Miklu Silvanto is a Finnish-born industrial designer and entrepreneur, whose thoughtful and brave leadership at the intersection of humanity and technology is a combination of clear observations, creative solutions and rigorous execution. Graduating in 2008 with an MA Design Products, he started his early career as a Founder at Aivan – a Nordic design and innovation agency. He then spent a decade working at Apple’s prestigious Industrial Design team, reporting directly to their Creative Design Officer Jony Ive. He has since gone on to posts at Airbnb and Gemic, and was recently appointed as Senior Vice President and Chief Design Officer for the Danish audio brand Bang & Olufsen.
April 2021 will see the launch of his new project Vaarnii, a furniture company with a uniquely Finnish perspective.
You helped create some of their most iconic consumer products when working at Apple. Did you think this was what the future held when you left the RCA?
It was always a dream. I felt connected to the team through the products that defied rules and realities. When Ron Arad, who ran the Design Products programme back then, went through some of my work, he asked me if I would go work for Apple or Nokia and then we both kind of laughed and agreed on Apple. iPhone had just come out and I think Ron and I were the two people in school who bought it immediately. However, I had another dream to create a design studio in Helsinki, my home town, and Aivan was founded by myself and two other Finnish designers.
Do you think that design as a discipline and practice has changed much since your time as a student?
It has evolved a lot. Design to me as has always been about building beautiful solutions between humans and something artificial. And when technology has developed as much as it has, so have the necessary skills and awareness to achieve that goal. Furthermore, many companies have been extremely successful through putting design heart and centre of their creation process. Apple perhaps the best example of just that. It’s a great time to be a designer.
What was one design you worked on that you felt fundamentally changed the user experience?
Apple Pencil is a good example. It not only so fundamentally expanded the iPad OS and platform, but just as importantly protected the core idea of iPad, that your fingers are the perfect UI for so many tasks. I’ve always been fascinated by this extreme contrast of making the easy tasks as easy as possible, so you can be sloppy, or lazy even, but that when you need precision or capability there should be no limitations in capability and accuracy. So, with the pencil you can touch an individual pixel. And there are millions of them on iPad displays.
You believe that the world needs a new approach to innovation. What do you mean by that?
A deep practical belief I have is that every model is wrong and some are useful. The world and its structures on the whole are too rigid, often way outdated and usually much more malleable than meets the eye. We need to rapidly evolve so many of our institutions to solve the challenging we’ve created.
As a designer, what will the role of the ‘office' or 'studio' be in the current, global, office vs. home-working debate?
There is no going back, nor is the term new normal very helpful here. History is really a study of change and why I appreciate spending time looking back and not just forward. We will come to see the Covid pandemic as a massive inflection point. Including that it showed many of our previous models as ‘wrong’. This past year we’ve certainly learnt that it is possible to build new companies nearly entirely remotely. At the same time, a physical space as a container for certain values and processes will never be replaced. Currently I’m curious and working around how should it be extended and integrated into remote processes.
After almost a decade working as part of Apple’s famed
Industrial Design team, what has led you to furniture design?
My cofounder Antti and I have been talking about creating a different point of view to furniture and Finnish-ness for at least a decade. We both grew up in Finland but have spent most of our adulthood abroad, looking back in with a certain clarity of distance. And a fondness of our peculiarity.
Tell us about the concept behind Vaarnii?
It’s simple. We wanted to create something that is both brutal and sophisticated.
We’ve felt the furniture world is full of beautiful extensions of certain aesthetic. Certain safe tasteful marriages of oak and metals. Effective combination of European aesthetics and Asian manufacture. We saw a distinct new space to carve out. We also thought its way past time a new Finnish brand emerges.
Each of Vaarnii’s furniture and accessory collections begin with a natural material. Why did you choose pine?
Pine is just gorgeous. It has an amazing grain and smells wonderful. It’s the most populous, fast growing and environmentally sensible material to make furniture with in Finland. Because it’s a softer wood and seen as less valuable, we knew that as a point of departure it would already create a very different aesthetic. We also see a fully circular model in using pine as material. A traditional Finnish pine log house has a lifespan that just happens to be the time it takes to grow a new pine tree. Vaarnii is made from Finnish pine, in Finland. Very reasonably priced products that last generations.
You are working with small number of expert Finnish makers. Do you feel the pandemic has made people think more carefully about how something they purchase is made, with more of an appreciation for skill over something mass produced?
Yes, absolutely. From a point of increased awareness as people spend so much more time at home and look at their environment more critically, combined with the slowing down and higher costs of global shipping caused by the pandemic. As an interesting aside, our makers have had to call in old retired maestros as so little has been done with pine for decades. So there is a side to this which is protecting valuable knowledge and tradition. We just then take a 5-axis CNC to create something really novel out of that knowledge.
Vaarnii benefits from the contribution of many talented
individuals. Tell us about some of these collaborations?
This is the best part. It’s the best part of all work to me. To get to work with amazing people and to learn together. This applies to everyone we choose to work with and not just the designers. We also happen to have so many wonderful RCA alumni working on Vaarnii products. We hired Toni Sokura, another Finnish RCA alumni, from McLaren Applied to run our studio and be the critical interface between ideas and execution. Industrial Facility has been working on a gorgeous series of mirrors. Sam Hecht was my tutor at the RCA and has continued to generously advise and challenge us with his industry experience. Max Lamb is someone whose work we’ve long admired and he has done a stunning lounge chair for us.
We’ve also pushed out beyond furniture designers and worked with artist Sarah Kay Rodden on the most delightful and different coat hooks. It’s really just a group of wonderfully gifted and generous people, everyone we work with, who were inspired by our brutal and sophisticated angle into Finland.
The main elements of Scandinavian design are functionality, simplicity and craftsmanship. Has this been central to your ethos as a designer in general and to Vaarnii?
Certainly. I can be simple to a fault. I also think when you really get simple, it starts to feel brutal. Our minds are so enamoured with complexity that the art of simple is actually really hard.
Finland is both immensely similar to Scandinavian countries and distinctly different. We have overlapping values, mechanically quite similar organising principles and societies. What is different is that we have never been a monarchy. We sit between western and eastern influence. We are a gritty people. Our national value is called sisu, which is hard to translate, but to me stands for creative perseverance against overwhelming odds or effort.
All of this we’ve tried to hone in on in creating Vaarnii.
Start-ups can contribute to economic dynamism by spurring innovation and injecting competition. What are some of the reasons you are involved in various ways with start-ups?
Start-ups are magical collectives of building and learning at speed. The fact that one day you have a conversation. Then a series of them. Something starts to materialise. Idea leads to resources, leads to getting organised, to hiring people and building and building and building. You go through these deeply impactful changes of state in the operation. All within a period of months. We’ve built Vaarnii in a little over a year to a launch of twelve new products! I find that so inspiring. That there was nothing and now there is a range of beautiful furniture, with an incredibly clear point of view designed into them and the company. And we are only at launch. Think of what we can do with another year!
"Design to me as has always been about building beautiful solutions between humans and something artificial. And when technology has developed as much as it has, so have the necessary skills and awareness to achieve that goal."Miklu Silvanto