Joanna Laajisto

Architect, Helsinki

Joanna Laajisto

Architect, Helsinki

Joanna Laajisto

Architect, Helsinki

After spending nearly a decade living abroad, interior architect and designer Joanna Laajisto moved back to her home city of Helsinki, bringing with her a fresh perspective to local design. The worldliness is genuine: Laajisto traveled the globe, first as a professional snowboarder, then as an interior architect for the Californian industry giant Gensler, before returning to Finland in 2009. Founding her own boutique design agency, Studio Joanna Laajisto, her work is now widely praised as an example of a new “Finnishness”, blending regional sensibilities with a worldly, metropolitan flair. The numerous cafes, bars, restaurants, and office spaces she’s designed have arguably done more than reinvigorate Helsinki’s urban identity; they helped put Finnish design back on the map. We meet Joanna in her sunny storefront studio in downtown Helsinki to discuss her role in inciting permanence in design for a progressive Nordic landscape.

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Your work is part of a new wave of Finnish interiors that feel modern, international, and yet retain a Nordic sense of identity. What can you tell us about this new “Finnishness”?

I always felt that Finland’s country brand - the cliché of reindeer, saunas, and modest people - is not representative of the real-life experience here. We are a highly developed, prosperous, and technologically sophisticated society. Over the last decade in particular, there’s a new sense of mobility and Finland feels more closely connected to the rest of the world. Quite frankly, as a Finn I feel that technology, engineering, and precision are big part of Finnish identity.

Technology in particular has revolutionized how we interact with our interiors. Are there any innovations you find especially useful and if so, how do you incorporate them?

Technology is an important part of modern life and in my work, but it can also really spoil the mood unless well implemented into the space. For me, the key is to think about how to incorporate technological appliances from the very start of the design process. This also means the client needs to know what kind of technology they want to use at an early stage. As a designer I am excited about the fact that there are more and more wireless technological devices around. Bluetooth and wireless lighting solutions, for example, have made it a lot easier for me to do my job without major compromises. I only wish someone invented wireless electricity!

Can you point to a recent example where the seamless implementation of technology has helped improve the overall experience of a space?

In early 2018, we designed Vitra Village, a 1000m2 plaza-like retail environment at the Vitra campus, that we initially conceived for their presence at EuroShop, the world’s leading retail trade fair. To get a better sense of how people explore the space we built in heat mapping sensors that recorded the customer flow, which helped us further optimize the space. Another example is Cecil, the flagship store of the eponymous clothing brand in Oberhausen, Germany, where we implemented a discreet button for calling a sales person while in dressing room. It’s small features like these that, when integrated seamlessly, can greatly enhance the customer experience.

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left-com I believe that when people feel comfortable in their surroundings, they strive and are productive. right-com

There’s a general sense of seamlessness to your work that can be attributed to very basic things. Interiors like that of Intro restaurant or the Story coffee bar, for example, feel cohesive because of the materials. What do you generally like to work with?

Whenever possible, I deploy materials that will only get better with time, such as leather, wood, and metal. For me, materials are such an important part of creating the right atmosphere - so I go after materials and textures that can trigger a specific feeling or emotion in a person, depending on the type of a space I am working on. At Intro and Story, I worked with oak, stone, and concrete to create a space that is warm and welcoming.

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That feeling of warmth and comfort applies to all of your interiors, be it a coffee bar, a restaurant or a nightclub. What’s your key advice for making people feel right at home?

Pay attention to the lighting! Particularly if you have a small budget, you should focus on getting the lighting right. Good lighting can make ok materials look great, and bad lighting will make even the best materials seem like a poor decision.

Many of your interiors feature tastefully designed kitchens that exemplify the notion of the social hub. What’s your philosophy for creating a modern kitchen and dining experience?

Kitchens and dining rooms, I think, are all about being comfortable in a space. They are places where people like to gather and if possible, I merge them into one. The same applies to the interior design: as modern kitchens tend to open to the general living space, I like to embed them seamlessly. This means upgraded materials such as wood, stone, and stainless steel, large open surfaces, and no upper cabinets. When tall cabinets are needed, I group them into a more pronounced wall. I also like to add a central island as place for people to gather around while cooking or for a chat. Dimmable lighting helps to suite different occasions like breakfast, lunch, or dinner parties. And nothing is more conducive to having a good conversation over food and drinks than well-calibrated acoustics.

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How important is the kitchen in your own life?

The kitchen is very much part of our family life, both at our home in Töölö, central Helsinki, and our summer house in rural Karjalohja. Traditionally, the old buildings in Finland and particularly in Helsinki have rather small kitchens, but I like large, open spaces that allow the person cooking to be in the same space with the rest of the family members - no one wants to be stuck in the kitchen by themselves. Particularly at our summer house we often have family and friends visiting, and we love to cook together.

In line with your social instincts is your outspoken commitment to sustainability and ethical design. How do you put this philosophy into practice?

I firmly believe that functionality is the key to sustainability and should always be the starting point for any design project. It’s very easy to “greenwash” things nowadays, but what really matters is how well the space or interior will survive the test of time, and how it will be able to adapt to new situations and demands in the future. I do not want to design spaces that need to be renewed in only a couple of years time.

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Over the years, you’ve implemented that philosophy across private residences, bars, clubs, shops, and restaurants. What’s next?

At the moment I’m very excited about the hospitality industry. I love designing spaces such as boutique hotels, where the customer experience is at the very center. I am also interested in the word “hospitality” on a more abstract, philosophical level: what does it mean to create spaces that are hospitable? We don’t have a direct translation for the word hospitality in Finnish, which I find fascinating.

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Speaking of hospitality: you’ve recently completed the headquarters one of Finland’s biggest creative agencies, Bob the Robot. How did you go about creating a work environment that is both hospitable and productive?

The design is very much informed by an understanding of basic human needs - the desire to be social, the necessity for privacy - as well as the culture of the company. Other factors I pay a lot of attention to are the acoustics, the lighting, and the general ergonomics of the workplace. I believe that when people feel comfortable in their surroundings, they strive and are productive.

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