Like a touch of silk
Ritva Puotila is a remarkable artist. Not once in the course of a conversation several hours long does she talk of creating or creativity. The words she uses are "making" and "work". They reflect a disciplined and purposeful attitude to the artistic process. "Perhaps it's my Lutheran upbringing," she speculates. "If you're given work to do, you do it." Discipline is a quality that she has certainly needed in her decades of designing industrial and art textiles, work that she is still busy doing.
"I'm going to be an artist"
By the time she was 11 Ritva Puotila was certain that she would become an artist. But she had no idea which field to go into. "Perhaps a fashion designer," she might have said if asked about her future career. That was because she was then designing her own clothes and having them made by a dressmaker, as was a common practice in Finland in those post-war days. She got the ideas for her designs from pieces of cloth, of which she had a suitcasefull. Although playing with those rags did not lead her into the world of fashion, it did augur a career involvement with textiles.
Certain that she wanted an artistic career, Ritva began taking private art lessons at 13 and supplemented them by attending drawing classes while she was still at secondary school. "Thanks to my art studies, I learned to admire Akseli Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Helene Schjerfbeck and several other artists," she recalls. She was still only a teenager when she entered her first art competition. "It gave me a real feeling of being an artist!" she says. "I had big ideas about my skills. But when I started studying, I had to revise them."
Ritva lost her father when she was just a little girl during the second world war. Yet she can clearly remember how he used to draw horses for his daughters. He came from a peasant family and was very fond of horses. Their mother, an office worker with the railways, likewise practised artistic hobbies and encouraged her daughters to do the same. When it was time for Ritva to begin her studies, her mother wanted her to get a vocational qualification first. She believed that also artists should be able to earn a living some way or other. Thus Ritva enrolled at the Industrial Art Academy and studied theatrical set design because she had heard that it was closer to free art than any other of the study lines available.
Ritva graduated as a set designer in 1959. The "stage" on which she has created her designs since then has been that of "everyday life". To do it she has used many techniques and a great variety of materials including wool, linen, silk, glass, ceramic tiles and paper. She has designed unique art textiles, but above all high-class industrial products for homes and public buildings. As she explains it herself: "I'd like to make good backgrounds, the kind that people stand out against."
From wool to paper
Woollen ryijy rugs were the first art textiles that made Ritva Puotila's name famous both in Finland and abroad. In 1960, when she was just over 20, she received her first major honour, a gold medal at the XII Milan Triennale for her "Zeus" ryijy. Since then, further recognition has come from many parts of the world. In December 1996 she was awarded the Suomi Prize by the State Industrial Art Committee. Puotila, now 65, was named "Textile Artist of the Year" in 2001,
Over the years, the possibilities that ryijy-making techniques offer have inspired creativity in Ritva Puotila. For more than the past decade, paper string in hundreds of colours has allowed her to add a fascinating new dimension to the traditional ryijy technique. People who lived through the second world war directly associate paper string with want and bleakness, but in Ritva Puotila's hands it takes on a whole new life.
Through those hands, paper string has also found a new use in industrial interior decoration textiles produced in a range of subdued colours. They are manufactured by the family company Woodnotes Oy. Ritva Puotila is the artistic director of the company, which was founded in 1987. Carpets, place mats, upholstery fabrics and partition screens comprise the product range. The company exports 90% of its output to more than 30 countries. In quite recent years, paper string as a textile material has begun attracting the attention of designers in several parts of Europe, but Ritva Puotila has a decade's lead on them all.
Hand- or machine-made
"I could talk all day about art textiles and design products," laughs Ritva, who creates both. "Products that are manufactured industrially must meet much higher demands. Quantity means responsibility. First and foremost, the product must meet the consumer's demands; secondly, it must be able to offer something new and better. As a designer I want to influence, but only in the way that I emphasise or try to bring out the beauty and naturalness of people.
"With art textiles, which do not a specific utility function, I have greater freedom to give my fantasies tangible form. The only reason for making art is a compulsion to create. My own unique textiles have been woven, knitted, knotted, pleated or painted. For that kind of work, sensitive hands are very important."
Old Finnish peasant culture
With her Karelian background (she was born in Viipuri, now behind the Russian border), Ritva Puotila's designs are strongly influenced by the simple beauty of the old Finnish rural milieu. No wonder the Finnish National Museum with its rich collections of vernacular art and peasant artefacts is one of her favourite places. "Naturally, I've absorbed influences from different parts of the world, but the basis of my aesthetics is in untouched nature and in our genuine, simple peasant culture, where manual skill and aesthetic flair form a sound totality. I'd like to continue that tradition using the means that our own time gives us. Everyone has a right to beauty."