In good hands
AN EXHIBITION, A PROJECT, A PROCESS
This is the story of how the exhibition ”In Good Hands” took shape. It is the story of how it went from being a project with a beginning and an end to become an ongoing, open process. It is the story of how curators from different backgrounds and different countries met and worked together, how a mixed group of artists were confronted with a vast archive and how they took inspiration from it. It is also a story of how history can blend successfully with our own, modern times, and how an old and dusty, but also immensely valuable archive can be used in new and interesting ways. It is a story intended to serve as an inspiration and an example for museums, design institutions and others with similar old and vast archives, or for anybody else interested in these questions.
The story is told as a timeline, outlining the main phases.
The participants were: the Boards of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft ( association and company), the Design Museum Helsinki, the curators and the artists (to be presented below)
What do we have,
apart from a glorious
past, that could be
really interesting for
It all began with a question. Or rather with many questions.
How do we make our vast historical archive come to life? How do we turn the more than 6500 models, sketches and patterns in the archives of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft preserved at Design Museum Helsinki, into something useful? What do we have, apart from a glorious past, that could be really interesting for people today?
Can we learn from each other, could the opening of the archives be a learning process of transparent collaboration, open to anyone interested?
A small group of people, the then board of the association of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft, started discussing the project already in 2016. We were mainly trying to come up with ideas for the 140 year anniversary of the association in 2019. A good opportunity to celebrate we felt, and a possibility to show the treasures we have in the archives. We wanted to build on the traditions of the organization at the same time as we created something new. We wanted to give everyone, particularly an audience in Finland, but also elsewhere, an opportunity to enjoy, use and appreciate the richness of this truly amazing archive.
But how would we do it?
THE FRIENDS OF FINNISH HANDICRAFT
The Friends of Finnish Handicraft is one of the oldest design organizations in Finland. It was founded in 1879 by the artist Fanny Churberg. The original aim was to collect vernacular textiles and apply their designs, to find new ways to apply patterns and to revive forgotten textile traditions. An underlying motive was also to raise national awareness by creating an independent Finnish style. Today, The Friends of Finnish Handicraft is an active player in its field, oriented towards communality and inspiring people to cherish their shared and living cultural heritage. The purpose of this 140-year-old organisation is to serve as an innovator in design and crafts, in cooperation with professionals, other organisations and enthusiasts in its field and offer high-standard products and design. The weaving shop and studio of the Friends of Finnish Handicraft is in Ulvila, West Finland.
Over the years most of the important and well known artists, designers and architects in Finland have designed models and patterns for The Friends of Finnish Handicraft. The archive of the association is kept at the Design Museum Helsinki.
The archives of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft, which is included in the collections of Design Museum, contain approximately 6,500 textile design sketches along with technical drawings necessary for making textile work and samples of textiles. In the 20th century, The Friends of Finnish Handicraft held dozens of competitions for textile designs to be included in the organisation ́s product range. In addition to the contests, leading designers, artists and architects were asked to design textiles. The competition results and submitted designs led to a product range of thousands of different models for cushions, tea and coffee pot cosies, ryijy-rugs and wall hangings. The Friends of Finnish Handicraft also employed designers such as Väinö Blomstedt and Impi Sotavalta on a permanent basis.
The Board of the association continued discussing how to move forward. During 2017 and in the Spring of 2018 we had many and long discussions. Eventually a concept developed. The 140 years of the association would be celebrated with an exhibition, the core of which would be new works by contemporary artists, inspired by materials from the archives. By using inspiration from history to create something completely new we thought we could evoke a renewed interest in the history of the association and its archives.
But still the question was – how?
THE DESIGN MUSEUM HELSINKI JOINS
When presented with the idea the Design Museum Helsinki immediately took an interest in the concept, and joint discussions started. Leena Svinhufvud, Educational Curator at the Museum, joined the working group that was formed. A time frame was outlined, and dates for the exhibition set. 2019 would be the year when the process started, various events, workshops and lectures would take place throughout the year, and the actual exhibition would open in January 2020.
We decided we needed curators, preferably two, and preferably also someone not Finnish. We wanted to involve a person who could provide us with a fresh view. Kieran Long, presently the director of ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, with experience from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, agreed to join us.
“We wanted to
involve someone who
could provide us
with a fresh view.”
is the director of ArkDes, The Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design.
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“I was really honoured and excited to be asked, and I think one of the things that was really exiting was this idea of taking a collection, one that has a lot of meaning here, has a lot of history, a lot of layers in it, taking that and making it of use to artists of today, simply that..
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And then we found another brilliant curator in Finland, Riikka Latva-Somppi, a curator and an artist working in the interfaces of art, design and craft. She also got interested in the project and, luckily, managed to find time to join.
is a curator and artist working in the interfaces of art, design and craft.
Read the bio
”I found the concept interesting I think it is nice I have been working with some projects like this both as an artist and as a curator, and I think that when you get a certain material like an archive you do not know before you start to go through it and then you have to trust your intuition and your feelings and sort of trust that the ideas that the material evokes will take you somewhere, but you will never know when you start..
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An unknown path?
The working group had now grown even more as also the curators joined. It was Autumn of 2018, and there were many discussions with the Museum and with the curators about the concept, about the artists, about the size of the exhibition, about whether or not it should circulate, and on numerous other questions relating to a project like this. The working group meetings were an important part of the process, and each meeting took us forward.
The next really important step was to to choose the artists, a job for the curators. We agreed to have only Finnish artists.
Kieran came up with an idea that interested everybody. He suggested we choose a few game designers, because, as he said, they work with pixels, not that far removed from the patterns drawn for textile works. We also agreed to try to diversify our choice of artists as much as possible, and Riikka took on the task to find artists with various backgrounds. Another decision was not to limit their work to textile. We wanted the artists to feel free to work with whatever material they thought suitable.
And then came the most exciting day – the day when all the material we chose to bring out from the archive was to be displayed in the Design Museum, and presented to everyone.
Sounds simple, but an enormous job lay behind the selection process and the actual transporting of all the materials from the archive to the museum, and then displaying it all for the artists. Many members from the board of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft and staff from the Museum worked hard to put it all together.
It was most exciting to see how the artists, many of whom had
never seen any of the archive material before took it all in.
Riikka Latva-Somppi: “I think it is amazing what a material archive like that can evoke.“
Henri Tervapuro: “I haven’t really thought about it, but when I saw the textiles from the archive they reminded me of all these things that I used to look at as a child and how I used to play with the patterns and think of those.“
Hanna-Kaisa Korolainen: “It was like diving deep into another, different era and it felt quite overwhelming for me.“
Work started. The artists used the vast expertise at hand: the curators, the experts at the museum, the archives, and various members of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft. A multifaceted dialogue developed. There was an air of expectations and excitement.
In spring of 2019, The Friends of Finnish Handicraft organised a series of lectures followed by a birthday party at the Design Museum on 23 April. Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland, had agreed to act as a patron for both the celebrations 2019 and the upcoming exhibition in 2020. She held a much appreciated opening speech.
The lectures were well received. Even more popular were a series of workshops held all over Finland, teaching participants how to make a rya rug.
One of the reasons the for the popularity of the workshops was a renewed interest in handicraft in Finland, also clearly recognisable in other countries. Almost any course providing an opportunity to do things with your own hands, whether it is about ceramics or textiles or anything else gets fully booked immediately. A reaction to a society too distanced from handicraft, perhaps, or an interest in the past? A good sign, we thought. Maybe there would be a big interest in the coming exhibition and in the whole process?
AN OPEN PROCESS
A crucial question for the exhibition part of the process was to strike the right balance between providing a clear direction for the artists, without being too rigid. From the beginning this was one of the really difficult questions, one we had debated since the start of the project. For the members of the Board of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft it was clear that we did not want to impose the rules ourselves, which is why we involved both the Museum and not just one, but two curators. The frame work was clear from the beginning – the archive. But since the archive is so vast it important to select the right examples for the artists to choose from. We ended up with a few simple guidelines: examples of the work of the most important and well known artists and designers, examples of all the different kinds of textiles represented in the archive (rugs, embroideries, woven textiles etc) and the most important textiles and styles from each decade. Even so the abundance felt a bit overwhelming for the artists. On top of finding inspiration in the archive we also wanted the artists to come up with ideas that could be turned into products, as part of our aim to make as much of the archive material as possible available to everyone. But we were clear in our instructions. This was not mandatory, but a possibility. We could but hope that we had managed to make the task inspiring, and not limiting.
There is an appreciation
for doing things with
your own hands.
Kieran Long: “I think you see in the final result the freedom with which the artists have been able to approach it.”
Riikka Latva-Somppi: “I think its been a really useful tool for them, that you have a starting point that you can reflect your thoughts on, you can get inspiration from and when they start I think they will dig deeper and deeper.”
And the artists? How did they react to the instructions and the framework within which they were supposed to work?
Interestingly, they all had a keen interest in history, but from different angles. Probably this was also one of the reasons they were all eager to join the project.The history of handicraft and the accumulated knowledge relating to ceramics is essential knowledge for any ambitious ceramic designer, the same goes for glass or for work with almost any material. So history in that sense was interesting. But also history in the sense of for instance: What did the world look like when The Friends of Finnish Handicraft was founded? What was it like to live under Russia? What kind of a role did art and craft play in what soon, towards the very end of the 19th century, developed into an independence movement in Finland? This also inspired the artists and some of them put a lot of time and effort into studying history.
Henna Lampinen: “When I did my own research I got interested in the starting point and I looked into the fashion of the late 19th century and I looked at references from what the Finnish people wore at that time and took that as well as a reference.”
Hanna-Kaisa Korolainen: “For me this it is a bit special, because I have been working a really long time using sources of inspiration from the past, I use certain art works and certain artists, but sometimes also an era from a particular country or sometimes architecture, and I am also working with my PhD, the topic of which is how to seek inspiration from sources from the past.“
Every meeting brought the process forward and made the upcoming exhibition clearer. The artists brought samples of what they had done so far to show to the rest of the working group, and the many joint discussions allowed the process change direction as new ideas developed. Towards autumn of 2019 the architect of the exhibition Elina Aalto joined the working group.
is a designer living and working in Helsinki Finland. She has an own studio, Aalto+ Aalto, together with Klaus Aalto which focuses on product design and exhibition architecture.
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At a meeting in the Design Museum in November 2019 Elina showed us how she had planned the exhibition, and for the first time it became really concrete: colours, separate rooms/spaces for all the artists, and a joint space for the archive material that had served as an inspiration for each artist. We also discussed the possibility of creating a web publication, something we all thought felt really exciting.
And on 23 January we held the grand opening of the exhibition. President Halonen opened the exhibition and the Design Museum was full of people.
All the artists found their own sources of inspiration, with quite a lot of variation. Everything in the archive was inspirational, not just the finished works, but also sketches, details, pictures and photos.
THE VALUE OF THE PROJECT
Is there something that made this project special? After all, the idea of using archive material is not unheard of. Many museums do that, in various ways, with various success. So no, perhaps this project is not that special. But it has been a joy to everyone working with it. A part of the answer to why it has been so enjoyable probably lies in us having found the right balance between giving a direction and providing a frame, without being too strict, too educational, too limiting. And this goes for everything – the relationship with the curators, the artists, the museum, and, ultimately, with the audience.
Kieran Long: “You do not always have to teach people everything about it, they should be free to use the material however they want.”
Riikka Latva-Somppi: “This is exactly the way it should be, there was no need of pushing or none of the friction was there.“
There is a tradition within The Friends of Finnish handicraft to combine high and low, expert and amateur, design and handicraft, well known artists and just anybody. It is a very democratic notion that has been with the organisation for a long time, and it is clearly visible in the archive material. Textiles designed for the presidential palace in Finland exist side by side with drawings and patterns for simple, everyday things, like tea towels. A rya rug designed by Akseli Gallen Kallela, one of the most well known Finnish artists, can be bought and sewn by anyone, as well as a cushion designed by Helene Schjerfbeck. This is a valuable tradition to preserve, cultivate and bring forward. As such it also became an intrinsic part of the open process.
And where will it all lead? What is the value of a process like this?
Riikka Latva-Somppi: “I hope that it brings out the value of craft, and the history that we have“
Hanna-Kaisa Korolainen: “Past makes us appreciate the present more, make the future differently, meaning that there would not be so much mass culture and destroying everything old instead of restoring things.”
Henna Lampinen: “But if we showcase it in a different way you can maybe get an idea of how we see fashion in our everyday life as well.
Matias Liimatainen: “I think personally for me the value is that I have been able to use those materials and that the audience can see clearly where the starting point is.”
Kieran Long “The collection shows how artists have been struggling with that idea in ways that today might feel strange, say some pieces that are trying to evoke for instance a kind of Sami identity from a southern perspective”
The exhibition at the Design Museum closed at the end of March 2020. It then moved to the Museum of Handicraft in Jyväskylä, where it will open on 12 September 2020. The next, and last, stop is Vasa in the beginning of 2021.
In Jyväskylä a new artist will join. Anna Alanko is an illustrator and designer, who has taken her inspiration from 19th century embroidery samples of The Friends of Finnish Handicraft that are preserved in the archives of The Craft Museum of Finland. All these embroideries are anonymous, which is something Anna Alanko has wanted to focus on. In her works she has combined many different techniques – from digital 3D illustrations, animations to handpainting and embroidery.
(born 1987) is an illustrator and pattern designer whose works are characterised by a dreamy atmosphere and heavy use of texture.
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The rya rug workshops have continued, as popular as ever. And The Friends of Finnish Handicraft have discussed the possibility of continuing to use the archive as a source of inspiration for artists, a kind of laboratory for the future. How this will happen still needs to be explored.
The process continues.
The Friends of Finnish Handicraft
Annika Nyberg Frankenhaeuser, text & concept
Ilkka Kärkkäinen, design
Sami Koivu, Stoked, design & development
Copyright © 2020 Suomen Käsityön Ystävät/The Friends of Finnish Handicraft
With thanks to:
Design Museum Helsinki
The Finnish Cultural Foundation
The Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation
The Niilo Helander Foundation
Arts Promotion Centre Finland
The Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland
The Alli Paasikivi Foundation