Laura Houseley: How would you describe yourself as a photographer?
Jussi Puikkonen: My style is very documentary-like, even when I am shooting design, fashion or portraits. I let the surprise come in. I don’t plan Vaarnii shoots for example, improvising is a key part of how I work. I do a lot of editorial work for publications like The New York Times and Monocle magazine and I combine that with work for brands. I am not a super technical photographer, that isn’t my approach, I know what I need to know and that is it.
You travel light I presume?
I do travel light. I rent out whatever equipment I need to wherever I am, but my camera bag is always ready to go.
Do you pursue self-initiated work too?
It is very important for me to do that. I kind of reinvent myself with each project in some way. The latest was during the pandemic. There was not much happening at the time, but I noticed that there were people in northern Finland who were car cruising; it was the only thing to do in a small town in Finland. People were buying a €300 car, tuning it up and driving out to meet up with friends. It was a super active scene, so I spent some time documenting that. Funnily enough, I got involved with Vaarnii because this car project was published in a Finnish periodical and Miklu (Vaarnii co-founder) saw it and contacted me.
What did you think when a design company that makes pine furniture came knocking on your door? Was it an unusual subject matter for you?
I had been shooting a little bit of design but, yes, it was a super interesting contact. I knew straight away I would be able to do what I liked to do and was not being asked to try to please someone else which was very appealing. Vaarnii really wanted my kind of visual language, that was the main brief.
Design photography can get very static and repetitive, it is always interesting to see the discipline through the eyes of someone who doesn’t normally work in the field.
Yes, and Vaarnii were very open, they didn’t ask for a list of specific qualities of the furniture that they wanted to show. It was more about expressing the principles of the brand through imagery. The concept of ‘brutality and sophistication’ came along shortly after I had been commissioned and I fell in love with that phrase – I wanted to bring that into the photography.
Vaarnii is not a stereotypically Finnish brand. How you represent Finland in your photography is obviously very complimentary to that – how would you describe your relationship with Finland?
I’ve lived away from the country for ten years now – I currently live in Amsterdam. I think that distance has only helped me to appreciate everyday things more. I see Finland’s beauty; the scenery that some might call brutal and ugly is, to me, extremely beautiful. Even though I don’t live in the country, nearly all the projects I have done recently are connected to Finland somehow; I think I have something to say about it because I am so familiar with it.
What interests you specifically?
Everything; the people are interesting, the architecture is interesting, the landscape is interesting. But Finland is a large country. It is repeating itself in a way, so I have to travel quite far to find the things I want to record and it takes a lot of time. Somewhere else might be easier to shoot, in Finland I travel 400km before I find something because it is just forest, forest, forest.
You took Vaarnii furniture on a road trip, is that right?
Last summer I had an old Mercedes van and I took my family and some Vaarnii furniture on a trip, shooting all along the way. Those images were important in setting the tone of the brand, it was an unusual approach, the resulting images were a bit jarring, in a good way.
You also shoot the studio and styled location imagery with stylist Connie Hüsser. How do those shoots differ from the on-the-road shots?
Connie’s input is fantastic, she brings an extra level to the images. But Connie also improvises a lot and the same laws apply to the imagery for these shoots, it’s just that we chose different locations, moved indoors and tried to demonstrate how the furniture can be used. I like the surprising element of shooting the Vaarnii furniture outdoors and in unusual places, but with the locations, we still have plenty left to discover.
You seem to choose locations with a quite melancholic atmosphere, empty and still.
I am quite melancholy myself and I like melancholy environments, I find them very beautiful.
Am I allowed to say that is quite a Finnish trait?
Yes, it is.
How are you finding shooting the furniture itself?
Initially, I was scared of it. And logistically, it is a nightmare! The pieces are very large and so it is slow going and you need a lot of manpower. But I find it very rewarding too.
Any favourite anecdotes?
When we were shooting Henrik’s Osa Outdoor Dining Table and Chair we had a van full of furniture. We were due to shoot the Table at the market square in central Helsinki the next day. I asked; ‘what shall we do with the table overnight ?’ and Antti (Vaarnii co-founder) said to just take it to the market square and leave it there. I was surprised to be asked to leave an expensive piece of furniture in a public space like that! But I took it and left it overnight, in the morning when I returned, it was covered in snow, it looked like a part of the scenery, as though it had always been there. It was very creative problem-solving on Antti’s part!
What is next for your project with Vaarnii? What is your ambition with the brief?
Finland is very influenced by Modernism and Alvar Aalto but Vaarnii’s vision is not so narrow, they are inspired by a much broader influence of Finnish culture and architecture. So, there is much to explore in terms of architectural locations. I am just really enjoying the collaboration and exploring what this furniture is and how to represent it.