Tonfisk Design’s Brian Keaney combines unique form with function: “I wanted to create a mug my dad would use”

The ceramic teaware collection Warm was Brian Keaney’s final work at the university, and also the key to success for Tonfisk Design. In Design Stories’ interview, Keaney delves into the 20-year history and future plans of the award-winning Finnish design company.

Co-founder and director of Tonfisk Design, Brian Keaney.
Co-founder and director of Tonfisk Design, Brian Keaney.

TONFISK DESIGN has enlivened the scene of Finnish ceramic design already for over two decades. Since the beginning, the company's flagship product has been the tea series Warm, listed by the Wallpaper* magazine as one of the best designs of the 2010s. Design Stories had the honor to talk with Brian Keaney, the co-founder and director of Tonfisk Design.

Hi Brian! How have you been doing this unusual year?
“Things here have been going ok. Myself and my family are fine so far, which is the most important thing. Fortunately at Tonfisk Design orders have continued to keep coming in. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I also have my children with me at work doing their school work, though they also like to help out when they can.”

Can you tell a little about your background and the path that led you to Tonfisk Design?
“I am originally Irish and came first to Finland in 1994 as an exchange student. I made some very good friends and came back to do my masters at the Helsinki University of Art & Design (now Aalto University) in 1996. When I graduated in 1998, the Warm series was my final work, and then it was easier to stay in Finland as all my design contacts were here. At the same time, I started discussing with a college friend about setting up a studio together and the idea eventually snowballed into Tonfisk Design which we established in 1999.”

Tonfisk Design's facilities in Turku.
The unique form of Tonfisk Design's ceramic products is deeply rooted in functionality.
Tonfisk Design's Warm teapot.
Brian Keaney originally designed the Warm collection as his final work. Since then it has become a coveted modern classic.

How would you define the essence of Tonfisk Design; what makes it unique?
“We try to combine unique form with function, this is what our slogan means: 'form follows function' doesn’t mean all objects have to look the same.”

“ ’Form follows function’ doesn’t mean all objects have to look the same.”

From where do you draw inspiration for your designs?
“Many different starting points. The Warm series was a combination of ideas. Firstly, in Ireland we drink lots of tea so I wanted to do a tea set. I like mugs with no handles but my dad didn’t as they would burn his fingers, so I wanted to create a mug my dad would use. Then one friend had made a mug with a string around it as the ’holder’, and then another friend was doing a course which showed how laminated veneer products were made, and all these came together.

Other times the idea just pops into my head while having breakfast, like the Shake salt & pepper set. Often it goes that either the idea was easy to get but the execution to the final product is difficult or then the idea is difficult to come up with but the final development easy. As some other more talented designer once said, design is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”

Tonfisk Design's Warm espresso cups.
Brian Keaney drew inspiration from his father's tea-drinking habits when he designed the clever Warm cups.
Brian Keaney at Tonfisk Design's workshop.
Warm is our best selling product and has been for the 20 years of the company. It is my favorite because it has remained timeless,” reveals Brian Keaney.

What is Tonfisk Design’s best-selling product at the moment, and do you have a favorite of your own?
“Warm is our best selling product and has been for the 20 years of the company. It is my favorite because it has remained timeless, which was just lucky.”

Some years back Tonfisk Design moved its production to China and later relocated back to Turku, Finland. Why was Turku a better choice for you after all?
“I have read stories about other companies, which did the same, and our story is the same. We moved. The 2008 financial crisis created an environment where all our customers, wholesale and consumer, wanted cheaper prices. An opportunity arose which gave us the possibility to move the production with the idea and creating more competitive prices and so grow our retailers' network, but with a combination of strategic mistakes and difficulties of the logistics of having the production off-site made me make the decision to start making it again in our own factory.

Moving the production back gave us more flexibility with the production and product development, and also gives us more content for the social marketing aspect which is so important these days. But you can’t do business without making mistakes – the important thing is to learn from them.”

Tonfisk Design's production facilities in Turku, Finland.
Tonfisk Design's products are made in Turku, Finland.
Tonfisk Design's production facilities in Turku, Finland.
“Faster product development is key for us to grow the company over the next 20 years,” says Brian Keaney when asked about the future of Tonfisk Design.
Tonfisk Design's production facilities in Turku, Finland.
The timeless allure of Tonfisk Design's products comes from the minimalistic design language and the skillfully crafted details.

Last year Tonfisk Design celebrated its 20th birthday. What have been the highlights of the past decades?
“Well, there have been a lot of highlights, and not all of them positive. But being mentioned as a ’Design of the Decade’ in Wallpaper* magazine was definitely one of the positive ones. I can also claim to belong to that esteemed club of ’Man of the Week’ by a Finnish women's magazine. The addition of the Kotonadesign brand to our brand was also a very important point. But the best has always been when a customer sends an email to let us know how much they like the product. Sometimes those emails have arrived in the middle of some pretty difficult times and they have helped a lot. So many thanks to all those who have over the years have been in contact!”

”The best has always been when a customer sends an email to let us know how much they like the product. Sometimes those emails have arrived in the middle of some pretty difficult times and they have helped a lot.”

What are you working on at the moment and how does the future look for Tonfisk Design?
“We are now looking at how to grow the company so I can spend more time on the design side and less of the production, and packing, sales, marketing, invoicing, cleaning… Faster product development is key for us to grow the company over the next 20 years.”

 Tonfisk Design favorites

Warm teapot
Sointu foldable candleholder
Reuna serving tray
Warm cup 2,4 dl
Warm tea set
Newton cream jug / sugar bowl
Warm teapot
Warm teapot warmer

See also:

All products by Tonfisk Design >
All products by Brian Keaney >

Text: Nora Uotila Images: Suvi Kesäläinen and Tonfisk Design

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