10 Minutes with Finnish Artist Turned Sustainable Design Entrepreneur Outi Puro

, , , , , , , , , , By Catherine Lazure | Nordic Design

 

I love to hear stories of talented people who started companies, with the goal to make a difference in the world. Being an entrepreneur and small business owner myself, I find inspiration in getting to know individuals driven by a vision, a passion, a curiosity, and a determination; people with a mission. And Outi Puro is one of them.

What started as an artist project back in 2006 is now one of the leading Finnish design companies focusing on ethical, handmade products. Mum’s combines Scandinavian design with traditional craftsmanship around the world. Its products are created by artisans, mostly women who work from home, in developing countries. Outi’s goal is to improve improve social, economic and environmental well-being and equality. The collection, which consists of rugs, wall hangings, cushion covers, blankets and other home accessories, is fairly traded and eco-conscious, ensuring sustainable incomes to her employees.

I was curious as to find out more about Outi and her story, and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.

 

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Q: What inspired you to start Mum’s?

A: It was really kind of an accident, but also just something which was kind of meant to be. I was at home with my 4 little babies while doing my thesis at Aalto University. I previously graduated from Art School as a sculptor, and I grew tired of working with art that never sold and that was just left in storage. Because of that, I changed my art to communal happenings, something to do together with people. My main problem or task was to think what art itself could create, I did not think actually what art actually was or is.

I began baking buns “as art”. Traditional Finnish buns are closely attached to the idea of being a “good mum”, here in Finland anyway. I was -and still am- a lousy baker, but I did it with my kids and we were together, and that was most important. We made an installation of 2000 buns which we baked throughout the year. Actually we baked 4000, but ate half… Buns were exhibited at an art museum together with a video of us baking. I also built a “kitchen” for the museum for the exhibition and invited people to bake. And after that this “kitchen” (an oven, rocking chair and baking table) were invited to Helsinki and elsewhere for exhibitions, and everyone was invited to bake. And people came. People seemed to like the idea of creating art in a new way.

My idea as an artist was not to bring more physical works of art, not to produce more “rubbish”, but create spaces where experiences could happen. And as buns were eatable the artwork just disappeared. No rubbish left.

Then as part of my thesis at Aalto University in Helsinki, I received a grant and traveled to Africa in 2006 to bake and to make a video of  “Baking for my long lost friend in Africa”, Diane. She introduced me to these ladies living in Khayelitsha on the outskirt of Cape Town, making handicrafts with the goal to combine work and family.

That’s when I had a flash of a thought, flashlight of an idea which struck my mind. I had a strong feeling of sisterhood: We all tried to manage the same thing, combining family and creative work. But I was well educated with a monthly “income” coming from the state – In Finland, the government gives you money to take care of the kids at home or for daycare. We have free health insurance, free education, free lunches at school, and we get money if we are unemployed. A world apart from these women in Africa. They had nothing if they did not work. They did not know how to read or write, because hey had never had a chance to go to school. And they were o skilled in handcraft. So smart. A lot of laughs. So I suggested a collaboration.

We chose local recycled materials collected at a shirt factory in Cape Town, something which would have otherwise been thrown away. Women used age old weaving techniques to create textiles which I designed. I asked the women to sign the items, and then I wrote a note about each one of them to tell their story – How they can now work from home, take care of their family and earn a living, as well as how about the recycled materials we use.

Back in Finland, someone told me I had a “brand”. I did not know exactly what it meant, I was an artist…

As soon as our first signature bags were sold, women in Africa were so proud of their work and to know that some people somewhere up North, own a product they made. More women in Africa wanted to join and work for us, and more women in Finland wanted to own a unique bag made the sustainable way. That inspired me to keep going with this idea.

Now we have workshops in four developing countries; Africa, India, Bolivia and Cambodia.

 

 

Q: Your products combine Finnish design and ethical manufacturing – Can you tell me more about that?

A: At first I designed everything, but as the demand for our products increased, I couldn’t do it all. I gave the women the freedom to make their own decisions with the design, so I could focus on selling and handling orders. I wrote to Anu Penttinen, a famous designer here in Finland especially known of her glasswork, and I asked if we could weave her patterns on bags and she agreed. Everything sold out again quickly. We started to make more limited editions, as more designers reached out to me to suggest a collaboration. Anu’s involvement helped us get good visibility.

I should note that design comes first. We do not sell a product only because it is ethical or sustainable, or to tell the story of people who are having a much tougher time than us us here in Finland. Sure, it is part of the truth, but I believe we need to fall in love with a beautiful product first. Then, when we read the story behind it, your get a warm feeling of loving and making good at the same time. Because we care. People and environment matter to all off us. I want to give a choice to people; to choose something better than that cheap product that will last for a minimum time. Mum’s makes quality.

We buy every product made by our artisans, and they earn 51% of the cost. Work is close to home, and kids may be kids and go to school. We use local materials only, which are transported on bicycle racks. Even maps for the rugs are drawn by hand by one man in a village. Small things mater to us.

Contemporary design meets traditional handicraft.

 

 

Q: How and where are your products are made? How do you select a maker?

A: Mum’s products are made by hand as much as possible. We have artisans is four different developing countries. Several products are mare in Africa and India, and smaller items in Cambodia (left over silk) and Bolivia (Alpaca wool). Our collection is made on natural, recycled or reclaimed materials.

It all started in Africa. I collaborated with people like Heath Nash, for example, and a very small team of artists and designers. More people got to know the story and values behind MUM’s, and the word started to spread. Cambodia came after Africa, as one of our Swedish designer’s dad was Cambodian. She had also collaborated with Heath Nash in the past, and they both had connections in India and told us about an artisan village. We went there to meet the workers, and started to make agreements and fair trade deals. In Bolivia we have a group fo women living in the Andes Mountain range. They do products for other brands as well and hold a fair trade label, too.

We work fair and people work safe. Working from home saves travel cost, and parents may take care of heir kids and families. They also earn a pension.

 

 

Q: Do you have any special projects or exciting future plans?

A: Yes. Many special design collaborations are in the pipeline. More info to come soon :)

 

 

Q: How do you juggle a family and your business?

A: Well I’m not very good with this… Kids have grown with the business, but 4 years ago I got a divorce after 20 years of marriage. So I understand very well the challenge of juggling a family and being an entrepreneur. This takes your time and mind almost completely, and one must be able to handle the pressure. My kids are my best supporters, and now we luckily have a new member in our family: Pasi Lindqvist, Mum’s CEO and also my partner. We are on the same page, he supports me and understands the creative challenges.

 

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Q: How is living in Turku, and what do you recommend to do/see/visit there?

A: Turku is a lovely city of about 60 000 inhabitants, by a river which flows to the sea. You should visit the riverside with beautiful old trees, art museums, Cafes and restaurants. Perhaps take a ferry to one of the islands- for example Ruissalo. You may also rent a bike and take it with you. The archipelago is amazing and just few steps away- just step on a boat, take on hour drive and you’ll be a new person! Of course I must recommend one of the largest rock festivals, Ruisrock, taking place by the sea on beautiful Ruissalo every year in July.

 

 

Q: Lastly, can you tell me what makes a great home?

A: Love. People who love you and you love back.

 

 

 

You can browse Mum’s 2019 catalog to view their lovely assortment, and check them out on Instagram, too!

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Photos: Courtesy of Mum’s, with thanks!
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