Nordic Night Avantgarde

Agnese Čivle


Not too long ago, published select highlights from the exhibition- and event-program for Helsinki – World Design Capital 2012. One of the exhibitions/event groups scheduled for the summer season (specifically, May) – “ÖÖ: Was it a Dream?” – looks particularly interesting. The founder of the Nordic boutique showcase and experience ÖÖ: [û:] is Merilyn Kesküla, a London-based design project manager and event consultant, who also happens to be Estonian. With an education in fashion management and experience in the international fashion industry, Merilyn is bringing to life her vision of a design environment in which fashion is just one of its many aspects. By founding the experimental marketing agency Keskula Network, Merilyn is popularizing the New Nordic philosophy, in which a new type of luxury is being generated by creative cooperation. Choice, locally-sourced raw materials are one of the main components of these unique products, which include everything from food to fashion design.

met up with Merilyn Kesküla in Helsinki to find out more about ÖÖ:'s current operations and future plans.

Merilyn Kesküla, a London-based design project manager and label consultant, from Estonia

ÖÖ: took part in London's fashion week this past February. Tell us about it.

The International Fashion Showcase, organized by the British Council and the British Fashion Council and held during London's fashion week, was an official part of the cultural program for the London Olympic Games. The goal of the event was to bring together new, avantgarde fashion talents from all over the world and to give them the chance to show their work to 80 designers from 18 different countries. Korean avantgarde was the big winner this year.


However, ÖÖ: London Edition did end up on the list of eight finalists, and we also received welcome attention from major press publication, including Vogue Italia, and popular fashion and design blogs.

Usually, ÖÖ: events are made up of tens of new avantgarde designers from the six Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Estonia), but this time, the exhibition's core consisted of three Estonian artists: Marit Ilison, with her magical story of the menswear concept “7SILVERMENINCOATS”; Magnus Lõppe, with his clean, simple and peaceful menswear collection “The Project of Forgetting”; and Kaspar Paas, with his unique shoe collection. While the product designer Thorunn Arnadottir, from Iceland and Estonian textile designer Kärt Ojavee were added for extra dimension of design experience.

Magnus Lõppe. Spring/Summer 2012. Copenhagen fashion week

What can we expect from ÖÖ: in Helsinki, as part of the World Design Capital events program?

In Helsinki, ÖÖ: Was it a Dream? will present its fourth large-scale event. [ÖÖ: Was it a Dream? debuted as a pop-up gallery and concept-store in London, 2010, during the London Design Festival. The enterprise's second showing was in Stockholm, during Global Entrepreneurship Week 2010; and their last project took place in Tallinn, in 2011, where Toby Meadows, author of “How to Set  up and Run a Fashion Label”, and Stefan Siegel, founder of the designer platform/internet store Not Just A Label, took part in the ÖÖ: Talk lecture series. - A. Č.]

The Helsinki program will consist of three sections – trade show / exhibition, ÖÖ: Talks lecture series (including ÖÖ: Architectural Talks in collaboration with Alvar Aalto Museum and ÖÖ Talks in collaboration with Aalto University) as well as workshops led by participants, and ÖÖkÖÖk - New Nordic culinary experience.

Kaspar Paas

In the exhibition, the designers will not only present their own personal creative accomplishments, but also the fruits of their cooperative endeavors. We also hope that the creative workshop will prove to be just as successful as it was in Tallinn, where there was a wonderful atmosphere in which the artists shared their stories. In terms of ÖÖ: Talks, two themes will be developed: in cooperation with the Alvar Aalto Foundation there will be a discussion series – at the center of which will be architecture – but there will also be a special lecture on the Indian market by the Indian marketing expert Neisha Gharat (one of the goals of ÖÖ: is to bring Nordic designers into new markets, including India). And then there will be ÖökÖÖk, which means “night kitchen” in Estonian, and will present new experiences in Nordic cuisine.

Design, fashion, architecture, film and food... - these are the things that I've always wanted to weave together, bringing a multi-sensory Nordic experience to life.

What principles do you follow when choosing the creative personalities and labels that you work with?

Various earlier cooperative projects have brought us into contact, as well as my work with design organizations in different countries, and my travels and visits to design festivals. Along the way, a vast network has formed, full of fantastically creative personalities. However, I choose the people I work with based on my intuition. I evaluate their character – sometimes, they may have something absolutely fabulous to offer, but I sense that the person is just not ready for cooperation – he/she is not ready to be part of a creative group.

In fact, many designers have achieved a creative upswing right after ÖÖ: events, at which they found new and promising contacts.
KO! Lightning pillows. Photo:  Andris Feldmanis

Many of the people that I currently work with have been a part of ÖÖ: since the beginning, such as the Estonian textile designer and researcher Kärt Ojavee (KO!), who works with so-called “smart textiles” and creates new hybrid materials. Her three different pillow models virtually come alive with light and sound effects. Thorunn Arnadottir, a product designer from Iceland, was also part of ÖÖ: from the start; now she is well-known in New York and elsewhere in the world. Thorunn Arnadottir has been showing in V&A and her graduation project QR U? was used by the whole London Design Festival team last year. [Learn more about all of ÖÖ:'s artists here – A.Č.]

The events that you organize focus on various fields of design. Are you also interested in, for instance, process design?

I'm interested in everything that deals with design. I have a good background in fashion design, but I feel that fashion, by itself, is a very narrow field. I want to break down all of the walls that make representatives of various creative fields work just in their own, strictly delineated zones; I want to bring them all together and have them become aware of the whole, wide territory of design that is out there.

Working in a closed-off environment makes it impossible to see new ways of working and doesn't allow one to reach the horizons of innovation.

An increasingly larger understanding of the importance of design is developing in both the public  and the state governing sectors of Nordic countries, and designers are receiving increasingly more support. My job is to make sure that there is successful integration of the public and private sectors and the creative fields. Because only in working as one whole can design become a contribution to not only the culture, but to the economy as well.

Is that also the goal of the Nordic experimental marketing agency Keskula Creativity Management, of which you are the head?

The goal is to create new experiences, to create a new relationship model.

In organizing events and pop-up projects on an international level, we're promoting Nordic company expansion and growth in international markets; we're developing opportunities for new partnerships and cooperation.

For example, right now we're working on a large project in connection with Clerkenwell Design Week in London. During Clerkenwell Design Week, the latest and largest design festival in Europe, Gin Lane, a pop-up gin bar, will appear; our efforts in its creation were focused on combining various different disciplines in order to make a multi-dimensional phenomenon, in which the culinary aspect is just as important as its design and architecture.

I want to reach people without touching them; inspire them in such a way that they didn't think that they could be. I'm trying to create something that people aren't expecting, but once they experience it, they can't stop thinking about it.

People really like to not only enjoy great works of design or art, but to also meet and get to know the people that have created these works. That's why at ÖÖ: events, the designers are always present, so that the viewers can communicate with them, get to know their stories.

Thorunn Arnadottir. Sasa Clock

What do you think makes a good story?

What's interesting is the way that stories come together. In this era of globalization, no matter how long or in which part of the world we may live, or whatever we may do, we each have our own context of history, tradition and regional belonging – our own story. And in whatever part of the world we may be in, we can meet people from these stories. In Estonian, "ÖÖ" means “night”; and night – this long, cold and dark period of time – is something that the stories of the Nordic countries have in common. This regional feature – a unique experience that you won't find in Spain or Madagascar – in large part, dictates how the people of this region express themselves creatively, how they realize their innovative solutions.

This is where craftmanship comes into play...

I grew up in soviet times, when the only way you could survive was by making and growing things yourself. That is why I have a strong conviction and belief that it is possible to manufacture things yourself – to choose local production. Designers in the Baltic countries are already turning back towards craftmanship. It's also slowly happening in the Nordic countries; slowly, craftmanship is becoming a trend that will not only preserve the traditions of craftmanship, but will also strengthen the local economies. The public sector should show greater support of this initiative.

What is the greatest challenge in your job?

Often times, the greatest challenge is to prove to people that it is possible to think broader, that it is necessary to reject the setting of boundaries, because life is organic. Usually, people like to be able to put everything in its place – to be sure that this is an exhibition, or that this is a show... But I want to reveal to them what it is that things have in common, to show them the point of contact.