“Mostly we like to blow stuff up,” grin Antti Uotila and Matti Kunttu, founding members of Finnish design studio Tsto, “and build it up from scratch.” With that, they’ve summarized the deconstructionist philosophy of one of the most talked about design studios to come out of Helsinki in a decade. It’s an approach to branding that’s remarkably distant from traditional Finnish design—and that’s no accident.
When they met in design school, the six founding members of Tsto had few people to inspire them, except for “the only studio that you could look up to,” Kokoro and Moi.
“Finnish design is something you associate with furniture in the ’50s and ’60s, or architecture. It suffers from the weight of the modernist design philosophy. It’s stagnant—somehow frozen in the mindset that things from Finland should be minimal, clean and made out of wood.”
The young members of Tsto felt free from this burden, and able to take inspiration from further afield, particularly Japan and Switzerland. For Tsto, Japanese design “has its own way of doing things. It’s hard to understand what it’s about and it’s intriguing. The typography follows its own set of rules that you can never comprehend.”
As the group found their way as a collective, various members peeled off. Two went to work in theater, Jonatan Eriksson moved to New York, where he operates a U.S. office for Tsto and, while still a partner, Inka Bell pursued printmaking and now runs a silkscreen studio.
“It’s the stupidest thing to do, to start a graphic design studio with six designers,” says Kunttu. The lessons in running a business came thick and fast. Luckily, so did the clients. “We are grateful because nowadays people come to us because of the work we’ve done before, rather than searching the internet for ‘graphic+design+helsinki.’”
The group set its sights on the cultural scene for potential work, and it was the design for Finland’s Flow Festival that provided a breakthrough. As an identity project, Flow serves as an allegory for the studio’s wider approach: once they receive a brief, the team sets to work defining a central theme. “We try and find out what a client is about and what could work as a foundation, or if there’s something that could be boiled down. That doesn’t have to be transformed into a logotype, but it’s about where we can get the juices.”
For the Helsinki Kunsthalle, also known as Taidehalli, “we were really intrigued by the fact that it has been in the same building since 1928. It’s an architecturally beautiful building, but people had trouble finding it. So we thought that taking the building as the starting point for the identity would make people recognize it straight away. So the logotype is referenced from the building, and the illustration elements are taken straight from the building as well.”
It’s clear that the team’s energy comes from the application and adaptation of such an identity. “It should be taken through to the very end,” they say, “so materials, paper sources, and all the applications are done really well.
“If the client end isn’t there, it’s like building a really nice plane but there’s no fuel—the identity doesn’t really take off.”
“Good identities become more when they’re implemented. But we like it when we get to fly the plane as well, like we get to be the pilots also. That’s one reason that we like to work with cultural clients. If we did a flexible identity for a multinational brand, it’s much more complex than an identity for a local music festival, where the number of applications is not that huge.”
For a team so affable and sociable, Tsto has a surprisingly challenging approach to design, favoring situations that create tension. “It’s nice if there’s an element that’s a little bit disturbing. It’s balancing where it doesn’t look off but it’s close to being off,” they explain. “The stronger the tension is the better it looks.”
As a result, Tsto refuses to make conformist identities; and its compositions are always challenging, leaving the viewer slightly unsure of what they’re seeing. Now maturing as a team, Tsto is still not afraid to inhabit a punk spirit; “we don’t want to be problem solvers, we want to be problem creators.”
To demonstrate this philosophy, they point to start-ups. “There’s something about the tech scene… it’s like a unified field of aesthetics that they strive for, and we don’t see that as a very interesting starting point for a project. There are too many icons, so we had a counterreaction to icons. We decided to avoid using them.”
As for the future? “It would be great to do a big scale identity for an art museum.” Producing more print publications is also high on the bucket list. But as we end our conversation, Antti is preparing to jet off to Japan, and one suspects that’s where the next challenge will come from. As for blowing stuff up, long may the destruction continue.