For INTOA design, waste is a treasure: Helena Hannula (INTOA design; FI)

Helena Hannula. Photo: Jouko Haapala

Helena Hannula (Finland) runs a brand INTOA design that designs and manufactures custom accessories and home textiles using as many recycled materials as possible. Helena reflects, among other things, on what were the reasons establishing the brand, why she considers waste being a treasure, and how to live more sustainable life. 

Helena, how do you define yourself?

I am Helena, an artisan and a textile designer from Tampere, Finland. I feel privileged doing the kind of work I have a passion for. I feel that my work is important and that I can play my part in promoting sustainable development. My work and the rest of my life are intertwined so that it could be described as a holistic way of life. I spend a little and thoughtfully. I could be described as a minimalist. I am also an aesthete and a bon vivant. I am in favor of slow way of life, contrary to the general prevailing way of life. I want to feel, observe, consider, and do things in peace with all my heart, without haste. My values are based on justice, equality, tolerance and respect for all life.

Are you a vegetarian/vegan?

My diet is increasingly made up of plant-based food, reducing meat intake. In the products I make, I minimize materials of animal origin, the goal is to get rid of them and use substitute materials instead.

How did you become a textile designer? 

I had already from young age been interested in crafts, design, art, and generally everything visual around me. The talent and interest towards the industry comes in part from home, from my mother. She used to sew everything from clothes to interior textiles, refashioning and repairing. I got a spark at handicrafts at a very young age, before school age, I fell in love with knitting and crochet. In addition, I also drew a lot. I remember how I thought I wanted to have a career in handicrafts when I grew up. It was clear to me that I want to study this industry, first to be a dressmaker and then to become a textile designer. For many years I directed children and adults in the school, as well as handicraft workshops. Little by little, the idea of starting my own business began to take hold. I went to an entrepreneurship course to learn about entrepreneurship and at the same time started to plan what kind of products I would want to make. So in the summer of 2010, the INTOA design was born.

What were your reasons being establishing the brand INTOA design? 

I founded the brand so that I get to express myself and my design ambitions in the best possible way and also to employ myself. The INTOA design designs and manufactures handmade recycled accessories and home textiles such as slippers, aprons, baskets, bags, pillows, etc. The main materials are upcycled jeans and rag rugs.

In the beginning, a lot of time was spent on design work, and planning for what kind of products I would start to make, what kind of recycled materials were available in larger quantities, etc. The first product of  the INTOA design was slippers made from recycled jeans, they are still the main product. After that, product awareness, marketing, and sourcing effective sales channels were a challenge. Little by little, I strarted to attended handicraft events, started my own online shop, and joined the craft store as a partner with other artisans and designers. In this way, the customer base gradually grew. In addition to my own collection, I also did repair sewing for customers for a long time. Now, for a couple of years, I have already been focused on my own products, which is great. Product families have grown over time and some products have been discontinued, depending on customer demand. Sometimes I make small batches that bring variety and interest to my brand. Sales channels have changed a lot recently. Online sales have grown tremendously, partly due to the global pandemic situation. Online stores and social media with their product images have taken over the industry.

What kind of impact do you aim to achieve with the brand?

The INTOA design wants to contribute to sustainable development by creating products from recycled materials. I don’t want to cause increase in the world’s waste load but rather reduce it with my choise of using recycled materials. For the brand, waste is a treasure! I want to show that waste materials can be upcycled into beautiful, stylish and durable products.

What makes recycled jeans and rag rugs so good and beneficial to be used for repurposing? 

Both recycled jeans and rag rugs are durable and long-lasting materials. The availability of materials is relatively good. I also like denim for aesthetic reasons, beautiful patina and different shades of blue and gray are pleasing. The jeans as material is still widely used in the clothing of people of all ages and a lot of people like it. In contrast, the color saturation of rag rugs fascinates me. Likewise, the history of rugs, and with it the stories associated with the weft materials of rag rugs, have already been recycled once, e.g. old clothes, home textiles, etc. So I can say that I create the third life for the material, first as a garment, then as a rag rug and then as a basket, for example. I get the materials mainly from different flea markets. I also get a lot of material from individual people as a donation. Surplus stocks of companies are also important sources for purchasing the materials.

What does being the INTOA design’s designer mean to you? 

I design all the INTOA design products myself. The fact that I design all my products myself is the main idea behind the INTOA design brand. I can implement my ideas to the fullest, without compromise. Fully implementing my recycling philosophy through my work as well, so the INTOA design adapts well to my lifestyle. My design is material-based, the materials and their properties limit the uses and shapes and sizes of the products. The products such as slippers are unique and there is also possibility for customization according to the customers’ wishes. The final products are unique as the raw material is unique but the sewing pattern / design of the product remains the same. My design process starts with the material, after that I design the product I want. I get influences from everyday life around me, I am also inspired by websites, magazines, exhibitions, products by other designers, etc. I sketch and draw products on paper and then experiment with the material. After that, I make a small series of the new product and test sales in my online store and on handicraft events. It is important to hear customer feedback and any product development wishes. Sometimes the product is created easily and quickly, sometimes the process takes a long time through many variations to the final product.

What does sustainability, recycling, upcycling, low-waste and sustainable development mean to you, also in your daily life?

Sustainability, recycling, upcycling, low-waste and sustainable development mean a lot, they cover almost every aspect of my life. And in this world situation, when environmental issues are really topical, their importance has grown. I think it is even a duty to pay attention to the above, reduce consumption, favor what is produced nearby, recycle, repair and avoid/reduce the use of fossil fuels. I spend in a controlled way, I buy goods, clothes, etc. thoughtfully, just for the need. I invest in quality, repair, recycle, borrow and rent. I do not own a car but rather prefer public transportation. I have also reduced the traveling, especially abroad. Sustainable design and recycling in design, quality, durable materials, longevity, local production, ethical production conditions and transparency in the entire product manufacturing process are important to me. The use of recycled materials in the design provides significant added value to the product, thus reducing use of natural resources and amounts of waste. I couldn’t imagine making non-recycled products.

Ethical standards of a brand matter to many, and this has encouraged such matters to be at the forefront of business models and policies. What makes you buy? What are your buying and consuming principles? 

I prefer locally produced. If possible, I buy recycled from flea markets and recycle products in the close circle. I repair or have products repaired for me. I get along with small amount of stuff, I prefer minimalism. I buy a high quality and durable product if I buy a new. Goods that are not suitable for myself or close circle are properly recycled at designated points, recycling centers etc.

Photo: Jouko Haapala

Many believe that the future of design is upcycling. How would you comment on that?

I do believe that the future of design is upcycling. Also in the field of technology, recycled material based innovations are made. People are becoming more and more interested and vigilant, and want to take responsibility for environmental issues and hence favoring upcycled design.

Brands’ innovation and rebranding is sometimes lacking sufficient sustainability expertise. The solution may be incomplete, considering the environmental situation, business’ and consumers’ needs. Outcome can be (unintentional) greenwashing. How would you comment on that?

Greenwashing occurs yes, both intentional and unintentional. An unfortunate phenomenon, it could be talked about more, increasing consumer criticality. In this way, consumers would find out more about things before making a purchase decision. That is, the responsibility lies with both the brand and the consumer, but primarily with the brand in my opinion.

How would you shortly define productive, unproductive and destructive entrepreneurship? 

Productive entrepreneurship includes the skills to turn ideas into activities that generate economic, cultural, social or societal value. Destructive entrepreneurship weighs down all the values of sustainable development and focuses only on economic values and profit making.

Have your concerns about the environment changed during the years?  What are the major environmental issues that our world is facing today? 

I’m really concerned about the climate change. It seems that now is the last moment to take action to slow down the climate change and save our planet. I am worried about the rise of the carbon dioxide levels in the air and the greenhouse effect it causes. Global temperatures are rising at an accelerating pace and animal species are dying out, etc. The priority measures to take are gradually abandoning the use of fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

What creative activists, sustainable designers, sustainable entrepreneurs, etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?

I have a lot of sustainable designers and entrepreneurs etc who have influenced me and my work. I follow the activities of many responsible companies and designers so I know where we are going at the moment. As my biggest influence, I could mention Seija Lukkala, a long-time entrepreneur, she is a pioneer of the circular economy in Finland and the founder of Globe Hope. Founded in 2003, the brand manufactures ecological textile products from recycled materials. Especially in the early stages of starting my business, I sought influences from Globe Hope’s product world. The design language of their product and the use of preconceived materials encouraged and inspired me.

What’s next up for you? 

There are plans for new products and perhaps new materials in search. It has been cooking slowly in my thoughts to extend my work to textile art, such as wall textiles. The use of recycled materials would be strongly involved. It feels like the right time to do that move is close.

Get inspired!