Alumni Spotlight: Aamu Song & Johan Olin

Aamu Song & Johan Olin. Photo by: Elina Simonen

Designers Aamu Song & Johan Olin, aka the design duo COMPANY, will have their most extensive exhibition so far opening at the Design Museum in Helsinki on April 5. Secret Universe is the Design Museum’s main exhibition of this spring and summer season. We had the chance to catch up with our residency alumni Song and Olin – in the midst of installing the exhibition – to talk about Secret Universe as well as look back to their time in the US.

Secret Universe presents the work of Song and Olin from over the past ten years. During the years, the designers have travelled around the world looking for traditional crafts methods and manufacturing skills. The travels have culminated in a collection of objects produced in collaboration with local masters of crafts.

Temple of Manufacturing at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2017. Photography Imagen Subliminal (Miguel de Guzmán).

The first time Song’s and Olin’s secrets from their travels around the world were collected together in an exhibition, was in New York in 2017. The exhibition, Temple of Manufacturing, transformed Storefront for Art and Architecture on Lower Manhattan into a sacred space with a series of in situ frescoes and materials, drawings, and objects, as well as new composite objects created in collaboration with local makers.

The Temple of Manufacturing was already initiated during Song’s and Olin’s FCINY residency in New York in 2012. The designers were not working on the Secrets project at that time, but made connections that later lead to the Temple of Manufacturing.

 “For us, the residency period was purely for artistic work, but we also met people from Storefront, and started to discuss that we should later do something together”, Olin says.

The invitation to have an exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture got Song and Olin thinking how to explain the idea of the Secrets to the New York audience. That’s how the collaboration with the Amish community got started.

“We wanted to find a manufacturer in the US to work with us, but there’s so many things manufactured in the country, that we weren’t quite sure where to start”, Song says.  

Roller Chair, part of Secrets of USA collection. A chair that doubles as a marble roller. Made by John Lapp in Lancaster PA, USA. Material: Maple. Designed by COMPANY / Johan Olin, 2017. Photo: COMPANY

 “We toured around New England and looked into different kind of traditions. The Amish of Pennsylvania got us interested, because they were immediately so straight forward”, Olin says.

 “Also, the objects that they make are really to our liking”, Song adds.

The designers’ working method involves immersing themselves in to the various cultures and traditions they are working with, for example by cooking local food and listening to local music. They try to learn as much as they can from the masters’ techniques, and then, in a collaborative process, figure out what objects to make.

“The Amish don’t have electricity, so the communication was all about writing letters back and forth”, Olin explains.

Secret Universe is in a way a continuum to the exhibition at Storefront, but adding another layer of secrets on it. The exhibition will present Song’s and Olin’s artistic process as a whole from travelling to meeting master craftspeople and from correspondence – including the letters with the Amish – to production and the completed objects.

Fruit Matryoshka, part of Secrets of Russia collection. Material: Linden, paint, lacquer. Manufactured in Semenov, Russia. Design by Aamu Song / COMPANY 2015. Photo: COMPANY

“In Secret Universe we open up the artistic process and the stories of everybody who is involved. For example, all of the masters are presented in videos. The heart of the exhibition is a big monument that celebrates the different techniques of making”, Olin says.  

The most recent project featured in the exhibition is Secrets of Mexico. Song and Olin started the project only last year, and it’s now presented for the first time at Helsinki’s Design Museum. The inspiration to work together with Mexican masters though, was already born during the duo’s New York residency back in 2012.  

“We found an amazing 70’s second-hand book about Mexican folk toys at the Strand bookstore. The book got us thinking about collaborating with the toy masters, but since it was from the 70’s, we thought that it would not be very easy to find them”, Song recalls.

Kokeshi Family Stool, Part of Secrets of Japan collection. Material: Japanese & Finnish Maple wood, Paint, Lacquer. Made by Master Abo Mutsihide in Kuroishi, Japan. Maple top, base and assembly made by Punavuoren Puuhevonen, Finland. Designed by COMPANY / Aamu Song, 2015. Photo: COMPANY

“However, little by little we got more excited about the idea, and started to look into it more closely. We found out that many of the master’s children and grandchildren are now continuing their work, and got in contact with them.”

 Working with the Mexican masters, communication, once again, turned out to be something different.

 “There’s always special way to communicate. In Mexico it’s not email or letters, but very fast WhatsApp conversations. Also, we would only talk about one thing at a time, and the rest would be left to mañana. It’s a new style for us,” Olin laughs.

Over the years, Song and Olin have created an extensive collection of objects that are now presented at the Design Museum. But if they had to choose one object that is the most meaningful to them, what would it be?

Universal Spirit”, Song says unhesitatingly. “It’s a wooden doll that is made with maple wood by a Japanese master, limetree by a Russian master, tin metal by a Mexican master and glass by a Finnish master. So there are four different layers made by different masters, and they all fit together seamlessly.”

 “Universal Spirit unites all the masters, making it the centerpiece of Secret Universe”, Olin states.