'We're surrounded by people making things': Finland's artists-only village
Weekend magazine: creativity special Finland 'We're surrounded by people making things': Finland's artists-only village
What do you do when city life becomes unsustainable, yet you still want its creative buzz? Fiskars village could hold the answer
The Puukko family live in a simple 19th-centu ry wooden house in the forest, just outside the village of Fiskars, in south-west Finland. Itâs another fine summerâs day. The children are eating carrots theyâve just dug up from the garden, and waiting to swim in the lake at the end of the drive. Later that evening, their father, Tom, will take me to the villageâs community sauna, a fairytale wooden hut, where weâll parboil in the steam and cool in the lake and drink beer and eat makkara sausages like proper Finns, which neither of us are. Tom is British, his wife, Anne, is Finnish (he took her surname). In the past five years they have lived in London, Berlin and Helsinki. They moved to Fiskars a year ago and feel very much at home. I just feel envious.
Fiskars is an attractive place by any measure: leafy and picturesque, with a collection of handsome industrial buildings and workersâ cottages strung along a gentle river. But in British terms, it is more east London than Ambridge. Itâs a 600-strong c ommunity of artists and craftspeople: sculptors, furniture makers, designers, painters, ceramicists, blacksmiths, architects, glass-blowers, jewellers, leather-workers, dressmakers, film-makers, you name it. The village artistsâ cooperative, Onoma, has possibly the best-stocked local gift shop in the world. At this time of year, there is an art trail through the village, plus two exhibitions showing local and international work. Thereâs also a brewery, a gin distillery and a skate park.
In London, Anne, 37, worked in marketing for Nokia; Tom, 41, ran his own advertising company. After they had their first child, Milla, seven years ago, they began to have a change of heart. âWhen I went on maternity leave, I thought, âOK, lifeâs changed. Is this what we want to do for the next however many years? Is this where we want to have our family growing up?ââ Anne says. She grew up in Mikkeli, a town in eastern Finland, where she could roam freely and walk by herself to school. âI wanted that for my kids.â
They also wanted to create their own business, one that gave them freedom. âWe wanted to work with creative people, and detach ourselves from that city environment.â After a few dead ends, including trying to invent a new dairy product in their kitchen, the penny dropped when they were renovating their home in London. They became frustrated with seeing the same choices of wallpaper everywhere. So in 2015 they founded Feathr, which commissions wallpapers, murals and fabrics from artists, designers, anyone whose work they find interesting. One of their designs is by a tattoo artist; another, by British artist Lee Herring, has flowers against a background of spray-painted neon graffiti and paint drips.
A friend of Anneâs had described Fiskars as âthe Woodstock of Finlandâ, so they decided to check it out. âWe came here on a grey, rainy April day. Even then it was beautiful.â Finding somewhere to rent wasnât easy: every available home has a queue of people wanting to move in. The selection process was not as formal as it was in the past, they say, but when they applied to rent their house they were encouraged to share what they would bring to the village. As Feathr gives opportunities to other artists, they passed the test.
Prices and taxes are higher in Finland, but the public services are the envy of the world, education is free
An enterprise such as theirs would not have been possible even five years earlier, they say. Advance s in digital printing and production, online retail, rural internet speeds â" all have enabled Tom and Anne to run what would previously have been a city-based company from anywhere in the world. They have a business partner who lives in Bali. âOur address is basically Skype,â Tom says. And if you could be anywhere in the world, why not here? Prices and taxes are higher in Finland, but the public services are the envy of the world, education is free, even at university level, and Brexit is someone elseâs problem.
Apart from the theatre, thereâs little they miss about London. âYou basically work to pay for a lifestyle you have no time to enjoy,â Tom says. âYou get into that urban mentality where you work hard, itâs stressful, so you need pleasures: youâve got to have weekends away or go out for a nice dinner, and that eats up the money you just spent your week earning. You donât need a weekend away when you live here because this whole place is a weekend a way.â
Yes, but what about those long, dark Finnish winters? âOh, it was beautiful here in winter,â Anne says. There was a lot of snow: clear, bright days, skiing, sledging, ice-skating on the lake. The gin distillery probably comes in handy, too.
This creative rural idyll did not come about by accident. For the past 350-odd years, Fiskars the village was one and the same with the company that still bears its name. Fiskars is one of Finlandâs oldest brands, best known for its orange-handled scissors (it has sold over 1bn pairs), but a producer of all manner of cutlery, tools and ironware. It built the town according to its needs: forges, factories, water mills, workersâ houses. Fiskars is still a major corporation. It now owns other brands including Wedgwood, Waterford Crystal and Royal Doulton. But the company has steadily moved manufacturing out of the village to nearby towns and abroad. By the early 1990s, the last factory in Fiskars had closed, its populat ion was dwindling and its stock of magnificent buildings was falling into ruin.
It was Fiskarsâ vice-president, Ingmar Lindberg, who had the idea of repopulating the village with artists and craftspeople. Lindberg sought out creatives from across the country, and offered them spaces to work and live in the village, practically for free. One of the first people he approached was Kari Virtanen, a master cabinetmaker who started out working with legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. âThis was an empty, quiet village, fu ll of history but not any activity,â says Virtanen, a sprightly, silver-haired man. âIt was a really tricky decision to come here.â Virtanen, then based in western Finland, was persuaded by the offer of land to build a home, dozens of types of wood nearby, and the use of a 19th-century former foundry with a water wheel (now hydroelectric) and a working sawmill next door. His company, Nikari, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, makes the kind of elegant, modern, highly covetable furniture for which Finland is still renowned. Virtanenâs small team of cabinetmakers do all the design and development work in the refurbished foundry â" an atmospheric building of exposed brickwork and huge, arched windows and end-grain wooden floors. âIn winter, when itâs snowing, visitors say itâs like Santaâs workshop.â
Virtanen and other early settlers began to spread the word. Thatâs how ceramicist Karin WidnÃ¤s came here, two years later. Her house and studio, bordering the same lake as Tom and Anneâs, is one of the few modern buildings in Fiskars. WidnÃ¤s fell in love with the place on her first visit. âI got out the car and said, âThis is it.â I felt that this village has a very good energy.â This despite the fact it had one shop and one restaurant, and you could wander through the centre at 9pm and not see another soul. WidnÃ¤s mainly makes architectural ceramics â" tiles for walls and floors â" but has also made tableware, public artworks and design objects. She prefers to work alone and makes everything herself, even though many of her designs would be suited to mass production. Next to her house, she is building a ceramic museum for the village.
You have that space and quietness. Sometimes I just like to go and throw a ball to my dog in the yard in my underwear
WidnÃ¤s sees Ingmar Lindberg as a godfather figure. âHe had a vision, and he understood art and design and craft.â But despite having an empty village to fill, Lindberg had high standards, she says. âNot just anybody could come here. There was a selection committee: you had to have a CV. What are you making? Have you anything to show? Have you won any awards? You had to be a good designer and already working.â The villageâs cooperative and its exhibitions attracted national and international attention. She worries that, since Lindbergâs retirement in 2009, standards may be slipping, although she praises new arrivals such as Kim Simonsson â" an artist who has taken ceramics in a very different direction.
Simonssonâs signature creations are uncanny, life-sized children who seem like characters out of a sci-fi novel, decked in headdresses, carrying strange artefacts, stroking two-headed rabbits. They are often covered in what appears to be velvety green moss. âFor me, they are from the future, kind of a dystopian world where they are surviving by themselves,â Simonsson muses as we tour his studio, part of the former plough factory. The âmossâ is actually synthetic flocking, applied with an electrostatic gun; and the work owes as much to Japanese pop culture as Finnish modernism. âWhen I was studying, a lot of people wanted to rebel against that modernist tradition; so we were doing really decorative, anti-modernist things.â
Simonsson moved here in 2012 and, like WidnÃ¤s, he liked it so much he and his partner are building a house here. âYou have that space and quietness and the beauty of nature. Sometimes I just like to go and throw a ball to my dog in the yard in my underwear. You cannot really do that in the city. You can be as social as you want. Iâm not a superstar. I have the right size gallery for me in Finland, and I have a really good one in New York, so Iâm happy. Iâm living off my art. Thatâs always been my aim.â
The upshot of Fiskarsâ artistically oriented community, residents unanimously agree, is that it is a place of liberal, open-minded people â" in contrast to the more conservative mentality often associated with rural communities, even in Finland. âFor the kids, itâs been amazing,â Tom Puukko says. âTheyâre surrounded by people making things. I really want them to be involved in that life where they learn to create things with their hands. Kari [Virtanen] just gave my son a bunch of wood the other day so he could start to build things himself. Thereâs really a mentality of wanting to help people.â
Could Fiskars be a model for a different way of life? Many post-industrial villages across Europe find themselves in a similar predicament, after all. And it is not only artists and artisans who can sustain a living in the countryside now; it is also digital-based retail businesses such as Feathr. More could follow, but they may have to find another village: the bad news is, Fiskars is full. The village cannot grow, because its centre is a protected heritage site. Where once Fiskars was offering houses for f ree, property prices are now higher than parts of Helsinki.
The Puukkosâ apparently idyllic lifestyle also comes with risk, they warn. âIf weâd stayed in London, weâd have had a clear career path and jobs until we retire with a pension,â Anne says. âGiving up all of that has been of huge benefit to our lives and our happiness and our family,â Tom adds. âBut there have also been moments when you wake up at four in the morning and think, âOh my God, weâve given up all that security. Is it all going to be fine?ââ
Living the dream is one thing; in reality, it takes effort. âVery many young people want to move here, and when they come theyâre like âWell, Iâm going to be famous now,ââ Karin WidnÃ¤s says. âThey donât realise how much we have been working here. All of us who moved here have worked very hard because all of us were in the same boat, changing our lives. But we did it from our hearts.â This, perhaps, is the key to building such a community. âYou have to love doing the work â" it has to be a passion.â
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- Weekend magazine: creativity special
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