A woman inspecting a piece of fabric with black-and-white print.

“Great design tells a good story”

Great product design has a good story, according to IKEA Designer Iina Vuorivirta. But how do you find it? And what makes you want to tell it? We spoke to Iina about her work, recent projects and why designing everyday objects is such a thrill.

Iina Vuorivirta was set on becoming the first female president of Finland. This dream was firm until she turned six and realized she wanted to be a designer. “You could say my play turned into my hobby and my hobby into my occupation. So, here I am.”

The story of how Iina Vuorivirta became an IKEA designer reflects her courageous approach to new adventures. At sixteen she left the small village she grew up in by the Russian border to go to a high school that specialized in art. “I picked the school because I knew they collaborated with the art design college that I applied to after graduation. Once there, I did an internship in Stockholm for two weeks, loved it and managed to transfer to Beckman’s College of Design as an exchange student.”

Suddenly she found herself taking a crash-course in Swedish while exploring the Stockholm design scene. After Beckman’s and a year of freelancing, she started the Industrial Design program at Konstfack, the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.

Sketches of flask-shaped vases.
Vase from IKEA PS 2017 collection made of recycled glass, design Iina Vourivirta.

During Stockholm Design Week in 2015, Iina heard that IKEA was launching the SINNERLIG collection, a collaboration with Ilse Crawford. Iina was curious. “I started talking to this sympathetic guy who turned out to be Marcus Engman (Head of Design at IKEA of Sweden). We booked a formal meeting the next day.” Their talk ended in an invitation to visit IKEA of Sweden in Älmhult. “I’d never been there, so I thought, why not?” Classic Iina.

To me, good design respects the material. Almost all great design tells a good story that follows a red thread that makes sense.

A couple of days later she got “the tour” in Älmhult. At the end of it, Marcus Engman lightly suggested she should move there and start working at IKEA. “I’ve always been good at saying yes when opportunities present themselves. So the day after, I closed my office in Stockholm and a week later worked my first day here.”

A woman sitting at a desk, lit by a desk lamp, leaning over her work.
IKEA Designer Iina Vuorivirta in action. "Since my products will be used by so many people, I feel a great responsibility to get it right. That is why I tend to work late sometimes," she says.

Iina Vuorivirta design

Iina Vuorivirta’s design could be described as minimalistic. She enjoys simplicity and the condensation of function in the designs. Some of her favorite materials are ceramics and glass. Her vases in the IKEA PS 2017 collection explored how the patterns that appear in recycled glass could be used as a design feature in objects.

“My design process often starts with the material, be it plastic, wood or clay. To me, good design respects the material. Almost all great design tells a good story that follows a red thread that makes sense. The decisions about details follow that intention and storyline. If things stick out or seem illogical, it distorts your focus, and you lose track of the story.”

I’ve always been good at saying yes when opportunities present themselves.

Iina’s method of working is quite tactile. “As a kid, I didn’t have many toys. Instead, we played in the forest, making use of whatever stones or sticks we could find. Maybe that’s why I still have the urge to feel the fabric or material in my hands while sketching. It’s so easy these days to create on computers, everything is possible in there, and it’s easy to lose touch with the origins or feel of, say, rattan from Indonesia. So quite early I go down to the workshop and get something similar to play with as I design.”

A woman in a bathrobe, tiptoeing over round stones into a far-reaching body of water.

A portrait of a woman, lightly obscured by reflections in a window.

Best place to clear the mind according to designer Iina Vourivirta? The sauna.

This is also why she appreciates trips to suppliers so much. Working on the social entrepreneur initiative HANTVERK, she met with craftspeople in Thailand. “We visited a small supplier in the jungle who make pottery, handmade paper and handwoven textiles. I got to design together with them, learn about their skills and background, and saw that they used almost the same type of weaving chair as my mother. It was as if I was revisiting my childhood and it made such a strong impression on me.”

The HANTVERK collection, set to launch in October 2019, will include around 25 handmade products.

The thrill of designing everyday objects

For Iina Vuorivirta designing for everyday life is rewarding. “I was so happy when I was asked to design a new dish-washing brush for the basic range at IKEA. For several reasons. First, because I enjoy doing the dishes by hand; I like the meditative pace of it, the feel of the warm water and bubbles. Second, I love making design that many people can benefit from. So, I set out to make the best dish-washing brush ever.”

It has taken the team a while to find the right design, as she wanted it to be both efficient in doing its job, and at the same time be enjoyable to handle. “In this project, we knew our price limit from the outset and worked together with the supplier to make it as cost and material efficient, and as sustainable as possible. When designing I always ask myself why? What would happen if I changed this detail? I don’t alter things just because I can.”

Since my products will be used by so many people, I feel a great responsibility to get it right.

How does she decide a design is done? “I never put myself in the situation of not feeling ready when the deadline is approaching. Since my products will be used by so many people, I feel a great responsibility to get it right. That is why I tend to work late sometimes. But, this is also what I have dreamed of doing my entire life.”

When a deadline is coming up she zooms in on the particular project, often heading to the workshop to make 20 slightly different versions of the same product. “This way my hands can feel the difference. Often a couple of issues appear that I can start perfecting. I then isolate the versions I like best; then go into even more detail on these. This often puts to rest any hesitations.”

As a typical Finn, Iina refuels by being outdoors, during autumn you’ll find her picking mushrooms. And, of course, by taking a sauna. “It is truly the best thing because while you’re in there you can’t think of anything and can empty your thoughts, cleaning both your mind and body. In Helsingborg, I visit the cold bath by the sea that’s quite empty in autumn. In Älmhult, I have found a public sauna I go to after a long day at work.”

A woman in a bathrobe stands on a jetty, holding a basked of firewood.

Fast facts about Iina Vourivirta
Reading right now: Dyslexia makes that novels aren’t really my friends but I read international newspapers and news sites daily. 
Design I wish were mine: Uh! Difficult one… Finnish design classics that made me appreciate well-designed everyday life details are Sarpaneva cooking pot, Savonia cutlery and Kartio glasses.
Favourite material: Glass for sure! It can be soft and fluid, and sharp and eternal on a second. I love its’ stubbornness and the fact that you never can force it to follow the lines. One of the most challenging materials to work in.
Guilty pleasure: I read my work mail on my phone immediately after the “bling!” sound.
Last photo I took on my phone: My sketch for a simple stool in bamboo that I sent to one of our creative leaders. He replied with a thumbs up!