Lessons learned from Jukka Kurttila of Finlayson
Meet the man who turned duvet covers into a message of tolerance.
In 2014, the Finnish textile industry saw something unprecedented. The Tom of Finland collection by Finlayson rolled out to shops with black-and-white bedroom textiles inspired by the internationally celebrated works of iconic gay artist Touko Laaksonen. The reactions varied from delight to fury, but one thing was clear: Hardly anybody was left cold.
“People said that our customers would abandon us if we started making homo-erotic bedding. I, on the other hand, saw it as an act of tolerance,” says Jukka Kurttila, a former advertising executive and now the managing director of Finlayson. Previously known as a very traditional textile company, Finlayson has reinvented itself in the past three years.
Kurttila and his business partners, Petri Pesonen and Risto Voutilainen, bought Finlayson in 2014 when it was an unprofitable brand that had been for sale for 14 years. “After having worked in advertising for 25 years I felt like I had come to the end of that path. I no longer felt inspired. It occurred to me that I could buy and save this old Finnish design treasure before it completely disappeared,” Kurttila explains.
Soon after the Tom of Finland campaign, Finlayson donated 5,000 sets of bed linen to Syrian refugees – and death threats followed. At that point, Kurttila admits he grew frightened. “I have always believed that marketing isn’t just saying but doing things, but I really had to justify to myself why we were doing what we were doing. People were angry and told us that we were supposed to just make bed linen and not do the things we were doing.”
Kurttila quotes the legendary American business magnate Henry Ford who once said that a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business. “The climate of opinion is the same now as it was back in the 19th century. This is an era of responsibility, yet the textile business is still an insolent industry. We had to start doing things differently because the world is rotten, and we have an opportunity to make a difference.”
Several bold campaigns later, Finlayson’s turnover has doubled. With 170 employees on its payroll, the company makes an annual profit of over one million euros. To Kurttila, this proves that the public mood has changed, and people have started to accept that his company is one with opinions. “The same people who used to think that our actions are just a publicity stunt now appreciate what we do. I strongly believe that design must make people’s lives better. And if design companies don’t speak out loud about the injustice that is going on around us, then who will?”
Text and photo Laura Iisalo