A Theatre of Gastronomy
This text along with some of the images is featured in the latest SAC Journal 4, Culinary Lessons, The Space of Food.
Finnjävel was a restaurant conceived by chefs Tommi Tuominen and Henri Alén as a cultural act in the heart of Helsinki. Apart from the building that housed it, everything in it was designed by Kivi and Tuuli Sotamaa of Ateljé Sotamaa in the spirit of a Gesamtkunstwerk that staged food, the interior space of the restaurant and its objects in an intimate choreography for visitors to enjoy.
The restaurant, which was planned for a two-year lifetime and closed in April 2018, was an intervention in the culinary, social and cultural landscape of Finland. ‘Finnjävel’ (“Finnish Devil”) is a pejorative name Swedes gave to Finnish immigrants in Sweden during the 1950’s and -60’s. At that time, Finns mass-migrated to Sweden in search for a better future. For Finns today Finnjävel means ‘sisu,’ a Finnish combination of stamina, perseverance and ambition, spiced up with a pinch of megalomania. The name was apt for a restaurant, which wanted to take the overlooked Finnish culinary culture with its unique qualities and elevate it to the level of high culture and fine dining.
The restaurant was located in the central harbour area of Helsinki, in a stone house built in 1830 when Finland was ruled by Russia. The building itself is listed but everything else we custom-designed for the restaurant: the organisation of the interior spaces, furniture, cutlery, dishes and lighting. The development of the culinary menu and the design were intimately related to one another. Every course on the menu had a plate, bowl or dish designed for it; or vice-versa, a course was inspired by a certain object. Overall, we designed the interior and 146 objects for Finnjävel, all of which was made by Finnish craftsmen and companies using a mix of digital and traditional manufacturing techniques.
However, the goal was to design the interaction between the hosts, guests, and objects in relation to the gastronomical experience and not to deliver individual, industrial objects. With this design objective, bowls, water jars, flower vases, plates, wine glasses, silverware, furniture, lighting, and so forth were functional tools valued for their practicality as well as artworks admired for their aesthetic qualities. The beauty of the designs was a means for seducing visitors into considering Finnish cuisine as worthy of fine dining. Together with the chefs we placed our designs and the food in a carefully sequenced play with the diners who in the process subtly became changed by the culinary experience.
In this manner, Finnjävel foregrounded the importance of embodied experience, the fact that architecture must be physically experienced. The merging of food, design, architecture, narrative, and music created a mood and a physical, multi-sensorial experience. The Finnjävel experience was not about just drinking and eating; it was about an embracing aesthetics - and about the chefs, sommeliers and waiters preparing the service from their hearts. The restaurant as a whole, its immaterial as well as material and human aspects, revolved around the experience of the guests. This was staged through the deliberate design of physical forms and relations between elements and the making and consumption of food - all of which gave rise to a concatenation of movements and gestures unfolding in accordance with the sequence of a meal. The aim was to change the way people felt and ultimately revitalize them.
The Finnjävel menu consisted of ten courses and lasted on average four hours. We likened a meal to a theatre performance and followed a dramaturgical approach to design everywhere. The key organising principle was choreographing the series of unfolding experiences for the guests. Each meal was inaugurated with a little figure of a glass devil glowing like a jewel on top of a small lamp embedded in the maple dining table.
When the service begun, the waiter would swap the devil for a fibre optic brass light, which illuminated the setting for the subsequent courses. Ten courses and extras would follow 15-20 minutes apart. With each course the table setting would change dramatically, creating a progression of aesthetic and culinary sensations. The music, that was composed specifically for the restaurant by Tuomas Kantelinen, would play in the background. It ranged from romantic to dramatic or humorous, adding to the experience like the soundtrack for a movie.
The design of the objects aimed at producing formal and aesthetic contrasts, which together with the food enabled dramaturgically transitions and counterpoints. The chefs matched the sensibility of the design with the food and created sequences of similar, contrapuntal culinary sensations. The rust-glazed bowl would be the carrier for blood pudding; the glass bowl would make the colourful salmon soup magically levitate; the oval, vitreous porcelain plates would highlight the golden colour and linear form of a smoked herring; the deep black, glazed ceramics would turn a deconstructed Carelian Pie into a colourful painting; and the CNC milled wooden plates created an unusual haptic experience when eating the ‘priests house emergency’ dessert, a fine dining dish based on random raw material found in the kitchen.
Food is always a combination of geology, economy and politics. Finland’s location between eastern Russia and Western Scandinavia combined with its harsh climate and scarce resources has delivered a unique culinary culture.
The chefs and we found inspiration in every-day places: school lunches (Finland has offered free school food since 1948), grandmothers’ home cooking, and reindeer herders’ meals.
We designed a pen-case-inspired wooden object for Petit Fours, a small plate with an ear for coffee, and a Puukko (traditional hunting knife) style steak knife.
The coffee plate with an ear was drawn from the fact that people of my grandmother’s generation used to drink hot coffee by placing a sugar cube between their teeth, sucking coffee through it straight from a plate. It was considered a guilty pleasure, making a loud sound like Japanese eating noodles. We honoured the custom and boldly introduced a plate with the ear to the context of fine dining.
All of these culturally specific references were lost on foreigners but gave the Finnish guests a unique sense of ownership of the experience. For Finns the culinary flavours would take them right back to childhood; for a foreigner the taste sensations and surprising designs would appear marvellously exotic.
The restaurant spaces were designed to create a series of different ‘stages’. Lighting, the organisation of objects, acoustics and the plethora of bespoke designs produced a range of different micro-atmospheres and moods. The furniture and all other design objects were integral parts of an architectural environment, a theatrical experience and the service. The chairs and their arrangements were used to create nuanced social spaces. Our Finnjävel Chair was custom-designed to engender a small, protective private space around each person.
Collectively the soft, colourful, curvilinear, and asymmetrical chairs created the effect of intimacy and closeness as opposed to that of repetitive generic, symmetrical and uniform furniture, which commonly are used in restaurants. The objects affected the social space also in other ways. We designed a surreal, oversized decanter to create a spectacle out of pouring wine to generate visual interaction between people seated around adjacent tables. The lights from the brass LED lamp on the tables interacted with liquids and created constantly changing reflections encouraging people to move their glasses around in a playful manner.
The furniture and object design was influenced by functional considerations such as ergonomics, lightness to protect a historical floor (specific to the furniture), production cost to keep within the budget, and manufacturing technologies in consideration of the time schedule. However, despite these functional concerns, the driving force for the design was always its role in creating the overall experience. The design of the glasses, for example, was driven by performance both in a theatrical and functional sense.
The forms, which we developed together with the sommelier Samuil Angelov, hold air in specific ways and pour the liquid into different parts of the mouth depending on the nature of the drink. We developed a large, bowl-shaped ‘decanter glass’ for aged wine, a small glass with an open mouth for sweet wine, and a Marie Antoinette- glass for champagne (famously modelled after her left breast).
The dozen different glass designs contributed collectively to a constantly changing, rich tabletop architecture. Likewise, 3D printed lights were used to create the illusion of movement over the chef’s table, reflecting the dynamic ethos of the chefs.
The Finnjävel experience begun already outside the restaurant. Coinciding with its opening in April 2016, there was an eight part reality series about the creative process on Finnish television entitled Finnjävel – A Restaurant from Hell. The series documented the design process, our back-and-forth conversation with the chefs, the general evolution of the concepts, the chefs’ contact with the farmers and producers of the menu’s ingredients, and the manufacturing and construction of our designs. People could witness how design was inspired by food and how food in turn was inspired by the range of exotic forms lying around in our studio. Viewers got an inside view of the struggle, the labour and the intense attention to details that it took to create Finnjävel. When people finally came to the restaurant, many of them knew it intimately because of the television series. During their dinner, smartphones would come out repeatedly and thousands of images of the food and the design were posted on Instagram. These images would be viewed by new people prior to their visiting the restaurant, creating a small, ongoing media cyclone, which contributed to the Finnjävel experience.
The process of creating Finnjävel took eight months. The average time for developing a new product - for example, a chair or plate - is two years. We created 146 designs, which were manufactured and then used for two years. The project would have been utterly impossible without digital design and manufacturing techniques, which - when creatively combined with industrial methods of production and traditional craftsmanship - enabled the fast, economic creation of high quality objects in small series. Beyond the efficiencies, the most exciting advantage inherent in the technological approach was that we were able to craft, both in a digital and traditional sense, variation and uniqueness into each object. The glasses were mouth blown into CNC milled wooden moulds before freeform stems were added manually.
The silverware was manufactured using laser cutting in combination with hand forging, enabling the creation of a wide variety of utensils designed to work with the unusual plate sizes. The result was a changing haptic sensation when eating.
Flexible production techniques meant that people could take the design home with them. There was a design menu to accompany the dinner menu. The possibility to purchase something associated with the dinner added to the overall restaurant experience and guests’ sense of ownership. Visitors would buy the pair of glasses that they used for their anniversary dinner, or they would gift steak knives for an important business associate after the meal. We learned that design was a crucial part in producing the narrative of the restaurant and the overall experience of an evening at Finnjävel - and that value to such a degree that it made it possible to manufacture everything in Finland despite its high labour costs. Moreover, for the two years that the restaurant existed, it became an important source of income for a variety of Finnish high-quality craftsmen and manufacturers who were involved in the project.
William Shakespeare wrote ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ In designing the Finnjävel restaurant we had the rare opportunity to consider every aspect of ‘the stage’ and explore how it staged people in new, surprising and exciting roles. Food has always been at the centre of the human experience, and everything that partakes in the making and consumption of food also participates in a drama that is at once existential, social and ultimately aesthetic. Eating and drinking are essential to our cultural and social lives and present a fertile framework for formal and playful interventions. The work we did in collaboration with Finnjävel chefs Tuominen and Alén produced a gastronomical theatre, reflecting in a modest way Shakespeare’s observation about the world and our lives in it. At best, our design contributed to change the way Finnjävel’s visitors felt during their meal and - perhaps - who they became before re-entering the world outside the restaurant.
1) Finnjävel was given the award, The Culinary Culture Act of the Year, in 2017.
Article photos by Nico Backström, Kimmo Syväri, Filippo Fabi / Ateljé Sotama