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Designers shape Tampere – and vice versa

Emilia Kiialainen knows the ins and outs of Tampere’s design scene.Aleksi Tuomola

Today, we’re visiting the Manchester of Finland, better known as Tampere. We take a peek into what’s happening in design and, quite literally, see what’s behind the scenes.

Walking in central Tampere one can’t not notice the constant construction works everywhere. The town, after years of discussions, is finally in the process of getting its very own tramline.

Those who’ve visited Tampere before but haven’t seen it for a fair few years will also spot a new underpass, a huge hotel tower and entrances to an underground parking hall, just below the main street Hämeenkatu.

What’s going on? Noora Heino, head of partnerships and networks at Visit Tampere, points out that there’s a rationale behind all the banging of hammers. Currently Tampere is the most popular domestic holiday destination for Finns, and according to a recent survey, a third of the country’s residents could imagine making the town their home.

“We’re expecting the population to double by 2030,” Heino explains. “Already, 3.7 million people live within two hours from Tampere.”

Essentially, Tampere wants to be ready to welcome everyone. Sometimes the preparations can come across funny for outsiders.

“We’ve had visitors from abroad looking at the motorway junctions and asking when the ramps will be taken into use,” Heino says laughingly. “We’ve admitted that they’re already in use, despite the quietness.”

Due to Tampere’s past as the home of a cotton factory, it’s known as ‘Manchester of Finland’ – or Manse, as Finns call it. Despite industry playing a huge role in the city’s history, not everything is made with hard tools. Tampere boasts a huge range of designers and design companies, many of which are internationally known.

Roosa Saastamoinen (back) and Niina Kratz work for Muka Va, one of Tampere’s design success stories. Image: Aleksi Tuomola

Heino believes that history and the omnipresence of nature have affected the local design scene.

“People working in design have formed an active community,” she mentions. “The city really enables and encourages this.”

Design is part of the culture

One of these community-builders is Design on Tampere, informally known as DoT. Emilia Kiialainen runs the association and has lived in Tampere for 15 years.

“Design is part of the urban culture here,” Kiialainen says. “There are various brands that have grown rapidly, and that has boosted the atmosphere in general. Designers don’t compete against each other, they collaborate.”

Kiialainen also believes that being from the country’s “second city” isn’t a bad thing. It might even mean that it’s easier to follow one’s own path, as there aren’t as many influences around as in the crowded capital.

“In a place like this you can make your designs really unique – and you also have to do so, in order to stand out.”

One of the brands with plenty of buzz around it is Uhana Design. Founders Mira Vanttaja and Hanna Virkamäki run their cosy shop in central Tampere – but it’s a small miracle that there actually is something to sell.

“Our problem, albeit a positive one, has been production,” Vanttaja says laughingly. “The demand we face is constantly increasing, but production lacks in capacity.”

The brand was born in 2012, and especially Uhana’s Drop earrings have become a hit amongst fashionistas. Most of the manufacturing takes place near Tampere, but the growth has forced the entrepreneurs to look for ethical and eco-friendly producers from further away too.

Once production catches up, Uhana is keen to gain a foothold abroad as well. Europe, South Korea and Japan are of particular interest. Home is and stays in Tampere.

“Here designers are working and pushing forward together. No one’s hiding behind their sketchbook telling others to look away,” Vanttaja describes.

Shop with a window to designers’ work

Muka Va, founded back in 2003 by current owner Anna Mattelmäki and fellow designers, is just a stone’s throw away from Uhana’s den. The brand embraces Tampere in all possible ways: sales manager Roosa Saastamoinen tells that everything with a Muka Va label on it has been made in the Tampere region.

Due to its focus on ecological and ethical aspects, Saastamoinen believes that Muka Va will find more and more fans in central Europe, where consumers have a keen interest in sustainable high-quality clothing. At the moment, the brand has dozens of resellers in Finland and some around Europe.

Products are taking shape in the hands of Pihka’s Maisa Salonen. Image: Aleksi Tuomola

Across the rapid that runs through the centre of the town, there’s another shop with international plans in the back pocket. Or, in Pihka’s case, the bag. The brand makes leather shoes, bags and accessories.

“Right now, Finnish demand is eating up most of our supply,” Sofia Salmi, one of the founders, tells in the workshop-turned-into-store. “We’re definitely starting to map potential markets, particularly in the Nordic countries and Europe, and why not North America and Asia too.”

In Pihka’s shop, visitors can actually see the products in the making. This is the case with Korus Design as well: jewellery-shoppers don’t only see the end-product, but the process itself.

Founder and owner Vesa Peltonen describes his style as “simplistic and Nordic”.

“No American glamour,” he says and laughs.

Vesa Peltonen from Korus puts the work in the (work)shop. Image: Aleksi Tuomola

Funnily enough, a lot of Peltonen’s bespoke and custom-made pieces travel all the way to the US. He assumes it’s partly due to Etsy, an online shop particularly popular Stateside.

Having a cake – and eating it together

Places like Etsy can be huge stepping stones for small brands that have no resources to run their own webstores. For Tampere brands, Weecos has served as a trampoline to large markets.

The site gathers together ethical design, and although the country of origin of the brand doesn’t matter, it all started from Tampere in 2013 as a project by its founders: CEO Hanna Lusila and Anna Kurkela, also known from Papu Design.

“At the time, Anna was looking for a place to sell Papu’s collections,” Lusila explains. “She was hoping to find somewhere professional that would sell sustainable and responsible design.”

The duo was left empty-handed, so they decided to get onto it on their own. Now, Weecos has almost 200 companies in its offering.

Weecos CEO Hanna Lusila is fond of the city’s community spirit. Image: Aleksi Tuomola

Not just anyone can join the gang. Lusila notes that Weecos isn’t just a shop; it’s a lifestyle service that also aims to advocate for a fairer world both alone and with partners such as NGOs.

“We don’t expect the companies to be perfect,” she emphasises. “But we do want them to be as good as they can and always make the best possible choices, be it in design, production, packaging or logistics.”

So far, most of the orders come from Finland, but a growing number of international shoppers are finding their way to Weecos too. Currently the team is developing ways to streamline global sales in terms of secure payments and shipping.

However, home is where the heart is. For Weecos, it’s Tampere, its lakes and its vibrant design community.

“The communal spirit here is great,” Lusila says. “Small businesses really see the value of collaboration. If someone gets a slice of cake, the others don’t think it’s stolen from their plates; instead, we’re baking a big cake together that’s enough for everyone.”

By: Anne Salomäki