“What I try to do here is to avoid all frills and not-needed bits and parts. And to be honest to the material and to the category,” says Harri Koskinen.
“I’m not going to make any icons, but when doing a chair, you really have to do a chair. I’m not trying to do a kind of art piece or celebrated, unique thing. My interest lies in practical and useful solutions.” He pauses and then adds, “But every now and then,
I think I happen to achieve good results with aesthetics.” Apparently, Koskinen achieved just that with his Muu chair, which was awarded the prestigious Compasso D’Oro, only the second Finnish designer and one of a handful of non-Italian Europeans to ever garner this recognition.
The honor is even more rewarding given that the Muu almost didn’t get made. Koskinen recalls that after meeting the creative director of Montina, he was invited to make some proposals to them. “I presented two concepts, one of which was the Muu collection. At the meeting, of course, it was very exciting for me, we were all quite happy. But I got a message after a couple of weeks that they don’t have any interest. I was surprised after such a happy meeting, but they were like, you never know, maybe you can come back sometime.” A year passed without any mention of working together, and then Koskinen got another, this time, welcome surprise from Montina. They called out of the blue and asked him to come check some prototypes they’d made from his drawings. And to hurry, as they were going to launch the collection at the next Salon di Mobile.
The simplicity of the Muu chair is quite captivating. “The main approach,” according to Koskinen, “was to use wood in a very minimal way. So the idea with the frame and the structure is that with the minimal use of wood, we achieve a very stable construction. I happened to find a solution that is really kind of omnipotent from all directions. From all the angles, it is an interesting piece, and that was my approach.”
Although Koskinen had made renderings to show to Montina, he had not specified any particular materials. “They were made out of solid whatever material. The idea was to make them out of the wood, but I didn’t define it on those images and I didn’t make any further kind of proposal about how all the joints needed to be done and so on,” he notes. Montina provided him yet one more surprise when they showed him the prototypes. Koskinen was stunned at the beauty of the manufacturing, specifically at the joining. “They are really skilled and the craftsmanship is amazing so it was kind of fantastic to see the pieces,” he says. “It was really fantastic to understand that they are capable to do like I thought. It’s a kind of celebration to solid wood.”
The final version of the Muu is made out of oak. “The first pieces which we made,” Koskinen notes, “they were with kind of white lacquer on top of the oak, but that was because on that specific year, they had a white image of Montina, so every piece of their furniture was white. Now they have natural or painted versions. I like the natural oak because I’m a fan of honest materials and to have the materials look like they are.” Koskinen points out that some of this affinity for wood comes from his early training. “My background is that I used to study craft design, so I really did my hours in workshops, and I have made several things by my own hand out of wood.” The chairs are made of a solid frame, with seats of molded oak plywood. “It’s a very normal process how they handle the wood,” says Koskinen. “Cut, grind, sand.” In addition, Montina is also offering versions with saddle leather or felt seats.
Koskinen designed a table at the same time as the chair and thought originally of them as pieces for the home. Again, he was in for some surprises about the multitude of ways and places the chairs are being used. “I was seeing it more as residential use, like a dining room chair. They are low chairs, so I see them in a lounge kind of contract use, as well. But in Finland they’re using them in a church or a kind of chapel, too. And then another idea when designing those chairs, the top view is very rectangular, so you can have a massive bench when you have them in a row. You can connect them if you want to.”
As for the name, Koskinen explains: “Muu, it’s a Finnish word and it means something other, something else. But on the other hand, it’s quite international, I think. The cows they are saying, moo.
Partly, I can say that it’s also kind of a short word. There are other words that are similar, but they might mean something else. For example, puu in Finnish, that is wood, but it sounds like something else not so nice. And even in Italian puu means something different. Muu works nicely,” he concludes.
Looking back at the unusual process of development, Koskinen is naturally pleased that it all turned out so well. “The whole collaboration with Montina makes me happy,” he says. “Or laugh in a way. I’m really happy that we managed to do this out.” He notes that the Compasso d’Oro award also recognized the power of this joint venture. “The reason they gave it to me was kind of understanding the Scandinavian design and combining it with Italian craftsmanship. I hope that people can see that not much is really needed to make this chair. The joints are so beautiful, and it is really all the small details that make the whole chair.”
Having good humor, remaining flexible, and taking the long view about product development is something Koskinen learned early in his career. When asked how he happened to name his company Friends of Industry, he responds with a story about a meeting he had when he was just starting out as a furniture designer. “I happened to meet one Italian manufacturer, and I was eager to work with him. I went to him and said it would be interesting to collaborate. He looked at my portfolio, and said he liked this stuff, but he would prefer to work with his friends. So I set up my business and gave it this name. I worked for five years, and that same director came to me one year ago, and didn’t recall that we had met before. I am waiting for the situation where I can tell him. He will be happy to hear this, I think.”
The almost childlike simplicity of the Muu Chair belies the high level of hand craftsmanship and elegance of design that garnered it a Compasso D’Oro at the Salon di Mobile. Credit: Montin a