on. People notice the level of comfort as soon as they sit down, which makes it especially important. We actively research and test this aspect of our products during the product development phase. In addition to this, our priorities include design, quality and manufacturing the products in Finland.”
“The fabric and leather upholstery of all our products is sewn at the own factory in Finland.”
Where are Interface products manufactured?
“All our products are made in our own factory in Heinola, approximately one hundred kilometers from Helsinki. Our factory is located in an old parquet factory that has been remodeled to meet our needs. We currently employ roughly 20 professionals.
In addition to our highly refined product development processes, our strengths include knowledge of different types of fabrics and leathers, how they are cut and how they can be sewn. The fabric and leather upholstery of all our products is sewn at the factory. The frames, paddings and other parts are sent to us by Finnish suppliers. The majority of these components come from the surrounding areas.
Local production has many benefits: it is more agile, flexible and sustainable. We know all our suppliers and our supply chain through and through. This also allows us to offer our customers tailored solutions with custom measurements, for example. We are genuinely proud of the fact that our products are made in Finland.”
What would you say is the most central aspect of Interface’s design philosophy?
“We aim to make all our products modern while still ensuring that they remain durable and timeless in terms of both design and the materials used. Our sofas models generally tend have a long life and to remain in production and use for a comparatively long time, often for several decades.”
In recent years, you have invested in developing new sofa designs. What made you decide that it was time to turn over a new leaf?
“A sofa is still one of the most important pieces of furniture in our homes. It is a comfortable piece of furniture that brings people together. However, along with the broad lifestyle changes that have taken place in the last decades, the way we look at and sofas has also changed. For this reason, we have attempted to research what kind of furniture consumers need and which types of furniture are currently missing from the market. After this, we set out to design solutions to fulfil these needs and fill the gaps.
Nowadays, there is an increasing number of people who live alone and in smaller apartments. They therefore want soft furniture that has all the qualities of a sofa, but does not take up as much space as a sofa would. People living in larger apartments still want larger sofas, but families do not gather on the sofa to watch TV like they did before. Today, sofas are more like a warm and comfortable nest. Families still do spend time together physically on their sofas, but the difference is that instead of watching the same TV program, everyone is concentrated on their own tablet or phone.
We have also tried to make our collections versatile enough to be equally suitable for homes and public spaces alike.”
When you were renewing your collection, you collaborated with designers such as Aino Michelssen, Laura Seppänen and Hinni Korpela. What does launching a new project usually involve?
“Usually, we as a manufacturer define what we need and contact a designer whose previous work we like. We will then provide the designer with instructions regarding what we are looking to achieve. After this, we work together with the designer to develop the new product. All designers are different, and each product development process is a unique journey. They teach and challenge us to think about our products in completely new ways. This can be demanding, but it is also very rewarding.”
Okay, one last question. Can you tell us what kind of a sofa you have in your own home?
“For my own home, I chose Interface’s Toast sofa. We have three children, so we use the sofa for many different purposes. Toast is very versatile and therefore the perfect choice for us. The sofa is not too high, making it easy for our kids to move around as they please, and the large modules provide ample space for shared activities. Toast is every family member’s favorite spot.”
Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Interface