Utopia & Utility captures European excellence

Forget about the usual marketing and sales measures labeled “handmade” for a moment and look at the true effectiveness of collaboration between crafts and design.

In recent years, collaborations between crafts and design have been marketed heavily under the label ”handmade”, but the unity of both professions is still little accounted for leaving a large gap between both worlds.
Pia Wüstenberg, a young German/Finnish designer who is producing traditionally crafted objects, is keen to see this gap narrowing arising from a growing appreciation for the values of outstanding abilities in both creative disciplines.

Under the brand name Utopia & Utility Pia Wüstenberg is designing elegant and equally functional objects that have been made by various craftsmen working across Europe. The Stacking Vessels have first been shown at the London Design Festival in 2011. Since, the successful design concept is built on the combination of different types of material; traditional materials that have naturally contrasting properties, together though they unite in harmony.

Pia is a designer whose expertise is rooted in the fascination of joining materials, such as paper, wood, glass, metal, clay and other raw material. Her understanding of the foundations of the various craft techniques gives her the ability to find the connection between the materials, to come up with a concept that makes them function and to present them in the most natural, fluid and minimal way possible (a.k.a. Scandi design with a strong emphasis on Finnish aesthetics).

The collaborations between Pia, the designer and the craftsmen has grown over the years into a strong relationship based on admiration and respect for each other. To mention only two there is the Finnish wood turner, who is in his 70s and according to Pia most talented and fastest working. He has a very deep wisdom about wood and trees and is locally sourcing, harvesting and processing following those values.
Then there is the glassblower based in the UK, who is specialised in the production of hand-shaped glass. Pia is fascinated by his technical skills and his endless creativity to find solutions for the challenges faced with every new design ideas.

The Stacking Vessels demonstrate a dialogue between the materials.

The materials’ characteristics react to their counterparts. Such as glass is described as cold against wood it seems warmer material against metal. But there is another dialogue taking place, one that is subtler in observation but highly demanding during production. It is the combination of the different traditional making processes. And here, the interaction between the various crafts needs a creative solution to function jointly.

Each craftsman’s skill is exceptional. When craftsmen usually work in isolation with their chosen material, blending various crafts in one object, Pia’s work is to find the fundamental concept that unites the materials. Talking to Pia about the design process of the HEIKI, one of her 2018 collections, the subtleties involved become clearer.

The HEIKI is a bulbous hand-shaped glass vessel with an intriguing wood-carved handle across the top just like a bucket to be carried.

The wooden handle is intriguing because of the shiny gold metal wire that is tied around its centre and even more so posing the question: just how did this piece of wood get to the place it sits in? The handle is firmly wedged between the glasses edge. If the wood had been attached prior the shaping of the glass the fire would have burnt it to ash. At the same time it would also fail to be fitted in after the glass had cooled – glass being naturally rigid and fragile.

The inspiration for a solution came from an old wooden ladle, the ones you find in Finnish saunas for infusion. This particular one is a cherished relict from Pia’s grandfather’s sauna that had broken into two pieces one day. Instead of discarding the old spoon it was carefully put together again, treated at the broken points and then fixed with wire. HEIKI is the name of this sensible wood-surgeon and the collection is named after him.

Hence the handles for HEIKI were made of two parts allowing for the smaller pieces to first be fitted and then reunited with a bandage of metal wire. The wood turner who received individual drawings by Pia to fit each hand-shaped glass vase perfectly produced every handle freehand.

Previously the vases were made by the talented glassblower in the UK. Together with Pia, they searched for an effective method to drill the holes into the glass. Here the finesse presents itself in the use of two solid clear glass colours. When working with multiple glass colours it is important to pay attention to their individual expansion and melting points. All aspects need to be taken into consideration when a couple of holes are drilled and stretched into the final shape.

Those aspects also play part in the decision for using yellow. Pia considers dropping the colour yellow for the HEIKI collection as it has an extremely high melting point. By the time yellow will hit its transformation temperature, the second colour such as pink will have already melted. It is an elaborate process.
The skill is to keep the balance right by keeping the texture of both colours evenly. It has to stay hot enough to stay attached to the blowing iron and malleable enough to make the shape of the holes and keep them until the glass has cooled, all while blowing and turning the glass continuously. Timing is crucial.
In the end, the HEIKI vases look shamelessly effortless.

To find such skilled craftspeople Pia has to travel. Many craftspeople live in rural areas where their craft belongs to a local tradition, but they are hardly found online. Often craftsmen and -women learn their skills within their traditional constructs and infrastructures, making traditional objects that are mainly sold to the local market and as souvenirs. Collaborating with a designer such as Pia means to be willing to experiment, to step out of one’s own comfort zone in order to find new ways and meet the demands of contemporary design ideas.

When establishing her company Utopia & Utility Pia identified various opportunities when collaborating with craftspeople. She says that “nowadays designer need to take social responsibility when producing for the commercial market and with that take a position in terms of their choice for material and production systems”.
With Utopia & Utility, she knows that her collections help to secure the future of crafts, support cultural heritage and inspire a cultural movement of excellence.

Reaching out globally is a significant part of marketing for designers and craftspeople alike.
“It makes me feel satisfied when I witness a craftsmen’s joy and pride when they get to see the finished design pieces showcased on a larger trade show when usually their work is quite isolated.” On show, they can experience a growing appreciation for their skills and recognition.

Beyond commercial concerns, collaborations offer craftspeople the chance to explore new realms of expression while it gives designers an opportunity to be inspired by new techniques, materials and practices. Both the designer and the craftsperson can only gain from each other’s expertise.


Utopia & Utility

Words: Mareike Besch
Photography: Utopia & Utility

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