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JOURNAL

Interview
Harri Koskinen Vol.1

What’s in the ‘Maja’ name? Learn about the pursuit of comfort expressed through this name and about the design concept developed by Harri Koskinen, the designer of Maja Hotel Kyoto.

  • Interview with Harri Koskinen
  • Interview by Yoshinao Yamada
  • Photographs by Yasushi Nagai (Finland) and Shin Ebisu (Kyoto)

Helsinki is the capital of Finland, a country known for its forests and lakes. The charm of Finland is not only in its landscape; it is present in the country’s illustrious history of beautiful and functional design, as expressed by many giants of the craft through furniture, ceramics, glassware, textiles, and other everyday items. The excellence of Finnish design is recognized beyond the country’s borders, including in Japan, where products designed in Finland are familiar and beloved by many. Pursuing both functional beauty and an atmosphere of abundance, Maja Hotel Kyoto hired leading Finnish designer Harri Koskinen to design the hotel. How did Koskinen approach the project? We visited his office near Helsinki’s central railway station to find out.

Born 1970 in Karstula, Finland, Harri Koskinen studied at Lahti Institute of Design and at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki before establishing his own agency, Friends of Industry, in 1998. Working across the entire design spectrum from furniture and products to spaces, he usually gets involved from the initial concept stage.

Koskinen’s office is located near the bustling Hakaniemi market square, right by a lakeside park. The place feels peaceful and secluded despite being in the middle of the city, with many other offices nearby.

One of Koskinen’s most recognizable works is the “Block Lamp,” created for Design House Stockholm in 1996. A lightbulb that appears to sit inside a block of ice, it is considered to have broken new ground for Finnish design and became an international sensation – one that remains on the market today.

In 1997, the launch of a lamp composed of a lightbulb seemingly confined within a block of ice signaled the dawn of a new age for Finnish design. Marketed by Swedish brand Design House Stockholm, this “Block Lamp” was designed by Harri Koskinen.
 Finland has produced many giants of design, among them Alvar Aalto, who explored new possibilities in both architecture and furniture; Kaj Franck, who revolutionized tableware by observing the hardship-filled lives of people after World War II; and Tapio Wirkkala, a student of nature and folk history who fused function with aesthetics. This legacy has been upheld by internationally oriented companies such as Artek, Iittala, and Marimekko, but by the 1990s Finnish design had lost some of its previous dynamism. Harri Koskinen, then in his mid-20s, was to become the man who made the world stand up and take notice of new Finnish design.

Koskinen’s “Lantern,” launched by Iittala in 1999. Initially designed as a candleholder, it received an electrical update in 2013 when a lightbulb was added to the original design. The piece in the photo is the electrical version.

“Valkea,” another Iiittala piece launched in 2018, is a tealight candleholder made of glass. Featuring soft contours and a cute, round shape, it is available in a variety of colors and is appreciated for its compatibility with tableware. A candle placed within its thick glass walls gives off a pleasant, flickering glow.

Finland has an active glassware scene that receives contributions from a great many designers, including Harri Koskinen, who occasionally creates glass art such as this object. Placing a lightbulb in its indented part transforms the piece into a lamp.

Koskinen has a strong connection with Japan, having held his inaugural solo exhibition at the MDS Gallery in Tokyo. In addition to products and furniture, much of his current work involves the design of spaces, both in Finland and internationally. When asked about his experience working on hotels, Koskinen mentions having designed a room in a renovated property that occupies an old building in Finland. Maja Hotel Kyoto, however, was his first attempt at designing an entire hotel. How, then, did he react upon receiving this commission from Japan?
 “While I was quite familiar with the team producing Maja Hotel Kyoto (Spiral / Wacoal Art Center Co. Ltd.), I had never worked on a project with them before and was surprised when I received the offer,” says Koskinen. “But they were very thorough in conducting the negotiations and making plans, and with Japanese architects collaborating with us on the building, I was never concerned about not achieving our goals. I was also excited about the prospect of designing a hotel in a city like Kyoto. I had visited the city before, albeit only a few times. I felt blessed to have this great opportunity to take on a new project in such a historic and distinctive place.”
 Koskinen chose the hut as his design theme for Maja Hotel Kyoto. The shape of a hut with a triangular roof is a universal one, familiar all around the world. People tend to associate this shape with safety and shelter, or with a place where one can feel secure. The word “maja” is actually meaningful as well, as Koskinen explains while looking back at the planning process.
 “At the planning stage, the tentative name of the hotel was ‘mayu’ (‘cocoon’ in Japanese),” he recalls, “but I misheard it as ‘maja,’ a Finnish word that can be used to describe a hut, the kind of treehouse or secret hideout children like to build, a camping tent, or even a small lodge such as a Japanese ryokan. I was surprised and thought our Japanese staff had such a good command of Finnish, but it was all a misunderstanding on my part [laughs]. When I explained that to the team, someone suggested that the word would actually make the perfect name for a hotel, and we adopted it right then and there.”

Each room at Maja Hotel Kyoto is designed to resemble a hut. Guests can store their luggage under the bed, allowing for efficient use of the limited amount of personal space available. Pulling down the curtain transforms the room into a cocoon-like, safe space.

Some of the rooms are situated on top of each other, with the upper level accessed via a ladder. The entire interior, including these ladders, was designed by Koskinen.
The hut theme can also be sensed in the hotel’s latticed exterior, which was designed to blend in with the Kyoto cityscape.

Koskinen recalls how a different plan for the plot on which Maja Hotel Kyoto now stands was being advanced before he became involved with the project. The owner, however, visited Finland himself to speak with Koskinen about the possibility of building a new type of capsule hotel, an idea that he saw greater potential in. The owner had a strong interest in creating a more comfortable space than was being considered at the time.
 “This change was proposed when construction on the building’s framework was already taking place,” Koskinen explains, “and it was difficult to come up with a new proposal and suggest changes to a building that was, to a certain extent, presently taking shape. The owner’s main request was that the building become a capsule hotel and that the ground floor house the first overseas branch of Café Aalto, so the floor plan was already set in stone.”
 The capsule hotel is a distinctive form of accommodation developed for Japanese needs and purposes. How much did Koskinen know about this type of hotel?
 “I was aware of capsule hotels – I had never actually stayed in one, but I traveled a lot when I was younger and slept in youth hostel bunk beds,” he says. “I don’t think there is such a big difference between youth hostels and capsule hotels in terms of their social function and in how their guests interact with each other. Of course, I did stay in a few capsule hotels as part of this project. I was tired the first time and remember struggling with the shower and locker systems. I understand that Maja Hotel Kyoto is aiming to attract guests from all over the world, so we established strict guidelines to make the signage simple and easy to understand no matter what country you come from.”