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Q&A: The Magic of Helsinki with Yatofu Design Studio

Q&A: The Magic of Helsinki with Yatofu Design Studio
Courtesy of Yatofu and Helsinki.

Helsinki and Shanghai-based design studio, Yatofu Creatives, is establishing a distinctive vision that reflects their strong connection with Nordic and Asian aesthetics and cultures

Since founding their design studio, Yatofu Creatives, in 2017, Angela Lindahl and Yihan Xiang have been moving between their adopted home of Helsinki and Shanghai, where they recently opened a second office, building up a portfolio of projects that reflect their dynamic and distinctive vision. Lindhal, a Taiwanese-Canadian who has a BA from New York’s Pratt Institute and Beijing-born Xiang, who studied at Tinghua University, met while studying for their Master’s in Interior Architecture at Aalto University in Helsinki. With projects such as the recent Teemaa Tea House, Yatofu demonstrates an intuitive ability to tell stories through materials, textures and color, capturing the essence of many cultures and ideas but with a completely original result.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Where are you working from today? Are you in Helsinki or Shanghai? What is the setting? 

Yatofu: We are working from Helsinki right now, though our colleagues are still in Shanghai, some are under lockdown. In Helsinki, our office is located in the courtyard of a historic building in the Ullanlinna district, where the cloudy skies cast a soft light into our studio office window.  We spent the morning visiting suppliers, many of whom are located in the same neighborhood as we are.  We have two projects starting construction this week, so it has been a lot of running around sorting out final material decisions.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: You both come from wildly different places than Helsinki, yet this city drew you in and eventually brought you together as partners. What was it about the city, or the program you came to study, that not only made you make such a bold move for school but to settle there and start your business? 

Yatofu: Neither of us came to Finland with a solid intent to stay for as long as we have, but if you speak with any foreigner who has settled down in Helsinki (except maybe for some who moved here for love), they will tell you that Helsinki has strange magic that entices you to stay.  Living in Helsinki has given us the space to think and process our work and why we do what we do.  The strong connection to nature that is embedded in the lifestyle and culture here has become a strong influence in our work and approach as well.  

We both moved to Helsinki because of the prestigious education that Aalto University offers and our strong interest in Nordic Design but ended up falling in love with the pace and the people of this city.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: How do your partnership and collaboration work? Do you divide and conquer or is it more of a seamless back and forth, sharing all aspects of the business? 

Yatofu: Our partnership has really evolved organically over time.  In the beginning, when we first started our business, we really did all the work together and both of us were super involved in every step of the process.  I think that was necessary since we had just started the partnership and we were not as in tune with each other as we are now.  Now our partnership is quite seamless, but we both have individual tasks and projects that we head up as well.  We have gotten to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well and have built up a strong foundation of trust over the years. Although we have our own tasks and responsibilities, we view every project as a team effort.

Teemaa Teahouse by Yatofu Project. Photographed by Aleksi Tikkala.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: You recently completed the Teemaa teahouse in Helsinki, a beautiful mixing of Asian and Scandinavian cultures, yet the space is truly its own identity. What was the process like for this design?

READ: Our article Teemaa Teahouse—Tea-making Materials Used for Reinterpreting a Contemporary Space.

Yatofu: For the Teemaa Teahouse our inspiration came directly from our clients and their stories of working with the farmers and suppliers in Asia.  They are also very passionate about sharing their love and knowledge of tea culture with the locals in Helsinki and blending the two worlds together to form their own definition of what contemporary tea culture can look like in the Nordic setting.  We were so inspired by their mission that our process and work became a dedication to their intent.  

We wanted to focus on a concept of the raw vs the refined, with the “raw” representing the process of farming and processing the tea leaves; and the “refined” representing the sophistication and fine qualities of the end product, as well as the ceremonies surrounding its tasting.  We sourced materials that are present in the tea-producing process (blackened steel, bricks, raw wood), and juxtaposed that against the minimalism and clarity of Nordic aesthetics.  

Angela Lindahl and Yihan Xiang; wall cladding in the teahouse / Image: Courtesy of Yatofu Creatives; Aleksi Tikkala.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: You have said before that your practice is very fluid between cultures – that your clients are looking for designs that in a way, transcend a specific cultural/design style but weave in bits of various places to create a new vision or style…would you talk about this a bit? 

Yatofu: I think this relates back to the value that design can bring to businesses.  Everything is so accessible these days, and if you are looking just for a certain aesthetic, all you have to do is open up Pinterest, type in a few keywords and you can source all the aesthetic references you want.  Our approach to design has always gone beyond aesthetics, as that is something that is easily reproduced.  The research or exploration phase at the beginning of each project is fundamental to our working method.  This is when we identify the histories, stories, contexts and cultural references that are significant in our given project, and when we explore the different possibilities for storytelling with our clients.  

As human beings, we are always looking for cues that make us feel connected to something.  Just relying on a simple aesthetic or a style is not enough these days for spaces to speak volumes to its visitors.  Our approach to design allows our clients and their customers to open dialogues about curiosities, and intentions, and learn about the embedded stories in each process.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: There seems to be a rich, textural quality to your projects – mixing material surfaces and color blocks within a space that give s sense of warmth and comfort…important, I guess, in a cold place like Helsinki… Would you talk about materials… Are there certain materials you particularly enjoy working with? 

Yatofu: I think it’s hard to say there is any single material that we love to work with, but rather that we are fascinated by all different types of textures and colors.  The most exciting projects are when we can take a common material (such as brick), and use it in a way that is exciting and new.  In Teemaa we used the same façade brick and had it custom cut into different dimensions, and then created variations in the pattern by using both the front side and the backside of the brick.  We feel that these small tangible interventions, in the way we use materials, are essential to embedding a sense of handmade qualities into our spaces, so they don’t end up feeling too pristine and cold.

Talking materials with Yatofu. Courtesy of the brand.

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: When did you set up the Shanghai office and how does that work with going back and forth? 

Yatofu: We set up the Shanghai office only in 2021, although we have been working on projects in China almost since the beginning when we started our business.  Pre-pandemic we would often travel to China to do site visits, but on a daily basis, we worked remotely through local partnerships.  Nowadays, we have our own team in Shanghai with whom we communicate closely.  We often joke that we were well prepared for the pandemic since we were already so used to remote working and virtual meetings. 

ArchiExpo e-Magazine: Is there a project or two you are working on now that you would like to share? 

Yatofu: We are currently working on a couple of restaurants in Helsinki, a few residential projects and an interesting office project coming up soon in Shanghai for which we were really inspired by the local history in the neighborhood and translated the stories we wanted to tell in an unexpected way.  Hopefully, we can share that with everyone soon!