An interview with Ilkka Terho, CEO of Valvomo

Ilkka Terho

Last week Ilkka Terho, CEO of Valvomo located in Helsinki Finland took some time out of his trip to NYC to have lunch and talk design with me. If you don’t know much about Valvomo, you can see their work at MoMA or places like MOSS in NYC. I found Valvomo almost by accident. I was walking through the meatpacking district on a Saturday afternoon during design week. Noticing a building with a sign that mentioned Finnish design I stopped right away and walked on in. Taking a number of pictures that would eventually find themselves on flickr, Illka mentioned something on one of my photos. A conversation through email ensued and as luck would have it, Ilkka was going to be in NYC. So on a Thursday afternoon in June he came to visit Renegade where I work and then found our selves at the high line for lunch. Below is the conversation that followed.

You can also download a pdf of the interview for your off-line viewing pleasure at http://designnotes.info/interviews/valvomo_interview.pdf (1.0 MB)

Ilkka, can you talk to me about Valvomo. We’re 7 designers, been together for almost 15 years. We meet while in school studying architecture in 1989 have been together ever since. We’re a large group of equal partners. It’s almost by coincidence that we’ve been together for so long. We rented a small space to enter some competitions which then led to the creation of the company – we ended up liking to work together. At the time it was the deepest recession in europe during 93/94 – there basically was no work, so we had to find something – that lead to designing products and interiors.

Did you have a business plan when you started? We were just trying to do anything, not really a plan, just a bunch of guys in their twenty’s trying everything. It was through the little breakthroughs, especially the media around the world who have published some of our more exciting work – a lot of the attention comes through the exhibitions that we attend in different countries. Since the last show in may in NYC over 25,000 people have hit our website b/c of the attention of blogs, web publications and other outlets – over 3,000 a day. And through that attention lots of people are contacting us – between manufactures interest, media, people looking for work – and most rewarding are the common people just wanting to let us know that they like what we do. How has technology influenced how you market the company. In the last couple of years we’ve been very aware of technology in the plan. We’re primarily looking for assignments to design products and interiors, especially in NYC.

Valvomo

How does the process start for a project? In the case of an advertising agency they’re either moving or expanding. The work needs to be done anyways, so they look to the best designers to do it – it becomes corporate identity if the architecture is done well. Since we’re one of the best in Finland we’re often asked to come along to see what it would cost – through discussion and quote we’ll start working. The project time often varies, though it can be up to a year. How many partners will work on a project? Usually there’s two to three partners on a project – they don’t have to say much to each other b/c we understand each other so well. If that’s the case are you still learning? Yes everyday we’ll learn something new.

There’s a lot of talk about green today in the media. Are clients in NYC/Europe asking for more sustainable green materials? Yes, we encountered those type of questions a lot in NYC and Chicago – the show that were at everyone was talking about it – but to be totally honest i think it’s totally hypocritical in some cases – the amount of things being thrown out w/ out being recycled , it’s nominal and looks horrible to the outside world. Do you think that waste material process to create new spaces – will that be taken into account – yes. For an interior space to be considered more sustainable – the design in general is timeless that you can use, let’s say a chair that you can use for a couple generations – that’s sustainable, it’s not so much the materials that you use. Even a plastic chair is sustainable if you can use it for a couple years if it’s nice enough. There’s so many variations, the environmental is a natural consideration – it’s hard to give a general answer. We do think of coatings, they need to be as environmental as possible. Many of our products are half accident, the materials are both recyclable and and we only realized it afterwards.

What is design in Finland like? In the 50’s just like Italy it was one of the leading countries in design – after the 2nd world war it was government policy to use design as a marketing policy to market Finland – and then it went away for a couple decades – and then within the last 15 years finnish design is out there a lot – magazines around the world – there’s a lot of Finnish issues. It differs a lot from Swedish design for example – there’s more of a pure and strict line. There’s some sort of angle to it, humour or stories – we like to make it more colourful, then again more pure in form and function. In terms of language – how is that expressed in terms of relating Finnish to english? – do you need to understand Finland to get the joke? Not really, we recognized that a long time ago – for example the chip lounger. A New Yorker sent me an email that I saved – he mentions that he bought it within a minute of contemplation at Moss – when he comes home he smiles about it – because it’s humorous. The chair itself is a colourful lounger that sits on the floor, so it’s like a rocking chair that you lie on. It’s got a very human quality to it.

Valvomo

Considering where the company is now, where do you see it going within the next couple of years? We’re thinking about that right now actually, the last couple years we’ve been in a recession though in the last year and a half we’ve been growing again. It was a difficult time, most companies were looking to each quarter as opposed to thinking of their future in terms of marketing dollars. That made us think how to grow internationally. An old friend has joined as a business consultant who’s going to help the company – currently we feel like seven creative directors and no workers, that’s a funny combination. How did you become CEO? It was just my personality, its about leadership – I’m more of a leader then a manager. My friends and colleagues feel comfortable with that and so do I. I like to be in charge, it’s natural to me.

How do you stay informed of everything that is going on these days? Internally and externally – it’s up to individual designers to decide how much they want to look at what other people are doing. Some are keen to go to all the design fairs and photographing everything and learning all the time, and I’m on the other opposite end. I don’t want to look up to what other people are doing. To not get confused. There’s so many influences for design in life in general, I don’t need to waste my time on what competitors are doing. I’d like to make up my own mind. City, nature, movies etc – it can be anything that is an influence.

How small is the design community in Helsinki – does everyone know each other? It is very close, in part due to the Design University. Though we’re bit of the outsiders because we went to the technical university to study architecture. and the design university is very much like a family. We’re a part of that, but mainly outsiders. What are some of the things Finland exports? Nokia though most people might not know that – they don’t advertise that they’re a Finnish company , IT and electronics in general, steel, machines, and forestry.

In terms of new materials, what’s green that you’re considering? A lot of them are still in the early stages and aren’t ready for production yet. Often they’re being created in someone’s garage in middle America and are still being tested. People are reading about the materials, but they don’t work yet. It’s confusing for us b/c they’re available.

Valvomo

What is a favourite product Valvomo has designed? One of the best is a wall panel system – acoustic aesthetic (SOUNDWAVE®), 100% recyclable – and made with 100% recyclable material – it’s from the technique that you use to make car and train door panels technique. It’s a porous soft fiber, soft cushion, heat pressed with a mold into a hotter felt. That’s how the panel is made. How did the design come together, was it a happy accident or was there a purpose that you were able to execute on? It was a typical thing, we were visiting a plastics factory in Finland. We saw them making these car/train panels and we loved the material. It felt like “felt”. A couple months later we were designing a restaurant in Helsinki and the were acoustic problems so we thought we needed something to help with the problem. One of my colleagues came up with the idea to make sculptural panelling out of the felt material for the panelling system and that’s the start of the success story. The Swedish company that manufactures it sells over 50,000 panels a year, it’s a great number for us. The panel is sold in 25 countries around the world.

Will a manufacturer come to you with a specific need, or is it that you have something and are looking for someone to specifically manufacture and distribute it? It’s really difficult, for years we tried to push ideas to manufacturers, but the only way to get them interested in what you do in general and wait for a brief. They have a need for something for “x” purpose “x” purposes and then we give them ideas, that’s how it goes. Because there’s a 100 times more designers then there are design brands, so everyone is sending their design portfolios. Do you ever want to just manufacture things yourself – in the 90’s we did that, we had our own brand but it became a confusing story so we decided to manufacture things elsewhere and concentrate on being designers.

One last question – what is your favorite design item that you personally own? A couple years back I went to Germany and bought this 71 Mercedes Benz convertible, the one that they drove in the television series Dallas. That’s a nice piece of machinery. Once I bought it I drove back to Finland, it took a couple days. Finland is a cold country, we have short summers – sometimes mostly not. But I try to make the most of it by taking these instant holidays every-time the sun is shining, I take the roof off and go for a spin. It’s nice.

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    What a wonderful interview. Amazing article. Great job!