When Saana Sipilä and Olli Sallinen were moving into a new flat as students about a decade ago, they decided it was time to update some of their interior textiles. Unfortunately, everything made of sustainable and recycled materials would’ve made their home look like a house for hippies.
“It seemed like almost all ecological products had been coloured to suit a carnival,” Sipilä says. “We were hoping for something much more Nordic.”
Luckily, both Sipilä and Sallinen were studying textile design. They didn’t sit on their ideas: the first cushion collection was launched in 2009, when neither had yet graduated.
This took the couple to an entrepreneurship programme, and in 2011, with fresh degrees in hand, Saana ja Olli (ja meaning ‘and’ in English) became their full-time job.
Although Sipilä and Sallinen do freelance work for other brands both alone and together, Saana ja Olli is their heartfelt passion. Sallinen points out that in order to ensure a good night’s sleep, they are picky about with whom they agree to collaborate.
“We only work with companies that share our values: sustainability, high quality and design that lasts despite continuous use and changing trends and seasons,” Sipilä explains.
“With Saana ja Olli we are fully in charge of what materials are used, where and how the products are manufactured and what the end result looks like,” Sallinen adds. “That’s how we want it to be, and at the same time, we want to show other designers that it’s possible to stick to your values. In our dream world Saana ja Olli would not have 1 000 employees, but there would be 1 000 small independent design companies like Saana ja Olli.”
Hemp for the win
Saana ja Olli’s choice of material is 100 per cent hemp. The couple praises the plant’s qualities, particularly in comparison to mass-produced cotton.
“Hemp just gets better with time, as washing and using it will just make it softer and softer,” Sipilä notes. “The fibre is sturdy, so the fabric stays in shape.”
Sipilä and Sallinen had to turn into detectives to find a place where making 100 per cent hemp fabric was possible. Now, all of Saana ja Olli’s fabric is produced at the nearest available location, the border between Romania and Hungary. Printing is done in Finland, as is sewing.
“For us it’s crucial not to hide any production phases,” Sallinen emphasises. “Each product tag tells the item’s life cycle from start to finish, which goes against the conventions of the industry.”
Showroom with a hint of Tom of Finland
As Saana ja Olli is a result of two pairs of hands, both designers get to have a say in the final version. Usually the result is a somewhat minimalistic yet large pattern that draws inspiration from Nordic folklore and earthy colours.
The couple have been together for almost 14 years. Hence, it’s not always necessary to even use words. Once it’s done, it’s done.
“First we both do sketches and drafts, and then we compare and combine them,” Sallinen describes. “Then we see which bits fall into place – and almost hear the ‘click’.”
When it comes to the less design-related aspects of entrepreneurship, tasks are divided according to personal interest.
“My average grade in maths was 5 (out of 10) and Saana’s was 10, so it’s pretty obvious which one deals with numbers,” Sallinen tells, laughingly.
The numbers are on the increase. Japan has been a particularly fruitful market for Saana ja Olli, with several resellers and collaborations. South Korea, China and Taiwan have a keen interest in Nordic design, too.
Boosting the international presence of the brand isn’t the only project Sipilä and Sallinen are working on. Together with another couple, they’re also renovating an old school on the riverside in the city of Turku. It just so happens that it’s also the birthplace and childhood home of Touko Laaksonen, internationally better known as Tom of Finland.
“When we get the ground floor fixed, we’ll soon have our very own showroom, gallery space and a summertime café,” Sallinen reveals.