We meet Saana Sipilä and Olli Sallinen via Skype on a Wednesday morning in May. The couple behind the label Saana ja Olli has woken up in their atmospheric old wooden house in the Finnish coastal city of Turku and is still a bit morning-sleepy.
Their life is hectic at the moment: they are exhibiting their hemp textiles at the Turku Design Festival, facing many work-related deadlines, and working at home due to a plumbing renovation at their office. But Saana and Olli don’t complain. They have clearly found their niche in the field of design – at least based on the amount of media attention they’ve recently received in Finland and other countries. ”It does feel nice. It’s cool that, though we are a small business and relatively young designers, we’re competing for the same media coverage with the big names and established designers. That tells us that the world is changing for the better,” Olli says. The story of Saana ja Olli started in 2004 when a young couple met at a music festival in the woods of Oripää, Finland. They started dating, and eventually also studying textile design together at Turku University of Applied Sciences. During the studies they designed their first products, founded the company in 2010, and started concentrating on it full time after their graduation in 2011.
Saana and Olli draw all their patterns by hand and want to keep their products timeless and simplistic. That was their philosophy already in the beginning, though many other young designers were using computers to realize their visions. ”We both dig folk craft-kind of aesthetic. When we started, this kind of style couldn’t really be seen anywhere, so we needed to delve into history books to find it, and bring it to the 2010s,” Olli says. Other important principles of their design philosophy are durability, sustainability and local production. ”We’ve been interested in environmental and ethical issues since teenagers, and they are a natural part of our lives and the foundation of our business,” Olli explains. Saana ja Olli designs and produces textiles made of European hemp. Hemp is a highly eco-friendly raw material, which requires no synthetic fertilisers, irrigation or herbicides to grow. It also gives bigger crops than cotton or linen and is very durable. For printing and sewing they use local textile professionals in Southwestern Finland to ensure high product quality, and a safe working environment and proper wages for the employees. When Saana and Olli started, many designers we’re complaining how difficult it is to do things in an eco-friendly and sustainable way. The design duo decided to prove otherwise. “We were able to find textile manufacturers in Finland by putting some time and effort into it, although it required quite a bit of detective work. You can’t really find these old-school companies just by googling them.”
In addition to the work on their own collections, Saana ja Olli has made designs for various international clients and been involved in many design projects on different continents. For example, they have designed an interior tile collection to Japanese Danto Co. Ltd, tin box graphics for Lipton’s Rainforest Alliance certified tea, and a wallpaper for Boråstapeter, the biggest wallpaper company in Scandinavia. One of their latest collaborations is with LifeSaver Helsinki, a Finnish label, for which they have designed office supplies. Also when designing for other companies, the designer couple holds on to their principles. They have refused to accept some projects, because the products have been of poor quality and made under suspicious conditions. Saana Sipilä and Olli Sallinen believe that a designer has a moral responsibility. “These days it’s hard to imagine that a designer wouldn’t consider ecological and ethical questions. Or if not, then they’re not very professional,” Olli feels. “Many times these things even go hand in hand with the economical factors. For example, a reasonable use of materials can benefit your company economy-wise,” Saana says. They also believe that design can change the world and shape people’s thinking. “For example, when we started, the drawbacks of cotton production weren’t widely acknowledged, and the issue wasn’t discussed in media. Nowadays even the women’s magazines write about these things,” Olli says. We want to make environmental friendliness inviting and desirable. You don’t need to make compromises between style and ecological thinking. On the contrary, you can get products that both look good and are good for the environment,” Saana summarizes. This year we will still see many new products by Saana ja Olli. Their own 2015 collection will be released in September, and there will be various collaboration projects, such as a carpet collection.