This past 8 March we were treated to a visit from the newly elected Vice President of our member the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo. We took the opportunity to sit down with Päivi Tahkokallio and discuss the many projects in which she is involved, including Nordicité 2016, the project that brought her to Montreal.

Q: Rovaniemi, Finland is the capital of Lapland, sitting on the Arctic Circle.  The population is approximately 60 000, and the average high in January is -8 Celsius.  Why did you decide to move there nearly eight years ago?

I get this question quite often. My husband, who grew up in Lapland, was offered an interesting work opportunity there, which he decided to say yes to, and so we moved to the Arctic Circle. I had to figure out what I was going to do there, so I set up my company at the time.

Q: How would you define ‘arctic design’?

Well, there are many ways to define arctic design, but the way I prefer to define it is that arctic design is design for the extreme. Conditions in the Arctic are very challenging, and they are challenging in many ways. From extreme weather conditions to very sparsely populated areas, from lack of infrastructure or poor infrastructure to challenges related to the coexistence of indigenous people and mainstream cultures… it’s also a very fragile, sensitive natural environment. So in a way, the Arctic region is a good laboratory for design practices.

From the Arctic’s point of view, conditions are so challenging that to be able to develop in a sustainable manner, you need all the help you can get. And design is a good help! It also provides a good opportunity to test design methods, even new design methods, from service design to strategic design, approaches that are more interdisciplinary.

Arctic design requires that you know a lot about the conditions, that you do your homework well, and that is not limited to the Arctic. It’s relevant wherever you have challenging conditions. In those cases, the approach of arctic design can be applied.

Q: Since 2013 you’ve served as Chair of the Committee on Design at the Lapland Chamber of Commerce and have played a role in shaping Finland’s Arctic Policy. Why is design so important for Arctic regions in your opinion?

Design practice in general is changing. It has already changed, but it’s still changing. In my opinion we are moving from traditional design practices—industrial design included—towards a more interdisciplinary approach, towards a more strategic approach to design. This kind of shift works well in the Arctic because the challenges we face here are big global challenges. You can’t tackle them without a strategic approach, without an interdisciplinary approach.

One single designer in the Arctic is not of much use. You really need the interdisciplinary teams and you need a level of strategy.

Q: You are the force behind Rovaniemi’s Arctic Design Week, which just concluded its 8th year. What kinds of challenges have you faced in organizing the world’s northernmost design week?

Actually I expect that most of the challenges that we have we share with most design weeks. The typical challenges relate to commitment—the commitment of the city, the commitment of the most important stakeholders. The city of Rovaniemi plays an important role in Arctic Design Week, and we also have a university with a faculty of art and design, which plays a crucial role. So the commitment of these two bodies is necessary.

From a financial point of view, it has taken quite a few years to really reach a point where continuity is part of the commitment. But I think this is what every design week is facing. You have to negotiate funding and it’s difficult to get that for the long term. And that affects the planning of the week, it affects how you can market it, it affects the internationalization of the week… Those are the typical issues we have faced.

I feel we have a really interesting design week, but it’s relatively small in scale. If we want to develop Arctic Design Week to the next level, we need to facilitate an international dialogue in a different way from what we have been doing so far.

Q: We were wondering if Arctic Design Week’s location makes it just a bit more difficult to convince people to visit?

That’s relative. The University of Lapland, Faculty of Art and Design, is the most remote design faculty in Europe. But, the University of Lapland, relative to its size, is the most international university in Finland. And the most important reason is the location, because it is on the Arctic Circle, and it’s very exotic. For many people that exotic nature is the reason they choose it. It’s very attractive. And the same reason applies with the design week.

Q: Finland celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence in 2017. Can you tell us if you have any special plans to celebrate in Rovaniemi?

Every city and town in Finland has something planned for next year. In Finland, Lapland is the most northern part of the country and Arctic issues—not only arctic design—are very relevant to us. We will want to showcase Finland’s Arctic as it is in 2017, and one part of that is an exhibition on Arctic expertise, which will be created for the Arctic Centre, a research centre in Rovaniemi. Arctic Design Week will focus on the 100 years of Finland celebration, and then there’s going to be an Arctic Spirit Conference, an international conference, that will take place in 2017 as well. It’s a set of conferences organized bi-annually that relate to the establishment of Arctic Council in the mid-1990s.

The initiative to build the Arctic Council as a joint body for the Arctic countries was taken in Rovaniemi in the mid-90s, so we play a role in the Arctic historically. This conference series connects people from different Arctic countries and touches on policy, but also deals with things on a practical level, so it’s a very cross-disciplinary conference. Next year’s conference will also coincide with Finland taking on the role of Chair of the Arctic Council.


One single designer in the Arctic is not of much use. You really need the interdisciplinary teams and you need a level of strategy.

Q: Nordicité 2016 has been described as an “arctic-themed interdisciplinary design symposium”. How did your involvement in this event come about?

It was Caoimhe Beaulé who came to Rovaniemi two years ago as an exchange student, and luckily for us happened to be there during the design week. I think Caoimhe got quite excited about it and wanted to do something similar in Montreal. And then it was me, among others, who started to support her… We’ve had quite a few Skype meetings! And now the first Nordicité event is taking place and I am here as one of the keynotes.

Q: Today is 8 March, International Women’s Day. What are your thoughts on women and industrial design?

In industrial design, well, in design in general, the glass ceiling we talk about does exist. I think we see far too often all-male panels in industrial design. It’s an embarrassment that this happens, but it still happens. We don’t see women very often as CDOs—Chief Design Officers—in multinational corporations even if there are now more CDOs in companies. Still in Finland, and many other countries, if you look at the gender of industrial design students it’s half and half and sometimes it’s even more women than men. So actually the starting point is based on equality, but then something happens along the line. And when we look at the top positions, then we lose women.

I think one has to be optimistic. The number of female students, in those early stages of an industrial design career, they signify a change. But it’s also important to note that change does not just happen. Change has to be made. And the way I feel it can be made, in design and in other fields, is to start with small actions. It starts with the everyday actions.

The male panels, the all-male panels, are a very good example because it’s easy enough to do them differently. It’s not rocket science by any means. What it requires is that you are aware of the issue and that you pay attention. And you take the next step. You are aware, and you do something about it.

There are a lot of complicated structures that you cannot change overnight, so if you start with the easy ones the more complicated ones will follow, and the more strategic ones will follow. But I would really pay attention to the everyday deeds and actions. Do it every time you can, make the change happen.

Q: What is your best advice for young women thinking about a career in industrial design or starting out in industrial design?

I would say ‘do it!’, and not be hesitant about it. And if you want to aim high as an industrial designer, as any designer, you need to be prepared to work hard. Anything worth thriving at does not come easily.

I would also say that it’s worth building good networks and finding a wise mentor to support your growth. I’m not talking necessarily of teachers… I’m speaking of people who have a wisdom in them besides expertise and knowledge. Because life is a holistic thing and you need to be able to keep a balance.

Maybe what women have been doing so far is keeping the balance a lot on the personal side, with family, with friends, etc., and a bit less on the work side. And that’s fine, if it’s the choice you really want to make. Absolutely. Every decision you really one hundred per cent want to make is correct. But if you are professionally ambitious, if you want to be on the top layer of design, then you need to work on that. And to make that happen you need help, support. So be good with networks, and be good with finding a mentor that will help you keep your balance.


About Päivi Tahkokallio
Päivi is founder and CEO of Tahkokallio Design+, a design thinking and strategic design practice located in Rovaniemi, Finland, on the Arctic Circle. Having embraced the possibilities of arctic design, she is behind the concept of Arctic Design Week, which takes place every February in Rovaniemi, and has chaired the Committee on Design of Lapland’s Chamber of Commerce since 2013. Moreover, she was instrumental in having arctic design included in Finland’s Arctic Policy.

Päivi was recently elected Vice-President of the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo. She holds a Master of Arts from the University of Helsinki.