Salakauppa – The Design Secret of Helsinki

A small glass kiosk that used to be a flower shop, right in the middle of busiest Helsinki, standing between the central train station and Kiasma, the Museum of Contemporary Art, is something you should not miss when walking past! The name Salakauppa (Secret shop) brings in mind the so-called speakeasy’s or blind-pig’s from the alcohol-prohibition era back in the 1900’s. But unlike hundred  years ago, this shop does not sell alcohol, but the finest high-end Finnish design.salakauppa16

The shop is filled with amazing and witty products one more hilarious than the other. I believe the true “secret” behind the shop is that you don’t really want anyone else finding out about it, you want to keep it all to yourself – but I guess the cat is out of the bag now! All of the products are designed by a Finnish-Korean design duo, Aamu Song and Johan Olin of COMPANY, and are the result of excursions to very exiting yet old fashioned factories around Finland and sometimes around the world. At this moment the owners Song and Olin are on a three week trip around Siberia, so I had the pleasure to talk to their amazing shop assistant, artist and my long time friend Tuovi Eskola.

This must be one of the most interesting places to work in Helsinki. How did you end up here, and why?

I ended up working here totally by chance. I happened to hear from a friend that they are looking for someone, I had just finished my summer job and needed something to do along with my studies. I always try to find a place to work at that has policies and working methods I can agree with, even better if the place is somehow inspirational and feeds the imagination. The shop had actually stayed a secret for me as well, until I came to work here. I had walked past it numerous times, wondering what was the story behind it, never thinking I might be part of it one day!


Inside the small shop

It must be inspiring to work in the midst of all the amazing designs, has it affected your own work as an artist?

Of course! I see a lot of similarities in COMPANY’s products and in my own way of drawing and doing cartoon illustrations. They have the same whimsical playfulness and humour in them. Salakauppa is also very inspiring, when it comes to its location. In the middle of busiest Helsinki I have a prime seat to watch and follow swarms of people passing by. Last winter my sketchbook got filled with people roaming in the midst of snowy Helsinki.

As everyone walking past the shop, we need to ask, what’s the story behind the Shop?

The two designers behind the shop are Aamu Song and Johan Olin. Aamu from Korea and Johan from Finland met while studying at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Company, “Three is a crowd but two is indeed a company”, was founded in 2000. The shop, the actual building, is owned by the designers. They bought the place about four years ago when it was in quite a bad shape. Through the years, among other things, it’s been used as a flower shop and a kebab-stand.

And what about the products, how are they born? 

The main idea for Aamu and Johan is to explore interesting factories, and their way of producing. The “Secrets of Finland” collection was born when Aamu and Johan started wondering what exactly is produced in Finland? Their search for an answer took them around the country, visiting old factories, getting to know their traditions and know-how. After their trip, brainstorming and idea-swapping started. Everything sold in Salakauppa are new products designed by Aamu and Johan, but they all are somehow based on the traditions used in the factory in question.

For example the “Working dress” is produced in a factory in Tampere, which only has female employees. The factory itself is specialized in workwear for builders and renovators. Aamu and Johan wanted to design a female substitute for the masculin overalls. And so the working dress was born, which is now worn by every worker in the factory!

salakauppa4Helsinki scarf from the Secrets of Helsinki collection

What kind of products are sold in Salakauppa, do you have any seasonal items?

Now a four-year-old Salakauppa sells five different collections; Secrets of Finland, Secrets of Helsinki, Secrets of Belgium, Secrets of Korea and Secrets of Russia. The last one being the latest addition. The availability of the products varies because of small production numbers, and if a factory closes its doors for some reason, it also means the end of production for the design in question. This is because every item is a result of collaboration and inspiration with one specific factory – moving the production to an other company, would feel wrong.


Four Season Barbie from the Secrets of Russia collection

Joy and humour is the one thing that all the products have in common. You can find items such as Polar Bear boots, Water Tower glass, a tribute to the clean Finnish tap-water and a pair of Dance Shoes, in which a daughter can dance with her father, standing on top of his feet (Design & Paper loves, so cute!). The products are functional, but also work at a more social, conceptual level as the hilarious products often function as a conversation-starter with strangers.


Dance shoes from the Secrets of Finland collection

You can find several items fit for the arctic climate, especially in the Secrets of Russia collection. One of the seasonal favorites is the Penguin suit. You can also find many products made of felt, and the scent of clean felt has become the signature smell at the shop.


PinguAdult from the Secrets of Finland collection

Do you have a lot of regular customers or just people popping in?

The most common sentence we hear at the door is “I walk past you often, but I’ve never been inside before…”. In a sense Salakauppa is in the middle of everything, but still a mystery to most. Because we’re open only half of the week, many have the unfortunate image that we are always closed. A large number of our customers are people from the art industry, artists, architects and designers. I’m also pleased that many foreigners have found our shop because a large part of the items reflect the Finnish nature and persona in a funny and surprising way. They bring the Finnish traditional handicraft into the modern days, and beat the boring turist t-shirts and schnapps classes any day!


Hood bag from the Secrets of Finland collection

Whats your favorite product? Do you have a best-seller?

I have so many favourite products! At the moment I’m dreaming of the Hooded Packpack (see above). It is so sympathetic and cheerful, and takes my thoughts to the summer! The most asked item is the Lady Jantsarit, definitely (see below)! They are produced in the west of Finland, in the Töysä Shoe Factory and they come in red and blue. We are meant to get a new batch this spring. I believe the charm lies in the quality and flashiness; with simple clothing, the boots shine through finishing the look. The basic idea is the same: something traditional and masculine is turned into something modern and feminine. But funnily enough, we also get men coming in asking for the red ones!

salakauppa2Lady Jantsari-shoes from the Secrets of Finland collection

What does the future hold for Salakauppa?

At this very moment, Aamu and Johan are travelling somewhere in Siberia, looking for those Siberian secrets. This May they will also open an exhibition in St. Petersburg about the the Secrets of Russia. It’s a dream of the two designers to be able to expand the small shop one day. What this will entale? I can’t wait to see! An other floor on top of this tiny box or something else? But I think, the sky’s the limit for these two designers!

…and we couldn’t agree more! The products of Aamu and Johan are just amazing and we found our favorites amongst them. Whenever you end up wandering in this northern capital city of Helsinki, pop in for a visit and a wonder of the whimsical products! If a trip to the north is not in your near future plans, check out their website and order online!

Thank you, Tuovi, for taking the time for this interview! You definitely turned us into a fan!


Tuovi behind the counter at Salakauppa

Postikatu 1
FI-00100 Helsinki
Photo courtesy by Tuovi Eskola and COMPANY.

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