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Donor story – Helena Hyvönen: ‘The world is built together, without silos’

Helena Hyvönen has had a long career as Professor of Textile Art, Rector and Dean at the University of Art and Design Helsinki and later Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. She believes it is important for the field to have a vibrant community of designers. The designers also have a lot to offer to the university.
A smiling woman weaving a colourful carpet or rug with looms
Helena Hyvönen weaving with looms. Photo: Hyvönen's home album

What's going on in your life right now?

‘Thank you, I'm doing very well, life is full! The main thought today is that I have realised how important it is to take care of one’s physical condition. I have always exercised, but not as much and as regularly as I do now. I'm going to stay on my feet for a long time, if it's up to me. It's been ten years since I left Aalto. And it's just been 50 years since I graduated, which I recently celebrated with my year course of textile designers. Nine of the 12 of us turned up for the occasion, which was great! 

In my working life, I had learned to always make some kind of a plan, five or ten years ahead. When my 'third life' began, I thought that now, being free of office hours, I wanted to return to my actual profession, textiles, and also work abroad. My husband and I chose China, because we wanted to find a destination that was as different as possible. We have spent time there on several occasions, several months at a time, working with Chinese design universities. During these ten years, we have witnessed a huge development both in design and in sustainability issues. The development and change has been tremendous and fast.

I also have six grandchildren and I love spending time with them. We play, craft, knit and make art together. It's been a great journey to watch them make things and see where they've ended up. I may not have got as far with my own textile making as I thought I would, but I have found that rag rug weaving is my thing. They wonderfully combine the themes of sustainability, playing with colour and making art, very inspiring!’

You have a long career at our university. What kind of memories do you have of your time here?

‘My main memory of those days is the final phase of the building of Aalto University. It was such a hectic time that it took me a long time to recover from it! I had already a long background at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, and I thought I would come to work there for a while, but instead I ended up working at Aalto for 17 years in total. I came from the textile industry to develop textile design education and, together with professor Piippa Lappalainen, fashion and textile education – as well as networking, business cooperation and fundraising.

My path subsequently led to developing of the design disciplines towards a joint Department of Design, which I headed for a time, and then I served as Rector and Dean – and eventually Aalto University was created. My own agenda was to take the school to the new university of innovation. The support and energy for the work came from the whole school community. There was a genuine enthusiasm and hype in the air and in the people, which the change also required. Things led to another, and I have not regretted my time here for a day. The choice was a clear crossroads for me, in that there was no way to promote my own artistry alongside the work.

At Aalto, people from different fields came together and it was good to work with them on new and different things. It was great to be able to work in a good team and in a spirit of active community. I have made many good friends over the years. The students who studied at the school in the early 2000s are now established players in the industry, and it has been rewarding to follow their careers and success. The best part of all the teaching has been being part of people's development paths.’ 

Aalto University was born almost 15 years ago. How do you look at it now?

‘I am terribly proud that Aalto University was created. It was a unique moment in time that Finland was able to make such an investment. I only wish that Aalto could communicate better of itself, because its story is magnificient, amazing in fact, and so are its achievements. 

We should not forget that the world is built together, without silos. I hope it will not be forgotten that the three disciplines have been brought together so that we can work, study and research together in a multidisciplinary way. It is important to tell that story abroad, too. Aalto is a unique entity, even on a global scale.’

What have been the highlights of your career?

‘My first job was in a knitting factory in Turku, Finland, making women's sweaters. The highlights of my career date back to 1972, when I went abroad for a traineeship. I was inspired by Swiss cotton, which was a great brand at the time. During my traineeship in the Swiss weaving mill, I was able to familiarize myself with all the departments of the factory, which gave me a clear idea of my career and the way forward: I wanted to work in the textile industry.

A woman and a man sitting in a lecture hall holding hands over the walkway
Helena and Tapani Hyvönen at the Design Innovation Institut in Shanghai. Photo: Srini Srinivasan

I worked as a teacher for a while, but went back to the industry again, as a designer and design manager at Valvilla design company. The responsible role in a huge Finnish factory was one of the great experiences and working communities. I then worked as a designer at Sellgren, which was the high point of my industrial design career. 

Later, I subsequently set up my own agency, with a particular focus on material development, surface design, colour design and trend forecasting. Around that time, I was also named Textile Artist of the Year for my designs. This was followed by the great years at the school and Aalto.’

What inspires you to donate to the School of Arts, Design and Architecture?

‘I try to be proactive in finding funding and donations. I serve in the board of the 100-year Foundation of the Finnish Association of the Arts and Design Industry and during my rectorship I founded an alum steering group for the school.

I know that many designers are happy to do something for their old school and can also activate their colleagues. For the field to develop, there is a need for a shared willingness and commitment. It's also important that the community in the field is vibrant, as people can contribute a lot together.’

Your greetings to current students and other alums?

‘I came to the campus to see the student organization Tokyo’s spring sale again this year and was able to meet the current students and see their works, and I admire their talent so much. 

The world is a more difficult place today than when I was a student. Young people are facing huge challenges. But I admire their courage to do things and to follow their own paths. Young people have the courage to make bold decisions. I have told the students that they have chosen a good profession, because not only is it rewarding, but they’ll never stop having interesting things to do. We have a profession for life, from which we don't have to retire! 

The design and culture fields may not be in a good political position at the moment, but the good times will come again soon. What always brings people together is culture and the arts. This is a field you’ll always find your path forward.’

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