Our warp and weft

Moi! Who are you?

I am Larissa, CEO of Finarte and daughter of the two entrepreneurs who created the brand. But besides that I’m a pretty normal girl from Kotka, where our company is also based. I live in Helsinki nowadays.

What’s your background? What did you study?

I have a Master’s Degree in Economics (Social Sciences, not Business). In my 20s I wanted to do something with the United Nations or the Red Cross, so I did a six-month internship at the UN headquarters in New York. That was a really good experience, and also an eye-opener. Being young, I was all like “oh, I want to do this and that, I want to save the world!” I may have been a little naïve, but I just wanted to make a difference, you know. And then I was there and I thought “it’s going to take me at least 30 years to make any freaking difference here!” with the whole system being so hierarchical and bureaucratic. I understood what I didn’t want to do, because I like options and flexibility. I could never be in a 9-to-5 job now that I’m used to being a CEO. I’ve done internships and summer jobs and all that, but I joined this company right after I graduated, so I’ve never been in a “normal” job (being employed, I mean) for an extended period.

9-to-5 jobs seem more and more an outdated concept.

The former CEO of Yahoo! didn’t want anybody in the company working remotely at all. She wanted everybody to be in the office, all the time, isn’t that crazy? A supposedly forward-thinking company, looking at things in new ways, doing that to their own employees! So yeah, I need flexibility.

Were you happy studying Economics?

Not really. In Finland, for the entrance exam, you prepare by reading a book. I applied to several places with the same book, to “cross where the fence is lowest” as we say in Finland. (laughs) So I got in to study Economics. It’s been worth it because I gained a good macro view of business, by understanding what happens on a bigger scale. But I wasn’t a very excited student, because I could see a lot of those theories are nonsense. I didn’t believe in them because they don’t take a lot of things into account. But I ended up reading a lot, and studying many different things. Minors, like Development Studies, Human Rights Law, which was good for me. I always wanted to do something in development, ever since I did my high-school in India.

How did that happen?

We’ve been making our stuff in India since the 90s, so I’d been traveling there since I was a child. Then I was a very adventurous teenager, so I decided to do an exchange. My mother and I moved there, and during the week I was in a boarding school, and my mom was working at the factory. On weekends we would meet at Delhi. Initially I was going to be there for one year, but then it really became a home and I decided to do two years and graduate. I made good friends, and learned a lot about the culture. From one angle, at least.

What do you mean?

Well… Even though it’s an international school, I was the only white chick in the whole place. (laughs) And it was a school for the kids of rich Indians.

Where they snobbish?

No, not much. But they were oblivious to many things happening in their country. I would be like “why don’t you do something about such and such?!” And they would be like “um, we didn’t even notice that…” So we adapted to each other, I guess. The first time you arrive in India you’re like “OMG, so much poverty! How can they live with all these problems!” Then you spend a while and you realize that’s the way the country is. You can’t change it.

What happened after high-school?

I came back to Finland. I was working in a bookshop, which was nice because I could read a lot. Then I went to study Economics in Turku, six years. Since I like traveling and living abroad so much I did exchange programs, Erasmus, and so on. I studied Human Rights Law in Sweden, really interesting stuff.

How was the transition into Finarte?

Very easy. My father needed help with a project, and I traveled to China to help him. I did it as a side job while I was writing my thesis. And then I was doing it full time! (laughs) It was also a time of change, so many things were happening in the market. Old customers were crashing (like Anttila) and there was a push for new things. My father himself said he didn’t have the capacity to adapt to this era. And since I myself am in the demographic that we are targeting —I am the customer, so to speak— it was really easy and natural for me to be like “okay, what would I do? Would I buy online? I also want to touch things, and I want to have a nice collection…” After my experience at the United Nations I knew that “millenium goals for the next 50 years” were too abstract for me. I needed to make a practical impact, like train and give jobs to people. So now we have more than 500 families working with us.

What did you do when you first took the helm?

We remade the brand. Agency Leroy, who’s worked with Iittala, Lundia and other companies, helped us with our visual identity and with fine-tuning our true story. But yeah, it was not easy for my father. He was like “are you freaking serious?!” about certain design decisions, because we started to do things which were not the traditional rag rug anymore. We expanded our collection in ways which were a little strange for him. Luckily for me, the designs that we incorporated into the collection did very well, like Saana Ja Olli’s, for example. So my father was like “maybe I’ll trust you and your gut”. But he still watches what I do, comes to the office from time to time to ask “what’s been going on?” (laughs) He’s told me “you haven’t lived until you have bankrupted a company!” And I was like “maybe I don’t need to live through that…” His experience is invaluable, but he doesn’t have the foresight of what’s going to happen in two years, which is where I come in. We’re a good combo.

What’s the connection with India?

My mother is a designer, she’s been designing rugs for 50 years now. After my parents met, they started producing rugs together in Portugal. Then, in the early 90s, my mom used to go to international fairs to exhibit her designs. And year after year this Indian man would approach her and tell her “I really want to make these rugs, can I please produce these carpets in India?” Then came a recession in Finland and Finarte went bankrupt. But my parents wanted to try again, so they contacted the Indian man and my mom went there. There’s a lot of know-how, ways of doing things, that you can only teach in person. So my mom spent weeks and weeks teaching them how to weave. It was funny, because she didn’t speak english, she was a very tall, very good-looking lady, so all the Indians were like “who is this white-haired angel?!” They were following her around the village! (laughs) She did an amazing job there, teaching. She’s now 74, does yoga every morning… She’s such a special woman.

Finarte continues to teach there?

Teaching is not needed anymore, because they already know so much. But at the time designers needed to be there, literally designing at the factory. Also because we use left-over material, they would have to see what was available, abundant, and could be used. So they would do the designs there and teach the master weaver, who would then teach the others.

Does your company employ people directly?

No, we have partners who employ the workers. Weavers work at the weaving mill, and of course they’re free to take their knowledge anywhere. In fact, at the moment there’s a high demand for good weavers, it’s a valuable skill to have. But nowadays the skill is already there, so the designers don’t go that much. And my mom is also older, so we just work from here. I myself go twice a year to visit our partners, the one that we started working with in the early 90s, and then another company that makes all of our wool and viscose. Then we have a few others who make cushions and some other stuff. We have a limited number of partners, which is important for us. We don’t change partners all the time, chasing the cheapest option. We have built a long relationship with them.

How do they treat a foreign, female CEO in India?

India may not be the best place for a young, female CEO, so maybe I’m not being taken seriously at all times. But the fact that I know the culture, and they know I’ve lived there, and that I know how to swear in Hindi… It helps. (laughs) When I mention that I get a bit more respect.

Have you taken criticism here for producing goods somewhere else?

There was a lot of criticism in the beginning. Nowadays it’s pretty normal to produce goods in India, China, or elsewhere, but back then it was uncommon, especially for a small Finnish company. Even worse was the fact that it was something deeply rooted in our cultural heritage: “our rag rugs, built by somebody else!” So it faced a lot of criticism. But today it’s a really strong point, that cultural heritage is not ours to own, and it can be shared. Everybody makes things that they have taken from somewhere else, after all.

We have come to terms with globalization.

Yeah. Sometimes we get asked “why don’t you make the carpets in Finland?” And since my mom still has her weaving mill, I say “sure, if you want to buy a Finnish rug done in Finland, these are the prices.” And then they’re like “this Indian-made rug suddenly looks very good!” (laughs)

Among a sea of boring (and expensive) stuff, Finarte rugs look so organic.

Thank you! It’s part of the appeal of rag rugs. We obviously want high quality in our products, but at the same time we wish to keep the flaws of something human-made. For example, you can see where the weaver has changed the yarn, and it’s possible that people may see it as a defect. But when I explain to them “this is what happened in the process, the weaver had to probably change something here” they are like “oh, that’s actually cool, I like that!”

Do you have local competition?

Well, yeah. There’s always IKEA.

I meant non-generic, high-quality products.

There are some, but our collection is pretty unique.

Do you have any formal experience in design?

Except for what I got from my mother, none. (laughs) Of course I read and learn a lot, but no formal education. I am an aesthetic person, I’m drawn to beautiful things. But beyond that, I like culture. I enjoy going to art galleries, I have a season ticket to the opera, I’m learning the cello… India for me was like a big study of cultures. And culture is everything, how we dress, how we talk, how we communicate. You can say “this is beautiful” but there’s so much more to a beautiful object. There’s a world of context.

I see Finarte as a curator. Who’s in charge of the artistic direction?

I have a really good partner, Marianne Huotari from Studio Smoo. She has designed rugs for us, and she’s like our freelance Art Director. I need to focus a lot on my daily CEO boring stuff, so I let her strong visual sense guide us and read the subtle signals of what’s going on right now, and what direction should we go into, what colors, textures… She’s really good at that and we are a good team. We’re the same age, and communication is great. Which can be also dangerous, as we may see things only from our box… But that’s also what Finarte is about; we make the stuff that we like. (laughs)

We love bold colors and crazy things. Sometimes too much! Of course we need to offer products that normal people can buy, so most of our stuff fits into many interiors. We offer options so people can express themselves in their homes by choosing a carpet from us, but it’s liberating to execute something really wild. That’s the benefit of having a small company, you know, we don’t need to ask permission from anybody. If it fits into the budget we do it —sometimes it doesn’t fit into the budget but we still do it anyway! (laughs) I’m so happy people have started to notice how colors at home or at the workplace affect mood. Like you can pick vibrant colors to energize you, or maybe muted colors to calm you down. I myself am drawn to certain colors, I need them in my life.

How do you choose what designers to work with?

Marianne and I analyze the current situation, what is it that we want or need, who does this kind of style we’re looking for, and then we contact them. These days we’re in the comfortable position that designers come to us to offer their designs. We currently work with a core of six or seven designers.

What’s the process like?

Usually we start from scratch. We tell them we’re looking for, they start developing it, and we go through the iterations of the design. Then, if it makes it to the production stage and starts selling, they get royalties from the sales. For me it’s cool to recognize the style of a designer, but that it’s also a Finarte product. It’s a nice combination, I think.

What will the future bring? Will you become a corporation?

(laughs) I don’t think we need to grow so much. Of course it would be nice to make a profit, it hasn’t been so easy financially. Some months we make it, some months we don’t, it really depends. But we have more than 100 retailers in Finland and we have to keep going, it’s a business. So my goal is to have a healthy company that’s a means to create new things, to experiment. I’d like to produce art, not only pretty things. Maybe offer experiences, teach how to weave. Be bolder in our collection.

And I always want to keep in mind how the strong foundations established by my parents (both as people and guides), by all the ready processes, and by the company —some employees have been there before I was born— help me to carry forward that work, every day. It’s so special and precious.

We both look through the window and notice that, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the streets of Helsinki are already dark and grey.

You see? That’s why we need color!

The Finarte Concept Store is in Uudenmaankatu 27, Helsinki. Their website is here, and this is their Instagram.