A Company Voyage

Disegno #24 (2019)

Image by Juho Huttunen.

In Helsinki’s Laivurinkatu 10, Yaya the shib is dozing in the window. Her back legs are spatchcocked and her sesame fur flares flecked ginger in the sunlight. Yaya can be forgiven for taking it easy – her co-proprietors are busy planning their next journey.

“We’re very excited about the Stans,” says Aamu Song, leaning eagerly across the desk that fills the room. “The former Soviets,” adds her partner Johan Olin. “Uzbekistan; Kyrgyzstan,” Song rattles off. “The actual Silk Road and the axis of all Europe and Asia! And did you know that in Uzbekistan they wear their eyebrows as monobrows?”

“Frida Kahlo style,” says Olin.

“I love that,” concludes Song. “Not following others.” All around her, the shelves are sporadically stacked with white cardboard tubes of every circumference imaginable, piled high to the ceiling like old sea charts. Each tube is marked with a sticky label that depicts its contents with a drawing and one-line description. “Tree & Girl Cherry”, “Onion Matryoshka”, “Polar Boy”, “Mama Bird”, “Moss Moss Man”, “Very Small Face”. The white print on the wooden door is neat and stark:

Work X Shop
Wed Sat 14 18 Closed irregularly.”

At the moment, those irregularities aren’t so regular. For the past few months Song and Olin have been Helsinki-based, busy with the opening of a retrospective of their work at the city’s Designmuseo. The exhibition opened on 5 April, and its posters, designed by Tuukka Koivisto and James Zambra from Kobra Agency, are still on display throughout the city. Staring pierrots, assembled from thick colour blocks of ochre, mustard, ice-grey and black, beckon: Secret Universe.

“It’s so lovely to have an exhibition in your hometown with all of your friends and family,” says Olin, picking a strawberry from the punnet Song has delivered to the table.

“Helsinki doesn’t have this kind of design scene or art scene – it’s just normal people,” adds Song. “The opening was so amazing, full of normal people who’d just come from their work. And our favourite human, our previous president [Tarja Halonen], gave a beautiful opening speech.”

Not being au fait with Finnish politics, I ask what makes Halonen their favourite human. The answer comes in unison:

“She’s fantastic.”

“We once found a doll-maker in Finnish Lapland – a one-woman factory who makes retirement gifts,” explains Olin. “If you work in a traditional profession like a bus driver or a doctor, she makes a miniature [replica] uniform and dresses your doll in it. So we asked permission to make a series of dolls of Tarja Halonen. She commented that they looked exactly like her and then bought them so the profits could go to a cat charity.”

“And she goes to shop by herself in the market – even when she was president,” adds Song. “She’s got a bodyguard who she makes wait outside so he won’t bother people. She’s Moominmamma; her nickname is Moominmamma.”

I’m delighted – this being Finland, I had hoped for Moomins. Sure enough, I spot one peeping out from one of the shelves in the studio. It’s a little Russian doll – a matryoshka – carved into the shape of Moomin himself. “A prototype,” explains Olin, produced for the Moomin Museum in Tampere, Finland. Sadly, he explains, it never reached the market. There was a dispute over the lack of snouts.

There’s a commotion outside; a group of passers-by are pointing at Yaya.

“We’re used to it,” says Olin, his voice deep and precise. “I’m totally transparent nowadays when I walk with her in the street, and we don’t put anything in the window because she’s there – it’s extremely hot, but she likes it.”

“We learned about shibas when we were studying in northern Japan,” adds Song. “There was an 11-year- old shiba slowly walking a grandfather.”

“The grandfather was tied around the waist to the shiba, and he had his eyes closed as she walked him around,” explains Olin. “That’s when we learned what a shiba was.”

“Now Yaya’s our boss,” says Song conspiratorially, a smile breaking across her face. “Tradition, craft? No, let’s go out!

At three years old, Yaya is a parvenu director, but Song and Olin are somewhat more established. Song trained as an industrial designer at the Seoul National University, before moving to Helsinki in 1998 to study furniture design at Aalto University (then known as TaiK). It was here that she met Olin, a graphic designer studying a master’s in spatial design, and the couple began formally working together in 2000. “Mostly one of us
starts with an idea and the other person’s mission is to support and comment on it,” says Olin.

“I often show Jusso a drawing and ask him, ‘Do you  like it?’” explains Song. “No. Well, do you like this instead? Maybe.”

Song pauses a beat.

“It’s nice being each other’s audience.”

So that’s the story of how Company, the industry’s great advocates for design as a form of adventure and voyage, came to be.

“But for me, ‘design’ is a word I don’t like,” says Song – as if consciously trying to derail this article. ‘Design has a really long history, back to [society’s] beginnings with tools. Of course we had to kill and eat [with those tools], but they had such a romantic, human part too – there was so much surprise and happiness [in the objects]. But now design doesn’t contain that kind of imaginative feeling. It’s just...” She pulls a face and opens her eyes wide, making a noise that I will later transcribe – not entirely confidently – as “bum”.

“It’s used so much to describe everything that it loses something,” adds Olin, and my mind begins to swarm with questions.

What happens to your dog when you go away?

Unstop one of Company’s white cardboard tubes, tip it up and out tumbles a jewel. There are wooden matryoshka dolls slick with lacquer, which have been turned on the lathe into every shape imaginable. Some of the tubes nestle matryoshka pine cones and apples; others Barbies and bears; still more, planets and eggs; and one set contains a whale that swallowed a seal that swallowed a penguin, that swallowed a fish that swallowed a squid that swallowed a sea cucumber that swallowed a plankter. “Well that came from eating sushi in Russia,” says Song.

“Very hip in Russia, sushi,” says Olin sagely.

“Even the tiniest village would have a sushi restaurant.”

“And maybe because they’re not near the sea, these restaurants all have [television] monitors showing the sea while you eat raw fish,” says Song. “But the sea is not peaceful – all the creatures are always eating each other. So we realised that the food chain was like a matryoshka. Since then, everything has started to look like a matryoshka.”

Other gems emerge from the tubes. Spinning tops from Japan, turned to resemble grinning heads that spool out on a strand of white cotton hair; papier-mâché balloons on sticks, painted with toothpaste swirls and electric polka dots; Finnish diamonds, carved out of Kuru grey and Pohjolan leimu granite. One wall, however, doesn’t have any tubes stacked against it. Instead, it’s given over to wooden shelves like swiftlet nests, each bearing a curio. There are wooden stools styled as toadstools; the crown of a traditional Amish straw hat that has been affixed to the brim of cap, as if Major League Baseball had an excitingly orthodox new team; a trio of nesting seats in the shape of jolly terriers; and a pair of delicate red felt boots, atop which sit a smaller pair of booties facing in the opposite direction – a design to let children dance with their parents while standing on their feet. Laivurinkatu 10 is like stumbling into a fairy-tale workshop staffed by a benevolent dog and her two enthusiastic helpers. It’s wonderful.

A little tin hut catches my attention. It gleams with candy aniline paints and is surrounded by a group of tin people pressing around its open window. “A small ice-cream kiosk,” says Olin proudly, before drawing my attention to a clay statue of a man and a woman riding a sesame dog that looks suspiciously like Yaya. “That’s based on the traditional Mexican tree of life,” he says. “They’re made by the Matamoros family in Mexico, who collect their own clay and then prepare it. We suggested some new trees of life following their traditions and logic.” Nearby, another tree sees the same characters stacked on one another’s shoulders to form a celestial tower.

“Marching to the heavens!” says Song excitedly.

Catch Company on the right day – remember, they’re closed irregularly – and all these things are for sale. “I adore shop shelves, with all the price tags, so much,” explains Song. “For me, a bookshop or a flower shop is like a museum. I want to be a part of my community and this is how I become that – with a shelf and price tag.”

Away from Laivurinkatu 10, Song and Olin are the proprietors of the Salakauppa – Helsinki’s secret shop. To find it, head to the city’s central train station, a monolithic 1919 structure designed by Eliel Saarinen. The station is spectacular – a glowering hulk of pink granite from the top of which erupts an oxidised copper-topped clock tower, and whose front doors are flanked by four granite colossi bearing lanterns. By comparison, its friendly next-door neighbour Salakauppa is modest – a converted newspaper kiosk with a steel box structure and wide glass windows. In place of burning colossi, Company have settled for a neon “Salakauppa” that snakes around one corner of the roof. “We wanted to make a statement that we could do this and could take care of everything, so we renovated our own shop,” says Olin, laughing a little. “A nightmare, but quite an enjoyable nightmare.”

The Salakauppa has been installed in its current premises since 2012, with the format having previously appeared in events and exhibitions in Milan, Reykjavík, Oslo and Berlin. One of the earliest appearances of the Salakauppa was in the 2007 Suomen Salat/Top Secrets of Finland exhibition at Helsinki’s Kiasma contemporary-art museum. “We were sitting there selling some of the stuff,” says Olin. “We had museum staff coming up to us: Exhibits are missing! It will cause alarm!

This kind of performative playacting is common across Company’s work – something the curator Carlos Mínguez Carrasco described as serving as “a critical originator and enabler of their work” in his essay ‘An Ancestral Dance to Come, Performance in the Work of Company’. In support of his argument, Mínguez Carrasco cited a pair of early works. Redress (2004) is an installation in which an opera singer stands in the centre of a room and performs wearing a beautiful crimson gown. The catch is that the dress has been sewn to include 20m-wide skirts, which fan out in all directions to create sack-like pockets for an audience to clamber into and enjoy the show. Head Friend (2007), meanwhile, is a fleecy pillow friend which wraps its arms around your neck to give you a kiss on the cheek when you cuddle into it. “[Company] designs are emotional, loving, transitional objects for a rainy day,” wrote Mínguez Carrasco, “persuasive encounters designed to appeal; shaping an action to come.”

As to who is originating or enabling what, I don’t know, but Company certainly takes pleasure in those areas of design that sit aside from the remote business of designing. In all aspects of their work, their predominant interest seems to be in engaging with an audience or a community. I ask if they enjoy their lives as shopkeepers. “Yes!” responds Song instantly. “At first we were standing there in the kiosk every day, wondering if anyone was going to come. If someone came in, I would say, ‘Oh! You want to buy this?’”

“She’s the worst shopkeeper,” says Olin. “She sends people back home: If you see it in your dream tonight, come back tomorrow. I might sell it to you then.”

“Why did you call yourself Company?”

There is a pause while the pair look at one another. “I think you wanted to call us a detective agency, but I opposed,” says Olin slowly.

“I wanted Etsivätoimisto, which is ‘detective  agency’ in Finnish,” says Song quickly. “Or Mustikoita ja Vadelmia, which is ‘blueberries and raspberries’. But Jusso said no, no, no.”

“I was young and stupid,” Olin chuckles. “I think that would have been a perfect name.”

I forget to ask why Mustikoita ja Vadelmia was up for consideration, but the legacy of Etsivätoimisto is clearly visible on Company’s website. “They work as artists and designers – often more like detectives,” reads the studio’s bio, while the project that has consumed the studio’s practice since 2007 is thoroughly gumshoe: Secrets.

Secrets is an act of design as anthropology. Every one to two years, the studio packs its bags and decamps to a different country. To date, Belgium, Russia, Mexico, Vietnam, Estonia, Japan and the USA – as well as the studio’s native Finland and South Korea – have all hosted Secrets, a programme intended to unravel a country’s national identity by grappling with its craft traditions and small-scale manufacturing. Initially, Song and Olin research their chosen country from the comforts of Helsinki, tracking down whatever information they can lay their hands on. “For Russia, I grabbed a 1960s travel book from a Greek writer who visited Russia in the 1930s,” says Song. “So we started researching every town that they mentioned and we travelled Russia through a 1930s book.”

“We do a bit of research and then try to find makers who still practise some of the older traditions that we’re interested in,” adds Olin. “We listen to a lot of local music and we try to cook some food or recipes to get into it – it just takes a lot of work.” Not all of this work is arduous, which seems to be the point. A picture from the Secrets of Vietnam series sees Song sticking her tongue out, surrounded by collaborators and empty bottles of beer. “Best beer,” reads the accompanying caption: “1. Saigon; 2. Tiger; 3. San Miquel [sic].” Elsewhere, Company provide a series of “Secret Recipes” – the food and drink that the studio has been preparing and eating during its travels. “Russkie Konjak,” reads one entry, a recipe from the Semyonovskaya Rospis matryoshka factory in Russia. “Place an acorn inside a bottle of vodka/ moonshine. Wait until colour turns light brown (does not take long). Serve.” Another entry is more prosaic: “BELGIUM. During our travels in Belgium we ate mainly schnitzels, and spaghetti Bolognaise [sic]. And mayonnaise. And Belgian waffles.”

“We’re not rich and we don’t come in a limousine [when we visit these places],” says Song. “We use public transport, and in the winter time [when we arrive at the factories] we come in with our very red cheeks and big backpacks. [The people in the factory] immediately realise, ‘Oh, these guys are the same kind of people as us.’” Song warms to her theme – after all, it’s this kind of fieldwork that nearly saw them christened Etsivätoimisto. “When you say ‘detective office’ you can imagine that there are a lot of small finds and gathering evidence,” she says, getting up from her chair and moving across to one of the shelves stacked with cardboard tubes. She rummages around and pulls out a hamper-sized woven box that sits on the floor – one of many.

“All these boxes,” she says, “are full of the treasure.”

“These are our teachers,” says Olin, gesturing at the objects appearing on the table as Song busily unpacks the woven box into its constituent souvenirs, bibelots and bagatelles. Two little chaps sit on swings suspended from a wooden frame painted with rich florals; a felt puppet holds a spoon that descends into a cooking pot, with a concealed string that lets you make her stir the mash; and a candle holder flowers into a starburst of shocking aniline-pink petals. “A lot of treasures,” says Olin.

Each object is a memento of Company’s travels – a masterpiece gleaned from one of the craftspeople with whom the practice has worked or hopes to work, and whose production Song and Olin subsequently try to honour in their own output. “We find these pieces in museums, markets, or old books,” says Song.

“And when we find the factories [that produced them], we fall in love with the makers and techniques,” says Olin.

“We come to them as a touristy, student thing, so it’s difficult to explain who we are to the masters in Mexico or in Japan,” explains Song. “‘Design’ is not a common word there and they never work with designers – they don’t need to.”

“Sometimes it’s almost beneficial not to share the same language, because things are then kept on a really basic level,” adds Olin. “We find simple means to communicate and drawing becomes handy too. We can draw plans to show them – ‘OK, that looks nice, maybe let’s do something together.’ So they come to trust us.” He pauses for a moment. “And we don’t look like industrial spies, which probably helps.”

Each of Company’s objects is produced in concert with one of these masters – a mixture of independent craftspeople and highly skilled factory workers. Company study their techniques and methodologies, and then propose riffs that might make best use of these. Rather than a traditional matryoshka of a Russian woman wearing a sarafan, have they considered a snake who ate a vole and a mouse, who in turn each ate a beetle (Snake Matyroshka, 2017; Semyonov, Russia)? In the spirit of a tree of life, what about a tree whose every branch is a shouting dog’s face (Tree of Alebrije, 2019; San Felipe Tejalapam, Mexico)? Instead of plain wool-silk underwear, imagine the possibilities of underwear that doubles up as penguin cosplay (Pingu Wear, 2007; Kangasala, Finland)! “One master told us, ‘We’ve never seen things like the drawings you do, but it seems like they belong to us;” says Song. “A huge compliment,” adds Olin.

There is a wit and levity across all of Company’s objects – “We’re not making big quantities, so we try to build up the plan so it’s enjoyable to make, which often manifests in something quite fun-looking as a result,” suggests Olin in explanation – but each is primarily the result of the individual character and skills of its maker. The Nagano Apple, for instance, is a little birch apple pot, the top of which appears to have been peeled in a display of carving expertise by Master Sunohara of Japan’s Nagano region. Meanwhile, the same subject matter is utilised in the Sumka Apple from Russia’s Semyonovskaya Rospis factory, but the execution is radically different. A lacquered linden apple – with a leather strap in place of a stalk such that it can be used as a bag – the object features no intricate surface carving, but instead displays shiny streaks of red paint that evoke the lustre of the fruit’s skin. “The painting masters told us not to try to express yourself,” says Song. “That’s what artists do but if you just try to dance your hands [across the surface], they become products.”

“That was a really powerful lesson,” adds Olin. “That meditative repetition is what lets it start to become a real item, whereas if you try to think about what you’re doing it doesn’t really work. It’s a different set of skills to what we have as designers, and this kind of thing became our religion somehow. We are on this pilgrimage of meeting amazing masters.”

Song picks up the aniline candle holder and begins turning it over in her hands. “We are not so intelligent, so we don’t know how to make a car or engineer a heavy structure,” she says. “Even a candle holder is very high-tech for us. But we had to meet the people who make these amazing things. Who are they? We wanted to meet them and learn how we could be like them. So Secrets was a big excuse to be friends with them, and [in order] to spend more time with them, we had to make something. That’s the best way.”

The next day, a familiar face is staffing the reception desk at Designmuseo. Yaya is spreadeagled on the floor while guests to the museum head upstairs to Secret Universe. No doubt she’s worn out from the brisk business she’s done in ticket sales – after all, she’s not used to the hard work of the Secrets programme. “She’s a bit big to travel with us, so we would have to put her through check-in when we fly and that’s a bit harsh,” explains Olin. “In all of our expeditions in Finland she comes along, but otherwise she stays here at my parents’ place.” The receptionists keep looking at her – they probably can’t believe that the director herself is mucking in with the mundane business of looking after the desk.

Secret Universe is Company’s peon to the localised handcraft and light manufacture that the Secrets series has spent the past 12 years charting. Working with curator Suvi Saloniemi and exhibition architect Linda Bergroth, Song and Olin have consolidated the display into seven discrete areas. Ever the shopkeepers, Company have structured Secret Universe around ‘The Bazar’, a corridor stocked with candy kiosks displaying their various wares, with a ceiling hung with garlands of papel picado (“pecked paper”) from Huixcolotla, Mexico. As you move through the space, the papel picado form a canopy of dangling skulls, factories and buses, all punched out from sheets of paper in shades of lime, lemon and orange. ‘The Journey’, meanwhile, displays crates that cradle the artefacts Company has gathered on its travels, densely packed with wood shavings for protection, and ‘The Communication’ traces dialogue between the studio and the masters they have met along the way. “Dear  friends, Johan & Aamu,” begins a handwritten letter from Saville King, an Amish belt maker with whom Company created the Story Belt (2017), a leather strap embossed with stamps from King’s collection. “About 1/4 of the way down the belt from the buckle end [in the plans] there was a stamp that looked like a hummingbird. I don’t have any stamps like that. The nearest I could find to match was a small pheasant.”

In ‘Masters and the Workshop’, one wall of the space is given over to 10 devotional alcoves, each containing a video screen that shows one of Company’s masters at work. “We wanted to express the masters as icon paintings,” explains Song. In one film, Quirino Santiago from La Union brandishes a machete, deftly carving copal wood from beneath his huge white Stetson. Alongside him, Igor Napylov from Semyonov sends thick curls of sawdust flicking out into the air as he hollows out a matryoshka on a lathe, while Igarashi Yoshiyuki from Tsuruoka draws lustrous sheets of blue paint up the body of the wooden kokeshi doll on which he is working, as if wrapping it in silk. The fruits of these labours become apparent in ‘The Collection’ a repository for 200 of Company’s works that is styled as if a fairy-tale general store, while ‘The Archive’ is a room in which every wall is blanketed with the preliminary paintings and drawings for Company’s products. Rows of trees swirl with constellations of fruit that form out of thick ink washes; plump winter coats swaddle small wooden people against the cold; and sheet after sheet of candy-pop rockets cascade down the walls, all pinned up with a jumble of magnetic tacks – an evidence room for Company’s findings.

“‘Design office’ sounds a bit clean and makes you think of a computer,” says Song when I ask her about the office’s preferred nomenclature. “We don’t use a computer here.”

“And we don’t carry computers with us when we travel,” adds Olin. “Just lots of paper and we buy local art supplies.”

“We have only one stationery shop in Helsinki,” says Song. “And one fabric shop,” finishes Olin.

“A nightmare for designers.”

They must get wanderlust when back in Helsinki, I suggest. “She does maybe?” says Olin.

“You don’t?” comes the reply.

“No, I do too, but usually after the trips we’re quite busy for quite some time and we try to paint as much as we can,” responds Olin. “It’s such a luxury to just be here and be able to paint. We travel a bit too much, so we enjoy being here.”

Clearly – it’s late July and Company have invited members of their extended family to see the exhibition for the first time. At one point, I spot them lining all eight members of the family up against a wall in the exhibition, busy arranging them according to height. The next day, the picture shows up on my Instagram. feed “Family matyroshka,” reads the short caption. “🐕 #yayamissing.” Well somebody’s got to sell tickets, I suppose.

The heart of Secret Universe, and the heart of Company’s wider practice, is ‘The Holy Factory’ – a devotional space devised to draw attention to what the exhibition’s curator Saloniemi terms “the sanctity of handicraft skills”. Here, the walls are painted with murals that read as a benevolent reimagining of the aesthetics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – brightly coloured utopian factories in which artisans work diligently at their tasks. It’s a far cry from the realities of any factory I’ve ever been to, but then Company’s fabulism is supposed to be transporting – a glimpse into modes of production that may not be achievable, but which are delicious to spend a little time with nevertheless. “[A] new parallel universe,” reads the studio’s introduction to the exhibition. “[Our] own utopia manufactured with Masters of the world.” Within this pocket universe, the space itself is built around a series of tall alcoves, which use forced perspective to create the impression of assembly lines moving down towards the viewer. Graphics of blown- glass bulbs, ceramics and wooden dolls proceed downwards, before gradually giving way to the real physical products, which are also displayed in the space. “When we designed the exhibition we wanted to make a temple,” explains Song. “These masters from Mexico, Russia, Finland and Japan are all making things together in the temple. And that’s how the Universal Spirit was born.”

The Universal Spirits are Company’s master[s] pieces – two dolls created using components made by masters from four different countries. It’s the Universal Spirits that are depicted as smiling pierrots on Secret Universe’s posters and the Universal Spirits that stand as the fulfilment of Company’s approach to design. They are an embodiment of communicable, local craft technique that can speak on an international stage. Each doll is formed from a head and core made by a Japanese kokeshi master from Kuroishi; wrapped in a turned wood body from Semyonov; dressed in rainbow tin raiments from Xochimilco; and protected in a coat of blown Finnish glass from Nuutajärvi. “We were so scared that the elements wouldn’t fit each other,” explains Song. “But we only had to remake one mould for the glass. Not a big deal.”

“We’ve kind of built up this theory that all items have a spirit, a bit like in the animistic tradition, and the good items have a good spirit,” says Olin. “When you find a really nice item, there are usually really nice people behind making it. There seems to be something in it – or at least we’ve been following that path and it’s been good for us.”

“The masters have a way of making that has some kind of tickling parts,” says Song. “Their way of choosing colours; or their way of using the brush or the knife. It brings out old stories and that’s why we get crazy about some objects. We have to find out who made them and then go to meet them. They’re the best humans.”

Back at Laivurinkatu 10, it’s time to answer that question: if not Etsivätoimisto, and if not Mustikoita ja Vadelmia, then why Company?

“Company means “Com” – together – and “Pany” – bread,” explains Song. “When we make something with a master, we work together and we share bread. That’s the image of our company for me.”

“And maybe we knew from the beginning that we liked to have it as a secret,” adds Olin. “Because it’s impossible to Google. There’s millions of hits.”

“I like that it’s impossible,” says Song. “Totally hidden,” concludes Olin.

Up in the shop window, Yaya the shiba is still  dozing. Her back legs are spatchcocked, perhaps a little stiff by now, and her sesame fur is still glowing ginger in the sunlight. Yaya can be forgiven for taking it easy – her co-proprietors are busy planning the next journey.

“We’re been looking into Peru,” says Aamu Song, leaning eagerly across the desk that fills the room.