Is He a Woodworker or Is He an Artist?


POHJANKURU, Finland — As his designs drift from conventional tables and chairs to more experimental, sculpturelike pieces, the question could arise: Is Antrei Hartikainen an artisanal woodworker or an artist whose preferred medium is wood?

“It’s hard to say,” he said, standing in his work space, a former metal spring factory just outside Fiskars, a town about 50 miles west of the Finnish capital Helsinki. It has long been considered a seat of Finnish craftsmanship and where Mr. Hartikainen, 31, has lived since 2010.

The former factory, which he shares with two other businesses, is a sprawling, warehouselike space filled with shelves of neatly stacked timber and woodworking equipment that Mr. Hartikainen uses to create prototypes of his furniture designs for clients as well as his own collection of more than a dozen furniture and sculptural pieces. (Clients may manufacture his prototypes or subcontract the work.)

“I feel some part of me is really practical, like I’m really a woodworker and not fully an artist,” he said. “But then there’s a feeling of artistic freedom I have that I can’t always explain; like why did I do this or that?”

Still, an artistic sensibility is present in even the most functional of his furniture pieces, which brands here and in Sweden, Korea, Australia and other countries have commissioned him to design.

For example, his Bastone series of oak cabinets and sideboards have a cagelike construction of thin wooden rods that create shadows that gently shift when the surrounding light changes — the configuration conveys a combination of fragility and durability that is recurrent in Mr. Hartikainen’s work.

“Nowadays you see a lot of cabinets and sideboards that carry the same aesthetic, but back in 2018, you didn’t,” wrote Timo Mikkonen, a co-founder of Poiat, the design studio in Helsinki that commissioned the series from Mr. Hartikainen. “Bastone was truly innovative.” Its starting price is 5,000 euros ($5,195).

Mr. Hartikainen also devotes a portion of his time to the design of small wooden items like spoons, tongs and kitchen containers, household pieces that he creates as prototypes and then outsources to manufacturers for mass production and delivery to retail outlets.

But, he said, he has increasingly felt drawn to the creation of artistic pieces, works that often make their debuts at exhibitions alongside art installations and sculptures.

That was the case with his Melt furniture and sculptural woodwork series, which Mr. Hartikainen initially designed for a 2019 exhibition at the Chart Art Fair in Copenhagen and the Collectible design fair in Brussels the same year.

Pieces in the collection have a distinct three-dimensional appearance. To create it, Mr. Hartikainen glued layer upon layer of thin pieces of Finnish pine in various lengths onto the furniture’s surface, a process he said requires “hundreds of hours” and “kilometers” of pine rods.

The result is a melting appearance, the strips looking as if they are sliding down the surface, that he said was inspired by the way water ripples over ice as it starts to melt in the spring. (Having grown up in eastern Finland, Mr. Hartikainen knows a thing or two about such occurrences.)

He uses the effect in different ways on cabinets and floating shelves of varying sizes. As for the wall hangings in the collection, “it’s functional, but there doesn’t need to be a function,” he said. “It can just be a sculpture in itself.”

Melt pieces, which have sold worldwide, are made to order and are available through online retailers and www.antreihartikainen.fi. They come in a variety of finishes, with prices starting at €2,000.

“He is extremely skillful with wood in all its different forms,” wrote Katja Hagelstam, who runs the Lokal gallery in Helsinki, which introduced Mr. Hartikainen’s Melt series at the fairs. “He has an amazing ability to see beauty and aesthetics in the Finnish nature that he implies in his work.”

For an addition to the Melt line, Mr. Hartikainen teamed last year with the glassblowers of Lasismi, a studio in Riihimaki, about 40 miles north of Helsinki, to produce a series of vases, designing both a set of plywood molds and how to use them in the glassblowing process.

The molds are charred inside and then bubbles of molten glass are placed in them. The charring transfers itself to the glass during the process. And then the molds are recut and reconfigured for subsequent pieces. As a result, each completed piece is unique, but the entire batch displays the same distinctive charred patterns.

The process was “a great example of using a mold as a medium to achieve a combination of delicate pattern and variable form” in glassblowing, wrote Kaappo Lahdesmaki, one of the two glassblowers involved in the project. Vases in the Melt series start at €490 and can be purchased through Mr. Hartikainen’s website.

“All in all I see them as a fitting addition to his creations,” Mr. Lahdesmaki wrote of the vases, “and they certainly have his artistic fingerprint on them.”

Even when he was very young, Mr. Hartikainen always thought that he would pursue some form of woodworking as a career.

His first brush with the trade came as a child in the eastern Finnish town of Outokumpu, where his father ran a custom furniture business making and installing cabinets and wall units.

While his father worked, the young Mr. Hartikainen often would do what he called “little creative things” with wood and help his father with small tasks. Training in basic woodworking came later at school.

An artistic teenager who liked to paint, draw and knit, he elected to pair the trade with a creative focus at vocational schools, earning qualifications in craft and design, artisanal woodworking and master cabinetry.

But while the other students were out partying or taking advantage of the notoriously short Finnish summers, Mr. Hartikainen said he could usually be found in the workshop, familiarizing himself with new tools, techniques and wood varieties. “I was using the workshop 24-7,” he said. “I was also renting it in the summer. I was doing some designs, but just so I could learn all the different techniques. I was really into the making.”

A turning point in his career began with an internship at Nikari, a furniture manufacturer founded in 1967 that earned attention in the late 1960s and ’70s for its collaborations with the Finnish architecture and design greats Alvar Aalto and Kaj Franck.

The internship led, in 2010, to a job and soon Mr. Hartikainen was in charge of helping designers develop new collections for the company. “I would say this was my path to being a designer,” he said. “I was interested in design earlier and in doing my own things, but this is where I really started to see it in a practical way.”

A determination to hone his craft, coupled with a talent for creating designs that capture the fragility of nature, is behind Mr. Hartikainen’s success, Nikari’s chief executive, Johanna Vuorio, wrote in an email.

“He has practiced and practiced the traditional Nordic craftsmanship thoroughly, which I find very respectable — no shortcuts, and with enough time to find his own interpretations,” she wrote. “His pieces are delicate and poetic, but still durable and down-to-earth, very human.”

During his seven years at Nikari, Mr. Hartikainen began to collaborate with artists in his spare time, designing installations and sculpturelike pieces for exhibitions.

Then, in 2017, he applied for and received a grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation that enabled him to open his own design studio.

Among the first purely artistic works he released was Kukkii, a series of slender-stemmed wooden flowers and plants designed to “capture the moment of calm and freedom sometimes found in nature,” according to his website. They can be purchased individually as floor sculptures, which have a starting price of €2,800, or as decorative items atop floating shelves, which start at €400.

The series won product of the year at the 2017 Muoto Gala, an annual event that recognized outstanding Finnish design and now is known as the Helsinki Design Awards. Mr. Hartikainen’s website includes a quote from one of the competition’s jurors: “Despite his young age, Antrei has a sensitive touch and superb vision. You can almost sense a touch of holiness in these slender flowers.”



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