In Conversation with Studiomama

We caught up with Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama of East London-based multidisciplinary design studio, Studiomama to discuss their partnership with Finnish manufacturer, Vaarnii and their new creation, Norppa.

In Conversation with Studiomama

We caught up with Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama of multidisciplinary design studio, Studiomama to discuss their partnership with Finnish manufacturer, Vaarnii and their new creation, Norppa.

2021: How did the partnership come about with Vaarnii?

We were contacted by Vaarni – as they were thinking about toys. They had seen our Offcuts, and the playful simplicity combined with the raw qualities of wood was a combination that resonated with them.

What was the brief

The brief from Vaarnii was very simple; to create something joyful. With this sensibility, they thought a rocking horse could be a possibility. We loved the idea of a rocking toy and began to explore various elemental forms. We came across videos of seals interacting with each other looking like they had fun playing and rocking.

Why the Norppa Seal?

Norppa is a rocking toy that takes its name and form from the endangered Finnish Norppa seal. While all Vaarnii products are designed to last and this concept is especially appropriate for Norppa an object that can be cherished by multiple generations. Norppa is skillfully milled from solid pine with the distinctive grain adding contours and expression to the seal shape and face. Every characterful Norppa Rocking Toy will be subtly different from the next.

The Finnish Norppa ringed seal has a circular pattern that reminded us of the knots and grains in the pinewood. We love the knots with their randomness and the different circular shapes – darker than the surrounding area. When planks are cut vertically from a tree trunk – the knot is circle of wood that was once the base of the branch to the trunk is the imperfection grown around by the living wood grain. It was clear to us that we had to explore and work with all these qualities.

The Norppa Rocking Toy has been designed as a playful rocking seat and a family heirloom. Learning from the experience with our own children – they lose interest in playing with their old toys­ – put them away for a while, then rediscover and enjoy them again. So, when Norppa needs a rest or comes to the end of its life as a child’s toy it can be turned on its side and used as a sculptural side table. We hope that this dual functionality will give the Norppa Rocking Seal a long life and something to pass to the next generation, enjoying a long lifewith marks and dents adding to its history.

Do you have a fascination with animate forms? – Castaways in 2012, The Offcuts – If so, why?

We love exploring joy and playfulness in our designs and that often results in animated forms that manifest themselves in different ways. The Offcuts used the waste that came from the end of the Pallet Project we did in 2009which was itself looking at re-using pallets to ma ake series of furniture and lamps. With the Offcuts, we were simply playing and seeing where it went in a serendipitous way. Since then we have continued to play and explore in the workshop and this has resulted in sculptural objects; like Face castings made at our local foundry and the Face Stools that were made from the offcuts from Benchmark. What’s interesting is that these projects come from ‘unthinking’ moments where you think with your hands or there’s a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled.

What were the challenges with manufacturing Norppa?

Vaarnii is known for their simple, brutal and sophisticated objects. Vaarnii is created from a land covered in forest and an existence shaped by the iconic and extreme landscape. The Norppa Rocking Seal is, as all Varnii’s furniture based on the new Finnish vernacular that they have created being local, honest, complex and enduring.

Our aim in designing this object, was to create an object that felt familiar inviting and friendly whilst at the same time maintaining a level of abstraction. Children with their wild imaginations could then read the object and its expression in different ways.

Working closely with the woodworking expertise within Vaarnii we started to explore how particular cuts of wood (where the grain ran a certain way) could create the eyes by making a shallow scoop into the material. Similarly, we developed the whiskers from a darker section of pine, forming a clear reference to the seal. 

What makes Vaarnii special to you?

Pine is substantial, characterful, full of natural pattern and colour and if grown correctly, it is strong. Pine was always the wood of choice for Finnish craftspeople because it was local, free and abundant, an embarrassment of riches. As a result, the making processes and design thinking that shaped the Finnish domestic lives are pine-shaped and pine-coloured, log houses, carved implements, and rustic furniture. There is a primitiveness, a raw beauty, a reassuring strength, generosity of scale, and warmth to this architecture and object culture that Vaarnii is reinvigorating and we are happy to have worked with them developing the Norppa seal.

What's next for you?

We have some interior projects underway in the area of ‘small space living, along with some ongoing consulting for IKEA. We are working on developing more Face castings, at our local foundry as well as evolving more pieces inspired by the Face Stools. We also are planning to make another book cataloging a series of wire sculptures that we have made over the years.

Studiomama x twentytwentyone

Studiomama has kindly created a Norppa window display at our Upper Street shop for London Design Festival. It will be enhanced with a family of individually unique, handmade Off Cut creatures. These will be for sale. 

twentytwentyone will also launch their new publication The Off Cuts, with essays by Max Fraser, Catharine Rossi, and Libby Seller.

Thank you to Nina Tolstrup and Jack Mama for taking the time to speak to us. 

Studiomama, founded by Danish-born Nina Tolstrup and Greek-Cypriot Jack Mama in 2000, combine their diverse backgrounds to offer a holistic approach to design. Their wide-ranging portfolio includes architectural projects, art and design commissions, furniture, and product design. Follow Studiomama here.


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