Architect of natural light

Benjamin Benschneider Above: One of Finne’s recent projects was renovating an older Craftsman-style home into a modern, light-filled Christian Science Reading Room. In addition to renovating / designing the structure, Finne designs lighting, furniture and more for his clients.

Award-winning architect Nils Finne reflects on his approach and influences of Nordic design

Line Grundstad Hanke

Line Grundstad Hanke Interior Design

Through my work as an interior designer, I have had the pleasure to meet and visit with award-winning architect Nils Finne. Finne’s combination of the highest quality of craftsmanship and Nordic sensibility makes him a highly sought-after designer in the U.S., and I am pleased to give you, the reader, an insight to an architect and his work.

Finne grew up in the U.S. and Norway, and established Seattle-based firm Finne Architects with strong ties to Scandinavian style. His projects are found in the Pacific Northwest as well as throughout the U.S.

Finne is renowned for his commitment to sustainability and the use of natural materials: wood, stone, steel and glass, with an emphasis on natural light. Finne designs the whole package for his clients – from the structure to the lighting and furniture – with the overarching theme of lasting value and quality through sustainability.

Line Grundstad Hanke: How did you become interested in design?

Nils Finne: I was drawn into the world of design through my experiences working with materials such as steel and wood, first in sculpture and then later in furniture. I became fascinated by sculpture during high school and made a number of steel sculptures, including one very large piece (about 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide).  Turning to wood during college I made several carved sculptures in walnut.  I took some time off from college, and spent about two years living in Norway. I worked for about four or five months on a farm in Trøndelag, at a place called Stjørdal, and often stayed up late in the evenings in order to carve wood sculptures from birch up in the attic.

I was fortunate to be able to study furniture design with Tage Frid, a fantastic Danish furniture designer and teacher at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). Tage told me to give up on architecture and focus on furniture instead. I didn’t accept Tage’s advice, since I wanted the opportunity to design larger buildings and environments, so I went to graduate school in architecture at Harvard.  Now, many years later, I remember Tage’s remark as I spend a great deal of time designing furniture. We have produced over 80 pieces of custom furniture, lighting and hardware for our projects, and these custom pieces have become a kind of trademark for my office.

I also spent time blowing glass during college, and I continue to be fascinated by glass as a medium. One of my recent light fixtures employs kiln-fused glass, creating a texture by fusing hundreds of small glass rods to the surface of  a piece of glass. There is something almost magical about the way light strikes the surface of a piece of glass; it is almost as if the glass becomes light itself.

Is there one person, art or architectural style that was more influential in your design process?

Sverre Fehn, the renowned Norwegian architect who died in 2009, was my friend. I believe he has had a profound influence on my work. I will never forget the afternoons I spent sitting with Sverre in the living room of his house on Havna Alle, close to Blindern in Oslo. Sverre lived in a classic Functionalist house designed by his teacher, Arne Korsmo. He had an uncanny ability to understand construction and materials and then imbue a certain poetical dimension to those elements. He was also a very un-assuming person and was amused when the Americans awarded him the Pritzker Prize (the Nobel prize of architecture). “Oh yes,” he said, and they sent top-secret faxes and then flew into Oslo on their private jet.  But then, there was so much snow in many places that they could only manage to visit a few of his buildings!

Fall City residence designed by Nils Finne. Photo: Benjamin Benschneider.

If Sverre Fehn has been my compass, then Alvar Aalto has been my north star.  In 1985, I lived for a year in Helsinki on a Fulbright Grant, and managed to see all of Aalto’s buildings several times.  The Finnish architect and critic, Juhani Pallasmaa, was my mentor and shared many of his insights on Aalto and Finnish design. Seeing Aalto’s work taught me enormous amounts about the mysteries of handling natural light and the creation of what Aalto called “the interior landscape” within a building. I even spent the night in a tent right next to Aalto’s church in Vuoksenniska at Imatra. The morning light was incredible!

Having had the experience of growing up in Norway and Finland, how important is that to your design?

My first experience in an architectural office was in the office of my father’s cousin, Hans Gabriel Finne (known as Tommy), in Josefines gate, just behind the Royal Palace in Oslo. Tommy was a passionate architect, and slightly theatrical, though not anywhere nearly as theatrical as his brother, Ferdinand Finne. Tommy would stride into the office and start rapidly explaining an idea, and then interject “Er du med, er du med?” (translated as ‘Are you with me? Are you with me?’).  Tommy would routinely draw special furnishings and fixtures at full-size, and I have continued that tradition with my own full-size study drawings of the furniture and light fixtures that I design for most projects.

I have cherished memories of visits with my father’s cousin, Chrix Dahl, the graphic artist and illustrator. Chrix would lead me into his tall living room, filled with paintings, and discuss art and drawing. He had a small house and studio at the corner of my grandfather’s property on Jarlsborgveien in Oslo, which was across the street from Edvard Munch’s Ekely studio. Chrix had some funny stories about Munch and his interactions with Munch when Chrix was a young artist. Chrix had an uncanny sense of lightness to his art and his personality; you had the feeling that he was always seeking essentials.  I have tried to emulate Chrix’s delicacy in all of my own drawings.

Norway is known more for wood structure than the  stone and brick that you see more of in Europe and in the U.S., I see a strong feeling of the love of wood in your design. Can you explain why this is?

Wood is a material that we all instinctively understand and appreciate.  Since there is a minimal amount of energy involved in the production of milled wood, it is a very sustainable materials (as long as it is harvested responsibly). Wood is full of many surprises. I have tested the limits of wood in various ways: bending, milling, routing, texturing, staining, veneering, laminating, charring and combining with other materials such as steel or stone. It is remarkable how wood becomes more luminous when it is juxtaposed against contrasting materials

You mention that natural light and wood, along with other materials such as stone, steel and glass, are common in your design. Sustainability is an important factor. Can you explain how you came to this and how you start the process?

Natural light is critical to my projects. Especially here in the Pacific Northwest, natural light is a precious commodity, and the interiors of my projects are filled with a soft diffuse daylight that usually comes from high clerestory windows. During the daytime hours, many of my clients do not need any artificial lights at all, the ultimate energy conservation measure. The high windows are also often operable, so that during the summer months, we can take advantage of natural ventilation.

High windows allow the natural light to be controlled as it bounces into a building interior. Think of the Vermeer paintings with light washing deeply into a room from a high window. A roof can be an aperture for natural light, but if you simply place a skylight in that roof, you will have uncontrolled, harsh sunlight that can destroy surfaces with UV exposure and create hot spots in a room.

I have been practicing sustainable design for 30 years.  Natural light and natural ventilation are both critical; we always insulate about 50 percent more than code requires; we use highly sustainable, natural materials; and we design and detail our houses to last for many, many years. Sustainable design is not simply creating a laundry-list of green materials; rather, it is creating enduring building form and construction with appropriate long life-cycle, low-energy consuming materials.

Many of our projects also include active systems such as ground source geothermal heat exchangers and photovoltaic panels.  After a recent renovation project in Seattle was completed,  my client’s gas bills dropped by 90 percent.

Norway is known for design and we see a stor utvikling (strong development) in the design today. Many of the new buildings have taken shape due to the fact that Norway uses international design competitions for projects.  Do you see any changes in the design due to this international approach?

There has always been a strong tension in Scandinavia between international influences and local traditions. Christian Grosch, who was responsible for the University buildings in Oslo as well as the original Norges Bank and Oslo Børs buildings, was strongly under the influence of German neoclassicism and even had Schinkel, the great German architect, review his drawings in Berlin! Aalto, Korsmo and  Fehn were all under the sway of international modernism.

The best of Scandinavian design synthesizes this polarity between the international and local into something unique and grounded in the Nordic landscape and experience. I can’t think of a better example than Aalto’s masterpiece, the Villa Mairea, where I once had the good fortune to meet and visit the owner and patron, Maire Gullichsen.

Is there one Norwegian architectural firm you follow, and if so, why?

Carl-Viggo Hølmebakk, Jensen / Skodvin, and Jarmund / Vigsnæs are all smaller firms that are designing wonderfully thoughtful and highly detailed work. Of course, there is also Snøhetta, the large, multi-national firm based in Oslo but now with a New York office as well. Snøhetta’s recent Reindeer Viewing Center at Dovre Nasjonalpark is a fantastic building.

What do you see the future will bring for architects and architecture as a whole? Many talk as if the process is dying out and fewer people are interested in custom design due to cost. 

You cannot talk about cost without talking about value. We have all had the moment of buyer’s remorse when we say “what a waste of money that thing was.” We need to fight against what Iittala calls “throwayaism.” I use Iittala drinking glasses every day that were designed by Aino Aalto (Alvar’s first wife) more than 80 years ago. The parallel question to “what does it cost” must always be “will it last?”

I think the incredible success of Apple products shows the public is hungry for great design and technical innovation, and understands the inherent value in those things. When architecture performs at the same high level, the future is limitless.

If we consume less, but make sure that we do choose thoughtfully designed, well-crafted objects and environments, we are on the path to a sustainable future.

Is there a something you would like to add for those who have not seen your projects or know about the importance of architecture?

The project load in my office has always been approximately 50 percent renovations and 50 percent new homes.

One of the reasons people love older homes is the realization that you can feel the presence of the craftsmen from 75 or 100 years ago. We can feel and see the care and effort in the creation of these homes. So, we devote resources to giving them new life as renovated structures. I often work on renovations in which we establish a conversation between past and present. As Fehn said, “Bare ved å manifestere nuet kan en få fortiden i tale.” (Only by making our time manifest, can we begin a conversation with the past.)

We can infuse new life into older homes without resorting to simply mimicking or re-creating the past. I have coined a term, “crafted modernism,” to describe this approach.  My idea is that modern design can embody the same care and craft that we find in older homes, but in a modern way. In new homes as well, I think the idea of crafted modernism provides a way of making spaces and objects that respond to our need to see the touch of the human hand. If an environment is too cold, sterile or machined, we lose interest in it. I believe in the tremendous value that crafted pieces being to a project.  We all instantly understand the beauty and value these things, because they show the touch of the human hand. A client recently told me that visitors to his house immediately start touching everything, the wood surfaces, the stone, the steel. I think sometimes we actually see with our hands, we touch a piece and somehow connect to its maker.

Any closing comments on design?

I believe the Nordic impulse in architecture stems from an open-ended embrace of internationalism tempered by a deep assessment of the beautiful but harsh Scandinavian landscape and climate; the belief in direct, simple forms and natural materials; an obsession with natural light; and an interest in creating a rich interior landscape that can be juxtaposed to the sometimes endlessly dark Nordic winter.

For more information about Nils Finne and Finne Architects and to see their portfolio, visit www.finne.com. To see a YouTube video of Finne’s work, go to http://tinyurl.com/finne-architects.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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