Functional Completen – The Art of Pekka Paikkari

Finnish ceramic artist and designer Pekka Paikkari knows how to bend an object. Both flawless and functional, his vases, fruit bowls, and cake trays challenge our concepts of balance and gravity.

The surfaces of Pekka Paikkari’s designs appear to be melting. His combined fruit bowl and vase seems unwilling to stand still on a table. Even the flowers are given optimal movement in the vase, infusing as much life as possible into the centerpiece.

The cake tray, on the other hand, stands proudly on three legs. One leg appears broken, although the “wound” is not really dysfunctional. Of course, the tray is not melting, but the remarkable view it offers could make mouths start watering. Throning high on the tray, above the other dishes, any torte it presents becomes irresistible.

Still, Paikkari’s work is about paying tribute to the everyday. His hilarious salt and pepper dispensers (saltcellar and pepper caster) could be taken for blown-up ink stains, seen from afar. Closer up, on the table, the spice holders appear as solid as unbreakable toys. The monochrome stoneware dispensers come in different colors and may be stacked for practical, or playful, reasons. The holes releasing salt or pepper are in unexpected locations.

Of course, they do work and very well, indeed. “If things don’t work, they don’t make sense,” states Paikkari, his words underlining one reason for the enormous success of Finnish design since the 1950s.

functional-completen-the-art-of-pekka-paikkari-1

I met the artist on the outskirts of Helsinki, on a rare, hot day of summer. The view is amazing from the sixth floor of his ceramic-and- glass factory studio, Arabia, where he has worked for the last twenty years. The sky is as blue and the clouds are as white as the colors on the Finnish flag. Modern and Postmodern sculptures are almost hidden by a lush, green park with big trees.

Most of the old factory lot was restored, enlarged, or built anew last year. Like those of his colleagues in Arabia’s art department, Paikkari’s studio continues to deliver unique art pieces as well as serial production. The factory shop is new, however, and so are the cafe and exhibition spaces. The huge showroom now features the work of an array of fine artists, including the best-selling tableware Teema, whose simple shapes are made by the conscience of Finnish design, Kaj Franck.

Since last August, the 125-year-old factory has presented its designs under the name Iittala. Originally, this was the brand of Alvar Aalto, the award-winning architect and designer, whose famous glass vase was designed to represent modern Finland at the Paris World’s Fair in 1936. This flagship item has never stopped selling; indeed, according to market research, Iittala is the best-known brand in Scandinavian design. That means good-bye to the studios of Arabia, Hackman, and Rorstrand and hello to a merger. These brand names born in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries will be replaced by the more marketable Iittala.

Today, customers are less apt to be loyal to only one of the old brands. The trend is to pick and combine what suits the individual style, regardless of manufactorer. In the future Iittala will cater to an international clientele, featuring a range of designers, including the American Richard Meyer. Only home-market customers in Scandinavia will be able to buy the brands of dinnerware, cutlery, and glass that they have preferred for generations.

Each year, ten thousand people find their way to Arabia for a guided tour of its factory and museum and maybe some shopping in the factory outlet. Local legend has it that a sailor or would-be explorer named the area after places he had visited abroad. Nearby is India Street and a bright-colored multimedia center that looks like a sculpture in its own right. Some say Arabia became the craft factory’s name because it was so far from downtown Helsinki. Maybe by horse it was, but today it is only a fifteen-minute tram ride. The neighborhood is closer than your average suburb and very much citylike, as it is now experiencing a boom of development, contracting, and entrepreneurship. Soon, high-rise apartments will surround the factory.

Paikkari lives eighteen miles further away from Helsinki. His own kitchen has a Korean table full of different kinds of tools and objects. It seemed easier for the artist, his weaver wife, and their two children to make a good life away from the dynamic urbanity that characterizes the Finnish capital. Still, it is important to work there. “I could have worked in Lapland, or anywhere, if it were not for the networks, people, and exhibition spaces in Helsinki,” insists Paikkari. “As an artist, I live off them; I depend on them.”

“Living close to nature, environmental issues are a bigger concern. We should take better care of nature,” he says quietly. “I like straight things, things that are connected with nature. Clay is natural. When I work with clay, I don’t destroy anything,” says Paikkari, whose sculptures have been called petrified plants due to their rough-hewn, organic appearance.

A few years ago, Paikkari shared his concerns about nature in the design magazine Form Function: “I wouldn’t talk about nature so much as naturalness. Naturalness is the baseline of everything. In the same way, one of the points of departure for my work is recognizability. To the Japanese, the mental image of the tile is the same as it is to the Finns. … The shape of the actual object, the form is the same everywhere.”

It is probably no coincidence that Paikkari’s studio neighbor at Arabia is a Japanese artist. It is odd but true: Japanese and Finnish aesthetics seem to connect on several levels. Both tend to have a minimalistic approach, though nature figures prominently in the work, and both seem rooted in the same shamanistic tradition. Whichever way the connection is explained, it is a fact that Finnish crafts (and, in recent times, design and even dance) offer associations to Japan.

Paikkari has worked and exhibited in Asia several times and appreciates the form of Korean graves and Japanese sculpture. He does not admit to any specific influence; rather, “Japan” explains his work, says the artist, who is called a modest man by the saleswoman presenting his dishes in a posh, downtown designer shop. Still, it is hard to settle on one full explanation of Paikkari’s style, which is split in two extremely different directions.

As an artist and designer, Paikkari has developed two signatures that stand in an alien, almost schizophrenic, relationship to one another. There are the earthy, ceramic art pieces with their holes and cracks that generate collective memory, on the one hand, and the sleek designs with clear contours and colors on the other. In the first, the process is the thrill, in the second, functionality. The artist mixes whitish, brownish, and blackish glaze with metallic oxides, such as copper or iron. A special effect is reached by adding a pinch of aluminum oxide, creating a white burn reminiscent of plaster. In the artworks, the layers are much more visible than in the machine-made designs. The designer’s responsibility is to make pieces that are possible to reproduce.

Paikkari argues that he needs both identifies to feel creatively complete, if he wants to keep challenged by the dilemma of the simple versus the complicated. For him, the continuing goal is to make the complex as simple as possible. Exploring the borderlines of what is possible, and what not, is fundamental to all his art. As a designer, he fights with the commercial systems of production. As a ceramic artist, he battles the material and the conditions supplied by the kiln.

functional-completen-the-art-of-pekka-paikkari-2

Throwing away broken ceramics is not Paikkari’s automatic procedure. In his favorite sculptural work, Breaking Up of Ice, broken surfaces supply spectators with material for their own story making. One Postmodern aspect of this piece is the use of old firing shelves in the process. This strategy, along with Paikkari’s interest in ancient firing methods going as far back as to the starting point of ceramics in Turkey, has convinced the American author Mark Del Vecchio to feature his work in Postmodern Ceramics, the standard book on the subject.

Some of his works are genuine documents of building the kiln and firing it. “On one level that makes the art objects very true,” Paikkari muses. “When I use material that looks like tiles but is not, or present roofs that turn out not to be roofs, or jars with no bottoms, then I give people ideas. It may be hard to be an artist, but so it is in life.”

Paikkari knows what he is talking about. From 1984 to 1985, he worked at a mental hospital, where teaching art therapy changed his whole view of ceramics. The patients expressed their feelings in the clay. He made ink drawings with the patients, and the patients modeled for him. The young artist ended up disgusted by everything that is perfect and refused to do beautiful things anymore.

A classmate from the Academy of Craft and Design at Kupio, ceramic artist Milla Komu, can relate. An art therapist, she works at a family center for children–often grown-up children–of broken homes. Art classes sometimes allow them to work out relationship problems they previously could not solve, including some old issues. Komu says that Paikkari already had both the designer and the artist in him while at the academy, where he worked freely with both the rougher and lighter approaches.

Paikkari’s work has received international acclaim. At London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, he has shown works in the exhibition Scandinavian Ceramics and Glass. Yet how close does he feel to Scandinavian design? Indeed, is it a meaningful description of his work?

He hopes so. Scandinavian design is known for simple shapes that are functional. However, he feels more experimental than such a basic definition permits. Paikkari also speaks openly about reduced government support for the arts. Nationally and internationally, museums have suffered. Paikkari says he cannot remember the last time the Museum of Art and Design in Helsinki bought ceramics.

If Paikkari could invest in another institution with small opportunities to keep up its design conscience, the school would win. Paradoxically, public schools, poor as they are, invest in design in Finland. This is a good thing. One book I have at home, called Happy Children, stresses how important it is for children to be surrounded by beautiful things. Paikkari agrees. He has designed a special line of tableware for schools, where heavy daily use requires advanced functionality.

For the artist, since the life span of institutionally used tableware is dependent on the decor, it should fit different situations and interiors. For this purpose, Paikkari prints a pattern on the plate, before it is fired, that is easily combined with the school’s lunchroom environment. Usually not considered technologically shy, Paikkari and his designer colleagues first adopted the possibilities of computers in 1990. Now, he uses a three-dimensional program and draws straight onto the computer.

A new national program calls for design education to be included in the curriculum of Finland’s comprehensive schools. Setting out to increase knowledge of design and everyday, material culture, lesson plans include a focus on properties such as grip and fit for the hand. The need for ergonomically oriented product design is a serious matter in a culture where many people–both children and adults–sit still in front of a screen, at work or at home.

Though the two do not necessarily exclude each other, ergonomical design has not become as popular as minimalist design. Is minimalism tired? I ask Paikkari at Arabia’s cafeteria.

“Probably it will never be over. I like minimalism, if it is honest and true without explanation, but people like to mix. I do not believe that minimalism is as popular in real life as it is in the magazines,” he says.

At the end of the day, Paikkari is off to pick up his 14-year-old son, who helps him in the studio during the summer. A mosaic of tiles lies on the floor. Soon father and son will put the burnt clay in layers on the wall, like a painting. I remember his credo: things need to function.

But art objects, do they make sense? I point toward his oversized bottles of clay, which look well worn. “Art makes sense as art,” Paikkari replies.

Naturally. Referring to his bottles that are not bottles, he is right. What are these objects but metaphors and story triggers? What are they but a mystery to the eye and a delight for fantasy? What are they but art? And art makes sense, right?n

Marit Str?mmen is a freelance writer based in Oslo, Norway.