Kaisa Valkama-Kettunen for a long time did not envision herself taking over as the managing director of Bjarmia, a ceramics manufacturer founded by her mother, Aini Valkama, in Kuusamo, Northern Ostrobothnia, in 1974.
“I was sure basically throughout my school years here that I wouldn’t be staying in Kuusamo,” she tells. “After junior high, I was an exchange student in Pennsylvania, the US. That year left me with an interest in internationalisation, and I thought an international career would be the thing for me.”
But take over she did – although only after a journey that took her to study international business in Turku – which, she duly points out, was as far as she could go without leaving Finland – and international design business management in Helsinki before she found herself participating in a product development project at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
“That settled it for me,” retorts Valkama-Kettunen. “They had the same kind of startup buzz there that we do today in Finland. We were there with our fellow students, investors and business representatives, getting what could be described as a marination in positivity.”
Armed with her new-found positivity and unbridled enthusiasm, she decided to return to see what was going on with Bjarmia and how it felt to be back in Kuusamo. It felt good and the preparations to pass the company on to her began roughly a year later, in 2008.
“In a year I became sure that I wanted to live again in Kuusamo. I love the northern nature and feel that the quality of life is very good here,” she explains. “But five days after we signed the papers and completed the change of generation, the first American bank collapsed. I knew the crisis would also hit Finland,” she says.
It was not the first major crisis to get in the way of the ceramics manufacturer, however.
Belief in craftsmanship
Bjarmia had outgrown its original production facility by the early 1980s and began drawing up plans for a larger facility on the same land plot to respond to growing demand particularly from corporate customers.
“We sold a lot of ceramics as business gifts in the 1980s and had roughly two dozen employees at the factory,” tells Valkama-Kettunen.
Her mother was responsible for production, design and sales, as well as the café built in the second floor of the facility. It was a lot to handle for one person, and a decision was made to either downsize and make the company more easily manageable or pursue growth and bring in more people.
“The matter was settled by the 1990s depression. We started to scale down operations, cut products and move in a more distinct direction,” she says.
The decision was momentous also in that it saw the company shift away from machine-assisted production and re-align itself as a manufacturer of unique handmade ceramics. This belief in the craft of its employees is what sets the company apart from the competition also today, believes Valkama-Kettunen.
“Our products are handmade, and it’s allowed to show. We don’t use any moulds or stamps. Every single line is carved by hand, and that’s why every cup and plate is different – and that’s also the objective,” she says.
Inspired by nature, guided by functionality
Valkama-Kettunen, who is also the lead designer at Bjarmia, reveals that she draws her inspiration mainly from the rich cultural history and unique and diverse nature of Kuusamo.
“Our company has a long history, but our name dates as far back as the Viking Age. We’re following in the footsteps of the Bjarmians, who were bold and open-minded craftspeople and merchants – just like we are,” she quips.
“But nature is really the main source of inspiration for all our tableware and design language in general. And it shows.”
Bjarmia, she adds, has always also sought to keep step with the times and ensure its products are suitable for everyday use: “Our products are more than decorative items: everything is oven, microwave oven and dishwasher-proof. They’ve also been shaped in a way that they stack neatly in the dishwasher.”
Valkama-Kettunen is looking forward to finding out whether such a distinctive design language also appeals to audiences outside Finland and has initiated negotiations with potential co-operation partners in Japan and Canada.
“Japan is a country that has been on our mind for a while. We gave it some thought in the 1990s, but the world was so different that we would’ve had to ship a container full of samples,” she says.
That is not to suggest an expansion into a new market is entirely without its challenges today, of course. Valkama-Kettunen recently showcased her work at the Nordic Fair in Osaka, realising that a lot of attention must be paid to localising the products and satisfying the locals’ yen for details of the design and production processes.
Bjarmia has certainly demonstrated a propensity for adapting to market changes and other external forces over its 45-year history – a quality not dissimilar to the elasticity of its main raw material, clay.
“Mum used to say early on that all of this started from a lump of clay,” tells Valkama-Kettunen.