A Tale of Two Designers

Interview by Noriko Kawakami.Photography Masaya Yoshimura.

Harri Koskinen, renowned Finnish designer working for Iittala, and Sachiko Yamamoto, a long-time clothing pattern engineer at Miyake Design Studio under Issey Miyake, have been colleagues, collaborators and friends over a decade. This spring in Tokyo, design journalist and curator Noriko Kawakami sat down with the two designers for a conversation about collaboration, innovation, sustainability and the new harmony.
After university studies, Harri Koskinen spent four years learning glass production at Iittala. His thoughtful approach and talent caught the attention of clothing designer Issey Miyake. In 2000, Miyake gave Koskinen a solo show at the Miyake Design Studio (MDS) Gallery. This is when the warm relationship between Koskinen and MDS began.Both of your respective countries, Finland and Japan, have distinct approaches to design. What are your thoughts on the other’s culture?
Harri Koskinen Even before becoming a designer, I was excited by Japanese products, from cars and cameras, to audio equipment and electrical appliances. I regarded Japan as the home of top-level design. So, it was very fortunate that I met Issey Miyake and was able to hear about his pioneering projects in person. It was so exciting.
Sachiko Yamamoto I visited Helsinki for the first time in January 2014. My first impression was that the Finns were dignified, perhaps a bit reserved but at the same time had big hearts. I felt a great warmth for the people and from the people, which was in direct contrast to the severe cold weather outside! I was also fascinated by the simple yet sophisticated designs of Finland.
Harri Koskinen I feel the same towards Japanese culture and the Japanese people. They are very warm-hearted, and everything is well-organised. All the Japanese projects that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with have always gone smoothly without any heartache.


Do you see the cultural commonalities translate into shared values in design philosophies?
Harri Koskinen Yes, but it’s not as obvious. In that, there are definitely commonalities between Japanese and Finnish design philosophy. But we can’t just grasp them by only looking at design features piece by piece. Instead, we should look at it through a bigger lens. We both seek fundamental attitudes while considering the natural environment and placing importance on function and practicality. Function and practicality are very important for both of our cultures. Another very important shared value, I think, is what bonds Finnish and Japanese design so strongly, and it is the idea of equal design. For example, I was raised on Iittala products—all standard things in daily use. They were all democratic designs—simple and most importantly, without pretension. In 1993, Miyake launched a line of women’s pleated clothing. I found it fascinating that he chose to make pieces that were accessible and easily wearable like jeans and t-shirts.
Sachiko Yamamoto I see this with Harri’s work with Iittala. It’s certainly the driving force behind our design philosophy at Miyake Design Studio which is to keep on searching for what is important without being caught up in preconceptions. Realising creative expression—that is something which Miyake continues to put the ultimate value on. The way we do that is by learning from traditional techniques while bringing in cutting-edge, uniquely developed technology which allows us to realise designs that have never been seen before. 
Harri Koskinen That is exactly why I really like working with the MDS team. They are always asking ‘Will this really work?’ Or ‘Why is that?’ They have so many questions! I believe that the more we ask, the deeper will be our search for answers. By asking questions, we get ideas that are concise and effective. I had the same experience when we designed watches. Asking questions is such a crucial step for the overall progress of a project and I’m always so happy to go through it. That’s why when we discussed the idea of collaborating, I asked a lot of questions about the significance and the potential of our collaboration.


So, then all the questions did lead to what we can say today is a very successful collaboration. But initially, what drew you into bringing Iittala and Miyake Design Studio together?
Harri Koskinen The impression I have of Issey Miyake’s approach to design is that it’s always pioneering, progressive and innovative. At the same time, they continue to produce things of the highest quality. I share a strong affinity with Miyake’s belief that craftsmanship is paramount. That’s why I thought it would be wonderful to collaborate. We could pool our assets and stimulate each other creatively to make what I hoped would be an optimal collection. I was convinced that we could come up with very creative results—especially because we specialise in such different materials—textiles and glass/ceramics.
Sachiko Yamamoto When we began this project with Iittala, we were determined to put in everything we could from our background in clothing design. Specifically, I created a design using the folding technique we often apply in clothing, and paid a lot of attention on the quality, shape and feel of the textiles that I wanted to use. I folded pieces of paper—old photocopies and bits of wastepaper—one after another, generating different shapes. And this is how the textile prototypes were created.
Harri Koskinen When these design prototypes arrived in Helsinki, I realised how the design process was actually a dialogue about the possibilities of the project itself. It was amazing how folded pieces of textile became three-dimensional shapes when you hold them. I remember one of our creative team designers said it was like green frogs coming out of a box! The collection’s concept was ‘blossom’, so we were working towards something variable and vivid, or ideas where the passive becomes active.
A design project is often compared to a long journey. There are always bound to be challenges but they can be overcome if the team comes to share a true understanding. It’s like continuing the journey together. How did you approach your collaboration?
Harri Koskinen Discussion is key at every stage. As different viewpoints are exposed, a project acquires a comprehensive value—what we might call an entity, or a wholeness. We must not forget that solid, individual ideas lie at the base, but individual input brings about thought patterns within a whole team.
Sachiko Yamamoto Yes. It’s the back and forth that allows the process to come together. Dynamic encounters are what makes collaborative work thrilling.


Sustainability seems to be important for both of you. How does it affect your design?

Harri Koskinen I believe what we have in common is a sense of the timelessness of design. Must we always be searching for novelties? Don’t we want something more lasting, both aesthetically and in quality? This shared mindset is why sustainability is so important in what we do.

Sachiko Yamamoto Issey Miyake founded Miyake Design Studio in 1970 with a fundamental concept: a piece of cloth. He believes that a piece of cloth becomes wearable after applying such techniques as folding, twisting, wrapping, etc. There’s a very important message hidden in that—which is that a piece of cloth is endowed with function by ideas and wisdom. The precise result will depend on the person who wears the clothes.

Sachiko Yamamoto We have always strived to make things that people can cherish over long periods. This is what led us to initiate a research project to produce fascinating clothing from 100% recycled material. Eventually a collection was realised. We take the same approach to environmental issues in our table textile items. We had the idea to exploit the full width of a textile, and so we have no off-cuts. We want our products to last years which is why we make things with simple design, high quality and responsible methods. 

Harri Koskinen One of my favourite Issey Miyake sweaters is sixteen years old! I also have one that’s about ten years old and they’re both still in perfect condition!


Sachiko Yamamoto Having said all this about our design philosophies, we still have to keep beauty in mind. Miyake often says ‘beauty is found whenever someone lays out a piece of clothing, wears it, or moves in it.’ It is not just about clothing either. It’s about whenever textile products are placed on a table or wherever, or even when they are stored away, they should be beautiful. Products should excite people and make them wonder what it is. They should affect our minds. Every textile product is required to be easy-to-use in the everyday world. Our individual lifestyles will affect the background of every design. What we value is how objects can excite and fascinate those who hold them. Design should bring joy. 

Harri Koskinen Our Finnish team came up with the idea of ‘Pause for Harmony.’ It means that we should set aside time for harmony so that we can connect to the things around us and to each other. 

Sachiko Yamamoto I was inspired by the sakura floral motifs when I created my pentagonal folding pattern. But then people kept saying that the triangles reminded them of Mount Fuji, which had never even occurred to me. 

Noriko Kawakami I think true connection comes from recognising our differences. You can understand where the foreign partners are coming from but the landscapes that we see every day and the cultural bases of our lives are fundamentally different. What emerges naturally from these differences is a creative dialogue that is deepened by collaboration. A new harmony is born from an acceptance of that difference.