Design Matters with Erik Bruun

Erik Bruun is a Finnish graphic designer and an industry giant, with a portfolio stretching back over sixty years, and including some of the most recognizable posters in Scandinavian design history. Born in Säiniö, a small village close to Vyborg, Bruun moved to Helsinki during the Second World War, where he still lives and works today. Wolf caught up with Bruun to talk design, inspiration and plans for the future.

What was your introduction to art and design?
In the early 40s I started my studies at the Art School in Helsinki. I cannot remember being particularly interested in drawing or design before my studies, but I suppose that creativity was always present in my environment as a child. At the Art School I had many great teachers like Kaj Franck, Tapio Wirkkala and Jorma Suhonen. Foreign designers were also a big source of inspiration for me, particularly Raymond Savignac and his outdoor posters. One of Savignac’s important theses was that an outdoor poster should make you smile. I have always kept that in mind in my work.

In your career you have done a lot of commercial work, as well as self-devised creative projects. What is the difference in producing something creative, such as an illustration, and something commercial, such as a banknote?
There is a big difference for me between different types of work. For instance, with posters there are outdoor posters, indoor posters, and posters to be sold. For all of them I have a different approach. The outdoor poster has to be simple enough that the idea can be understood from a distance of 50 metres. It cannot be too detailed. By contrast, banknotes are all about the details. To me, our new Euro banknotes are a bit boring as the idea is often hidden behind the details.
Usually, I try not to design the work to the client, but try to keep in mind the audience that will see my work in the end. My style, or the client’s style, is not important. The target group will look at the work with different eyes and that is what counts and makes all the difference.

A great deal of your recent work is inspired by nature. Can you explain why this is a source of inspiration for you?
I have always had a humble respect for the environment I live in.
When I was young, maybe 8 or 9, my parents took me to the Äyräpää Lake to listen to birds. I loved that. I was particularly impressed by the Bittern’s magical sound; I will never forget it. I suppose we had a very close relationship with nature in our family.
Also, for the last 40 years I have lived in Suomenlinna, which is an island outside Helsinki. You can see the ocean from the window. I often feed the waterfowl and I consider them my dear friends. Maybe this is my way of giving back for the years of inspiration nature has given me.

Can you share a little about your design choices and aesthetic?
I like to play. Soon I will be 88 years old, but I still feel like a boy. I will never stop playing. I have an interest in all kinds of arts, from architecture to interiors. I suppose I can take advantage of that sense of play and generate ideas for my designs.
My message to young designers would be that one should be passionate and inspired when starting a job. If you are not, then don’t start. Without passion, nothing exceptional is born. I learned this from my teacher, Tapio Wirkkala.

What does the future hold for you? Do you plan to keep working, or are you ready to put your drawing tools down and rest?
One quiet evening last year, when my daughter was visiting me, I decided to do my regular exercises. I did some stretches and some push-ups. I found myself quite out of breath. My daughter came to me and put a pen by my side. I asked her, ‘Why did you do that?’ She replied, ‘You have always said that you would like to die with a pen in your hand.’ I believe I will continue as long as I can.

Words: Annie Ferguson