Antti Hirvonen, CEO of Finnish design brand Vaarnii, explains the journey to create the best pine business in the world.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
September 16, 2022
At this year’s edition of Habitare design fair in Helsinki, Vaarnii, together with the Japanese company Tokyo Saikai, was selected to present the range in special pop-up stands. For Hirvonen, it’s all about creating a business by changing old perceptions — we’ll get back to that — and trying to avoid the word ’sustainability’.
— That often sounds very much like corporate greenwash which, these days, is no longer an option for businesses — if you are a business, you need to be sustainable, he states. And even as a term, it’s more about sustaining the miserable state our little planet is in, so we really want to rethink that. Instead, what we want to think of is, how can we be regenerative as a business? We still haven’t been able to quantify how to actually really make a business case about it but our promise is that our products are going to last at least a hundred years — that’s how long it takes for a pine tree to grow into the lengths when it’s ready to harvest. And our ambition is to be the first truly regenerative business in our industry niche.
”…it was based on the fact that Finland is 76% forest”
After living abroad for a good part of a decade, Hirvonen returned to Helsinki and a much more international and cosmopolitan city than the one he left — ”it’s a big movement towards ’the new Finnishness’”.
— When we started Vaarnii a couple of years ago, it was based on the fact that Finland is 76% forest, which made us think that we had got plenty of options. But then it was surprising that you only actually had two. We wanted to use local-only raw materials and oak products made in Finland are predominantly imported, usually from Poland and Germany. So, we had birch and pine to choose from and when we started looking into it, we felt that birch has been done in brilliant ways before while pine feels really special. It’s almost the ’bamboo of the north’ — it grows fast, it’s plentiful, and we like to think that it’s the most wood-like of woods with a crazy grain and resin. All these things make it challenging but can also be incredibly rewarding; what you end up with are products that look quite wild without even trying to. The more we started working with pine, the more we fell in love with it and also, almost no one else is doing it.
That, however, might soon change. At Habitare, architect, curator and journalist Joseph Grima took the stage to share the trends and his favourites, choosing pine as the material of the fair.
How have your industry colleagues treated you? How is it when you introduce a ’new’ material to the market?
— To be honest, it’s been quite overwhelming. We’re just feeling so humbled and happy that we’ve gained such a positive reception with several really interesting inquiries and a building interest. The pine is one thing and then there is the aesthetic angle. We always think that you don’t create future icons by trying to play it safe and we’ve always felt that we rather do ugly things than non-distinctive things. I’m not saying that any of them ended up being ugly but they can be challenging for some. But we like to think that we’ve created something different with the material and the aesthetic point of view. I remember from the past that whenever you tried to create a product that should be a commercial success, it never worked. You’ll end up with something that no one likes. So, we’ve briefed all of our designers to just do their best thing. Don’t worry about the cost — let’s just try to do the coolest thing and see what it will end up costing, says Hirvonen. He continues:
— The industry in itself has been very excited as it is always looking for something different. This also goes back to our ethos — the world really doesn’t need more products and everything we could ever want or need has already been done, so unless you are able to bring something really new or truly different way of doing things, then there’s no point in starting a business.
— The challenge that we’ve had is that the general public still has that awful perception of pine being yellow and shiny, because of the surface treatments used in the past. Now, with the modern oil wax treatments, it is actually very pleasant, not the least in the way it ages. But we’ve got a lot of educational work to do as a brand to emphasize how it actually ages because these are not products that look the same ten years down the line. Instead, they look different two weeks after you’ve taken them out of the box because it starts ageing, the colours start changing, and it’s a soft wood, so it will start to get dents and scratches — and only gets more exciting.
You work with local materials but has pine also been affected by the supply chain crisis?
— The problem that we’ve had is that the type of pine that we use grows between the Ural mountains and Norway, so, effectively, 80% of the global supply just became obsolete. Subsequently, the prices went up, so our costs increased quite substantially. It wasn’t the end of the world and compared to birch and oak, it hasn’t been as bad, but it would be foolish to say that it hasn’t had any impact. We now really need to buy more timber to stock. In the past, there was far more available, but now, since Russian timber is no longer available, all the sawmills that we’re working with are able to sell their entire production. So, we need to buy stuff much, much in advance and that is obviously a challenge for a new business since it ties up a lot of cash. But, we’re coping — I don’t know if we were lucky but it was a good choice to use only local raw materials and supplies because it really helped us to get where we are.
So, what’s next? Hirvonen describes that Vaarnii has now ”completed the cycle”.
— We started with the mass pine items last year, furniture and accessories. Early this year, we entered the outdoor market since we thought that there was a big gap there. You’ve got your cheaply made steel things, and then you have cultivated teak, which is always questionable. So, being able to manufacture from Finnish, completely non-toxic pine was a really good thing and since it is lighter than regular timber, we were also able to go crazy with the dimensions and do these chunky products.
— Lighting is another story for this year, where Swedish designs from the 1960s by Hans-Agne Jakobsson were across all of our inspiration decks. Instead of replicating something along the same lines, we thought that what if we would be able to obtain the rights for them? Six months later, it happened, and we are really proud on bringing them back to life. It’s so wild and when you switch the light off, it completely changes appearance. And when the light is on, you get all that grain and the wild stuff also coming through. We will be expanding with a few more lighting models in the coming year and hopefully do a really big one also which is good for contract, Hirvonen concludes.