This month Core77 was invited to a Fiskars press event on the occasion of their recent anniversary—their 365th, to be precise. We say no to many such opportunities but the company's long history and iconic designs spurred us to take up their offer to fly us out. The following series of articles is a result of the trip.
To cut things you need metal, and to design cutting tools you need a deep understanding of metal. So it's fitting that Fiskars, a company specialized in designing cutting tools, actually began as an ironworks—way back in 1649. That means the company has turned an astonishing 365 years old this year, having weathered everything from economic storms, material shortages, changing technologies, and classic game-enders like war and famine. By our reckoning that makes them one of the oldest companies in the world that designs and manufactures such a broad range of consumer products and tools (which now extends well beyond cutting implements).
The company has managed to survive for this long by continually evolving while correcting previous missteps—an impressive act to sustain for more than three and a half centuries, from Fiskars founder Peter Thorwoste up to the current CEO Kari Kauniskangas. "And with a heritage that long, no one," Kauniskangas points out, "wants to be the CEO that was at the helm when the company went astray."
With that in mind, since 2008 Kauniskangas has been wrangling the sprawling Fiskars empire into a multifaceted entity whose individual parts have at least one goal in common: To be recognized for their design prowess. Different design-driven brands have been acquired both before and after Kauniskangas took the wheel, and under his guidance these disparate elements are being forged into "a focused and efficient branded consumer goods company" with an easy-to-grasp mission statement:
Our mission is to enrich lives with lasting products that increase enjoyment and solve everyday tasks through their functionality, innovation and design.
With a mission statement like that, the company is not limited to cutting tools. They see themselves as problem solvers, ones particularly interested in solving "the unmet needs of the consumer," as Chief Strategy Officer Max Alfthan puts it, and they are not afraid to forge into new territory. The design teams are tasked with both improving old tools and creating entirely new ones, an approach that has yielded an impressive breadth of product: The Fiskars brand alone makes everything from axes--arguably one of the first human tools ever invented—all the way up to the Indoor Garden, a portable, countertop greenhouse that grows fresh herbs via an LED light that can be adjusted to game the growth speeds. The two objects have seemingly no connection until you re-read the mission statement (and spot the little herb snips included with the Garden).
While the Fiskars-branded line of products have design strengths enough, the aforementioned acquisitions are intended to lend the company additional dimensions in both identity and sales. These are design-driven companies that exist under the Fiskars corporate umbrella while retaining their own brand identity: Portland, Oregon-based Gerber is one, appealing to outdoor-minded "hunters, soldiers and tradesmen" with their line of knives and tools; Iittala is another, existing largely indoors as they pursue the creation of "interior design that lasts a lifetime."
The "lasts a lifetime" bit is a common thread, with Gerber seeking to create durable and "unstoppable" tools while some of Iittala's most iconic objects are Alvar Aalto's vases and Aino Aalto's drinking glasses, designed in 1936 and 1932, respectively. And Iittala, of course, has for their design director one Harri Koskinen, who previously told Core77 "[While] design is understood as an extra value in business...it is really the core thing...a fundamental and integrated part of any industrial field."
Something we found very heartening on our visit to Fiskars HQ was that while it was not billed as a design-centric event—it was intended as an anniversary celebration—every presentation carried strong talk of design. In other words, it's not just Kauniskangas and Koskinen who "get" design; it is a company-wide belief, reflected in the conversation of all of the company brass, not only the actual ID'ers that we got to meet. Alfthan, the aforementioned Chief Strategy Officer, discussed his love of "where function really meets form" and the importance of working with both designers and artists:
Working with designers and artists has been, and is, key for us. Artists can really change things; the great thing about working with artists is that they challenge everything. They even challenge what it is possible to create. For example the Alvar Alto vase, that was impossible to make with the technology of the time, but the artist and the glass manufacturers worked together and solved this problem.
Fiskars' solving of problems through design and boundary-pushing continues to the present day, and it's what the company's future is staked on. But before we get there, we need to show you how a radical product design experiment from the 1960s played a large role in the company's current success. Stay tuned.