- Kivi Sotamaa
Designing Human Experiences
Designing human experiences is at the heart of our work, and to illustrate this in action, allow me to present our project, Ultima, a restaurant created in collaboration with two esteemed chefs from Finland. Their vision was to establish a circular economy restaurant, and our task was to transform a historical building into an immersive experience that would not only ensure the restaurant's commercial success and sustainability but also provoke contemplation and inspire a reevaluation of our relationship with food—from production to consumption and beyond.
This presented us with an intriguing challenge. On one hand, a restaurant exists primarily to entertain and offer an escape from the routines of daily life. When people visit a restaurant, they seek enjoyment and relaxation, not lectures or educational experiences. Therefore, our objective was to create an environment within the inherently commercial context of a restaurant that would subtly urge guests to question their conventional notions of food. To achieve this, we meticulously crafted a series of spaces, each with its own unique narrative, guiding visitors on a journey of discovery throughout the restaurant.
A crucial element in this captivating process was the integration of what we refer to as art objects. Scattered throughout the restaurant, these objects served practical, everyday functions. Yet, upon closer examination, they revealed themselves to possess a peculiar and intriguing nature. For instance, upon entering the restaurant, guests were greeted by a vertical hydroponic growing system—an enclosed water circuit where various vegetables and spices thrived. This living wall not only served as a visual spectacle but also provided the chefs with fresh ingredients for their culinary creations.
Hovering above the seating area, suspended spheres caught the attention of guests. At first glance, they resembled unconventional lamps, but upon closer inspection, they revealed a surprising secret—they housed a colony of crickets. This unexpected sight, evocative of a scene from a horror film, either startled or piqued the curiosity of guests. Regardless of their initial reaction, it initiated conversations about the lamps themselves and the insects they harbored. These discussions took place within the open kitchen, where the chefs and waitstaff actively participated, providing an opportunity to delve into relevant topics such as responsible sourcing of protein, circular economy practices, the utilization of salad from the living wall in the culinary creations, and even incorporating cricket protein into a biscuit ready to be savored. This simple example showcases how, without resorting to didactic explanations, we employ experiences infused with humor or a touch of the uncanny to stimulate conversations. We entice individuals into a realm where they begin to question their preconceived notions and challenge established conventions.
These surrealist and design techniques are consistently deployed throughout the various scales of the restaurant, thoughtfully implemented at moments that amplify their impact. An example of architectural conversation can be observed in the columns that seemingly bear the weight of the space. However, upon closer examination, these columns reveal hydroponic potato cultivation taking place within them. This architectural element serves as a catalyst for discussions on innovative Finnish companies that cultivate potatoes in the air, boasting higher yields and lower water consumption. Within the restaurant, it becomes a springboard for conversations surrounding current and critical topics.
As guests venture further into the restaurant, they encounter black glass spheres adorned with white oyster mushrooms emerging from their surfaces. These spheres, filled with used coffee grounds collected from Helsinki cafes, provide the perfect medium for fungal spores to develop through minuscule openings. Over time, these spores grow into magnificent Baroque-like sculptures. The chefs delicately harvest some of these mushrooms, incorporating them into their culinary creations. This installation, visually captivating in its own right, carries a multitude of narratives, with interpretations varying depending on the individual. It provides a game-like experience where experiential design merges with criticality, ultimately aiming to drive cultural change—an approach that defines our overarching mission.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there exists a group of individuals who employ the design of human experiences with the sole intention of manipulating people. Imagine, for instance, a casino designer whose objective is to exploit individuals, depleting their financial resources and distorting their perception of time. While experiences in design can be utilized for various aims, we firmly position ourselves as culturally critical actors. We strive to collaborate exclusively with clients who share our values and aspirations, ensuring that our work serves a higher purpose.
As you venture deeper into the restaurant, you will encounter extraordinary amalgamations of plants, fungi, and insects, meticulously crafted as magnificent pieces of artwork. These imaginative creations serve as catalysts for profound conversations about DNA manipulation, existing categories, and societal conventions. One such example is the flower beetle—a captivating collection of intricate 3D-printed creatures.
All of these remarkable experiences unfold within the historic walls of a bygone era. As you progress towards the final space, our intention is for these subtle triggers to immerse you in an almost ethereal and dreamlike state. By the time you step into the vaulted historical space, you will suddenly realize that the architecture itself behaves in unexpected and awe-inspiring ways, transcending the boundaries of conventional design.
Throughout this transformative journey, our paramount goal has been to create an atmosphere that allows individuals to receive the extraordinary culinary offerings from the chefs with open minds. We strive to foster an ambiance where people are not only willing but eager to experiment and question their preconceived notions about food, taste, and the dining experience as a whole.
Take a moment to observe the windows adorned with large CNC milled sculptural forms, harmoniously playing jazz upon the backdrop of the old space. These forms ingeniously seek to engage and riff off the existing architecture, establishing a harmonious dialogue between the past and the present. In the center of the room, your eyes will be drawn to an object that initially bears resemblance to a skeleton from a Natural History Museum. However, upon closer examination, you will delightfully realize that it is, in fact, a playful bunny gracefully leaping through space. At this point, we have transcended the realm of everyday reality and entered a world of dreams, where imagination reigns supreme. By now, people should readily grasp the underlying humor and whimsy that infuse these elements.
Every aspect of the restaurant's environment, from the chairs and tables to the tiniest details like napkin holders or objects used to present amuse-bouche, has been meticulously designed by our team. Even the chairs themselves have been crafted with a purpose—to actively contribute to the overall experience. Rather than embodying monotonous repetitions often associated with military precision, our design exudes a humane rhythm and variation, adding depth and personality to the space.
The design game we engage in spans across the entire spectrum, from the grand scale of architecture down to the minutest details. Even seemingly insignificant elements like napkin holders are thoughtfully considered and crafted to enhance the overall experience. We leave no stone unturned, ensuring that every facet of the restaurant embodies the spirit of our design philosophy.
This project beautifully exemplifies the inherent challenge of designing for cultural change. As a restaurant operates as a commercial enterprise, it entices individuals to visit and invest in the experience it offers. Striking a delicate balance between the commercial aspect and our culturally critical approach presents us with an intriguing dilemma—one that we eagerly embrace as an opportunity to push boundaries, challenge norms, and ultimately contribute to the broader cultural transformation we aspire to achieve.