Nils Finne, AIA, is a principal of the award-winning FINNE Architects, recognized as one of the best Seattle design firms by several local magazines. In addition to architecture, Nils has been involved in the design and fabrication of more than 70 pieces of furniture, lighting and hardware, which are produced and marketed separately. FINNE projects have appeared in more than 75 books and magazines. In addition, the work currently is found on more than 400 design web sites, such as Contemporist, Moco Loco, Design Milk, Inhabitat, and Freshome. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about his unique approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming an architect
I came to architecture through the study of sculpture. When I was a senior in high school, I made a large outdoor steel sculpture that was about 10 ft by 12 ft. It survived for a number of years until my faulty welding technique caused the piece to fall apart. I like the idea of the sculpture disintegrating, because art slowly vanishing over time has a nice poetic ring to it. I worked with both steel and wood, along with some other materials. I pursued sculpture at the beginning of college, and then I left college for a couple years in Norway. I was searching for authenticity. I spent some time working on a farm in Central Norway, close to the city of Trondheim. Believe it or not, this farmer had a large supply of birch logs that he had dried for twenty years. I know it sounds very romantic, but I I would carve these birch pieces at night up in this little farm house loft. Back in Oslo, I had several uncles who were both architects and I spent time in one architectural office in particular. Eventually, I returned to the US and ended up at Brown and Rhode Island School of Design, focusing on design and architecture. Then, I went to architecture graduate school at Harvard. I studied with a fantastic furniture designer at RISD named Tage Frid, who told me to give up on architecture and focus on furniture design. I thought Tage was crazy, because I was convinced that architecture was by far the more all-encompassing discipline. I ignored Tage’s advice and now in my own architecture practice, I have designed over 70 pieces of furniture and lighting. I think Tage would be smiling at the fact that I have spent so much time designing furniture.
On discovering his architectural design voice
There is no doubt that one of the largest influences on me has been the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn, who unfortunately is not very well-known. Architecture tends to be dominated by certain media-driven names such as Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, or Frank Gehry. Sverre Fehn, my friend, won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, which is regarded as the Nobel Prize of architecture. The media virtually ignored the Pritzker during the year Sverre was named. The media world has severe shortcomings trying to address architecture, which in my opinion has to be fundamentally thoughtful and not necessarily flashy and media-driven.
I first met Sverre when I had a Fulbright Fellowship. For many years after my Fulbright, I would go to visit my family in Oslo and take the opportunity to chat with Sverre. He lived in a 1930s early Modernist house in Oslo, and we would sit in this amazing house and talk about architecture. He was a phenomenally deep thinker and many people refer to him as the Norwegian version of Carlo Scarpa (the great Italian architect). Scarpa designed hardware, fittings, and custom building elements. Scarpa’s architecture is very furniture-like and I think Sverre’s work falls into the same category. Sverre greatly influenced how I think about materials and designing buildings related to the landscape.
In addition to Sverre Fehn, I must mention Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish architect. I spent an entire year living in Helsinki, visiting most of his buildings multiple times, speaking with many people who had worked with him in his office. Aalto’s buildings reward you every time you visit them. In particular, it was Aalto’s idea of what he called the inner-landscape that has been a reference point for my work. It is the notion that building interiors can unfold as mythological landscapes. Columns can be treated as objects, and furniture has a way of occupying space, just like people do. A room can seem to be occupied even without people. It’s difficult to describe because it is a phenomenological experience. Objects within these internal landscapes of buildings start to have a dialogue with each other, and that dialogue is something that the designer sets in motion. But perhaps the designer doesn’t have complete control, which is another intriguing idea.
On starting his own firm and how his approach has evolved
I was a senior associate at the office of Richard Meier & Partners, working on the large Getty Center Project in LA. I had the privilege of being the Project Architect for the entire museum component of Getty Center. I had an opportunity to start my firm with a large residential project in Santa Monica. For a while, I had offices in both Santa Monica and Seattle. Eventually I came back to Seattle full-time. The landscape of the Pacific Northwest is remarkably similar to the Norwegian landscape, and that fact has always resonated very deeply for me. Los Angeles is a pretty amazing place to visit, but after a while you yearn for a different environment. My work focuses on the relationship of the building to this fantastic Pacific Northwest landscape, using a range of materials, but most notably wood. The idea of what I call crafted modernism started to develop about 18 years ago when my clients began asking me to design furniture for them. It escalated over time, and now we typically provide a range of custom pieces for our projects. My office has become a subcontractor, and recently we even did the CNC milling for a wood tractor seat ourselves. My approach has developed incrementally over the years since we came back to Seattle. Over the last 7 or 8 years my work has suddenly become national. We have had projects on Lake Superior, in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, several projects in California, and we currently have a project on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The office is rooted in Seattle, but now it has a national and broader focus.
On principles he strives to adhere to
There is a series of guiding tenets that have been constant in the work. The relationship of architecture to furniture has been a continuing concern. I call it a migration of ideas, so that architecture can be conceived as furniture and furniture conceived as architecture. For example, I designed a small end table called the Tind Table, which won a silver medal in an international competition in Milan. I designed a very dense perforation pattern in steel for this table, allowing the perforations to generate the shapes of the bamboo legs. That same perforated panel became a stair railing for the Mazama House, transforming the pattern into a vertical panel and allowing natural light to filter through it. At night, the moonlight creates these marvelous patterns by shining through the perforations onto the stair treads. Another example would be some bronze castings I designed as table legs with a woven pattern for the Christian Science Reading Room. Then, we used the same pattern to make a custom door at the Mazama House.
So, the furniture becomes a kind of laboratory, because it can be made more quickly and you can be more experimental with your use of the materials. Then, we make broader applications. Another example would be a cabinet panel. I’ve probably designed eight or nine cabinet panels, really as pieces of furniture. After you’ve done the research and prototyping and the cabinet panel is ready to go, the applications expand on a much wider and broader scale. We do receive calls from designers and architects who want to use our pieces in their own projects. This cross-fertilization between furniture and architecture is a principle that you see in all our projects. It relates to this idea I call crafted modernism.
Some architects’ conception of modernism is the suppression of all detail and the suppression of materiality. That couldn’t be farther away from the architecture that I’m trying to pursue. For example, look at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York by Taniguchi, where surfaces are immune to the human touch. Nothing has texture or materiality to it, there is no detail whatsoever. The aim is to make the building into a highly neutral container. I am not interested in neutrality in architecture, nor do I really think it is an architecture that resonates with the general public. If you ask people about modern architecture, they start wrinkling their noses about it. This is a PR problem with Modernism. Most people think of modern architecture as being very thin, poorly detailed, and essentially peeling away over time.
Modernism can have layers of richness and detailing, just like older buildings. Early in my career, I designed many renovations and I was struck by how passionately people care about older homes. It is almost a psychological need to connect to the past. What is so enticing about these older structures?” My conclusion has been that it is not the language of classicism, a particular architectural detail, or a stylistic idiom. It is the idea that older buildings allow us to connect to a craftsman, to someone who has been passionate about the making of a building.
It is craft and the touch of the human hand that moves us and makes us remember a building. Crafted pieces bring tremendous value to a project. We all instantly understand the beauty and value of these things, because they show the touch of the human hand. A client recently remarked that visitors to his house immediately start touching everything, the wood surfaces, the stone, the steel. Sometimes we actually see with our hands, we touch a piece and somehow connect to its maker. I have pursued the idea of crafted modernism, the notion that modernism must embody the care of making, the enduring value of craftsmanship, in order to acquire lasting value and meaning.
On some fundamental level, architecture is concerned with the making of form, the beauty of form. Is it possible to make form without considering the materiality of that form? No. The material allows the form to unfold, just like language allows the expression of poetry.
As we use materials, we remember their essence, yet we intervene, we introduce an irrational thought; we re-present the material in unexpected ways. The material is the continuity with the past; the detail is the unexpected intervention, or perhaps even an invention, meaning to find, to discover.
I have been pursuing two transformative ideas in the realm of materials. The first is the poetry of the line, the spontaneous hand-drawn line. The second is the migration of landscape morphology into material form, through a process of abstraction.
What is it about a line that is so endlessly fascinating? A line is like an expression on a face, of joy, deep sorrow, or hope. It appears only for an instant and then disappears.
We can take the spontaneous, hand-drawn line and realize it through sophisticated machining in unlikely materials such as steel, aluminum or glass. The line becomes a profoundly human expression, a kind of human voice, a song of sorts. Lyrical.
Now, let’s turn to the second idea, the transformation of landscape forms.
Is it possible to translate landscape forms into abstractions? Can we also talk about the inner landscape of a building? How does the weight of a large boulder become a glass table? Here are my thoughts about the layered glass STEN tables:
I am walking along the beach and come upon a large stone boulder, half-surrounded by water. The density and mass of the stone is suddenly transformed as the stone changes to glass and light shines through the entire boulder. Perhaps the glass boulder should be the table. But the forces of geology intervene and the glass is flattened into a few discrete layers, the glass boulder becomes several lyrically shaped planes of glass, still with the memory of the dense stone.
How does a series of landscape morphologies transform into a coffee table? Or can we transform a river landscape into a cabinet panel? There is something marvelously tactile about the forms of the landscape as we see them abstracted in materials like wood or leather. Or even wool, such as the VEGG rug, which is based on a remembrance of stone walls.
On his aspirations for the next 5–10 years
I made a conscious decision 5–8 years ago to keep my firm small. At one point we were close to 10 people and my ability to control projects was spiraling out of control. Our firm is now limited to a total size of about 5 people, which I find creates a manageable tempo. We usually work on 5–6 projects. With CAD programs, we can make many drawings with a small number of people. We just issued 85 sheets of drawings for a project in LA and 60 sheets of drawings for a Seattle project, almost simultaneously. As more projects pile in, I tell to new clients to be patient because we simply have limited capacity.
The majority of our work has been custom high-end residential work. Different types of buildings have been creeping in. We completed a Reading Room for the Christian Science Church, we currently have a small three-story “boutique” commercial building under construction here in Seattle. It’s highly innovative in terms of construction, with operable windows and radiant concrete floor heating and cooling. Most commercial buildings waste energy on air conditioning and we have only a small back-up A/C system. It would be fantastic to work on other smaller, non-residential buildings, particularly religious buildings.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
I hope that architecture will improve in its execution and that the craft of building will survive. Our society is plagued by “thow-away-ism” in buildings and objects, celebrating the inessential.
If we consume less but make sure that we do choose thoughtfully designed, well-crafted objects and environments, then we are on the path to a sustainable future.
On advice he would give himself before starting
Your success as a designer is inextricably tied to the ability to convince people to fund and execute your design and vision. Many young architects are not focused on this issue. First of all you need to land the clients, then you must convince the clients to venture into an area of design where they may be uncomfortable. This is a topic rarely discussed in design school. On the execution side, you have the builder and the thought of construction. As a designer, you are focused on the aesthetic component of construction. But you need to understand construction from the point of view of the constructor. If we think about construction deeply, then the aesthetic component is integral with the language of construction, which should be completely understandable to the builder.