Julie and Mika Tolvanen

U.S.A. (1970) FINLAND (1975)
Being husband and wife and also design partners at Studio Tolvanen, Julie and Mika Tolvanen spend a lot of time together talking about their work. "We are constantly looking at things," Julie says, "and pointing things out to each other in a kind of never-ending conversation about design that later shows up in our work. Neither of us ever gets tired of thinking about design, so we are a good match.”

Julie is American, raised in Oregon, and Mika a native Finn who speaks flawless English. They met at a birthday party in Helsinki, where Julie had come in 2009 to study for a master’s degree. “I thought Finland sounded like an exotic place to spend two years, which makes most Finns chuckle.” They were married in 2012 by her brother in his backyard in Portland, Oregon. “He bought a license for $16 on the internet,” Julie says. In 2015, they founded Studio Tolvanen, which is now located on Lauttasaari, an island in Helsinki.

They come to design work from different directions. Mika recalls being “blown away” when he first walked into the art and design library at Aalto University in Helsinki. “The library is entirely devoted to design,” he says, “and I spent most of my time there during school. “I realized I wanted to focus on household things instead of industrial design. I once designed a snow grooming machine, but furniture is my true passion.”

Julie landed in design almost by accident at the tail end of architecture school in St. Louis. During her last semester, she took a furniture course and designed a complicated tête-à-tête chair that took her several months to build. “It was the first time I started feeling comfortable in the workshop,” she recalls. “I got really cozy with the router.” That experience inspired her to take a two-year apprenticeship with one of her mentors from the course and then to a 10-year career as a professional woodworker before moving to Helsinki to further her studies.

Studio Tolvanen has produced a number of products, but most of them have been designed independently by either Julie or Mika. In fact, they only just completed their first project together in 2016. “We are both very independent minded,” Julie says. “We also have basic differences in how we describe things that come from speaking different languages. That leads to some pretty amusing misunderstandings but also inadvertently pushes designs in unpredicted directions – and usually they improve along the way.”