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Tomek Rygalik: ‘We need to design less but better things for longer’

New professor in furniture design, Tomek Rygalik believes good design can help improve the world. He aims to making design more relevant.
Man with glasses and a black blouse looking at the camera
Photo: Monika Olszewska

What brought you to Aalto? 

‘When I heard about the job opening, I wanted to use this opportunity to just connect and present myself to Aalto in order to see what could come out of this. After many years in New York and London, my life was pretty well settled in the city of Warsaw, Poland—a city that’s a bit underrated, but it has lots of unique qualities and a vibrant cultural scene. And after the recruitment process, here I am to my own surprise. I’ve already had a chance to see other professors presenting their backgrounds and interests, and I am very happy to become a part of this diverse group. My interest is also to build bridges between my earlier experiences and Aalto. 

Here in Helsinki, I see some similarities to where I come from, and a lot of nature that is important to me. After just moving here in August, all the balls are still in the air, but I believe there are usually far better things ahead than we leave behind. What I also like, is that this new situation lets me look at life from a new perspective. I like to quote Carl Jung: ‘If the path before you is clear, you are probably on someone else’s.’ I’m quite open for what new might come about of this all.’ 

What have been the highlights of your career? 

‘I want to name three pivotal moments on my path so far. One being a school project, another a design project and third a ‘life project’, if you will. First is when I turned to furniture design while studying at Royal College of Art in London. ‘Raw’ armchair was my 2nd year project, which was an experimental process that I developed to get rid of the internal components of upholstery furniture, resulting in a self-supporting leather armchair. It was very well received in the final show and led me to stay as a research associate at the RCA. And later on, it caused me to start working for the Italian brand Moroso. This launched my path with furniture. 

Another case is about my passion to lead high-energy work in quick intense workshops in design schools. One of them was a summer workshop in France, where design students from all over the world took part, which I taught for three years in a row. It was all about hands-on collaboration, experiencing nature, and togetherness. This focused my interests and has become particularly important to my own research and design practice. One of the projects that resulted from this turning point is ‘Circula’, a circular seating, turning people towards each other in a most literal sense. The aim was to make the new generation meet each other better again, to reconnect in a physical world. This was the beginning of my ongoing research theme, which started from these projects. I’m searching for ‘tools for togetherness’. These themes have become even more important based on our experiences last years, during the covid restrictions. 

The third is an initiative ‘DesignNature’, creative community based on the shared values of holistic design, love for nature and appetite for a conscious life with a charming campus in rural Poland. It’s based on three areas: education, innovation and good life. It is a research and workshop space, and thriving, growing community. Launching this has been stepping out of my role as a designer, but it has become its own organization thanks to my partner Gosia, exchanging lots of creative energy.’ 

I am interested in designing better life. It is important not just to talk the talk but to find ways and realize one's ideas."

Associate Professor Tomek Rygalik

What do you research and why? 

‘Referring to my interest in designing better life, it is important not just to talk the talk but to find ways and realize them, put them to work. It’s about action both in terms of educational programme as well as real innovation projects – it’s all about changing people’s perceptions on how to live their lives in a sustainable way, about awareness and consciousness in these aspects. This all resonates and spreads and has a potential to make a difference. Community is very essential part of it. 

I’m passionate about tools and environments that guide people towards social and ecological behavior. The role of design and its relationship to nature is essential to me, and how design is able to reconnect humanity to nature. Our work must be focused on enjoyable sustainability and thoughtful consumption of resources. 

Industrial partnerships often lead to R&D projects on new materials and processes, discovering new potential, how to do things better and with less negative impact on the planet—not just in furniture industry but also wider. The impact comes from the diverse, interdisciplinary community, driven by a common set of values. This is key also here at Aalto University, and I quite feel home here with values and environment fostering this collaborative way of working.’ 

What are the most important issues in your field? 

‘Furniture design is emblematic: you can easily see in a piece of furniture the values behind. It’s almost like looking at a simplified expression of values in design. The complexity goes up with the scale of production when technology and economy meet. It becomes more challenging and less understandable. 

However, within the academia there is potential to go on to truly ambitious scenarios and radically changing how we are doing things. Industrial revolution imposed rules that are not relevant anymore, we have realized there are many things we have done wrong, resulting in the climate crisis or thoughtless exploitation of natural resources. This is the moment when we re-evaluate our goals: how can we design less but better things for longer, and how to do things better or in completely new ways on the large scale—sustainable in the broadest sense. This is what I want to explore here to push the boundaries.’ 

Why should you study furniture design? 

‘There is huge potential in products that are closest to us, such as clothes or our intimate environments we are immersed in everyday, to live and express the values of our generation and contemporary culture. We no longer can afford any negative impact, therefore, conscious design decisions are needed. This is why the world needs a new wave of skilled and sensible furniture designers. 

I hope students want to focus on conceptual themes, and to ask ‘why’ or what before ‘how’. Every generation is different. I’m keen to meet the students and to start the discussion on what potential of design means to them.’ 

What else are you interested in? 

‘I’m a runner, I run every other morning. Recently, I ran the Helsinki Marathon, it was one of the first things I did here. It was also a symbolic run, while starting my long-haul marathon here at Aalto. I’m quite fascinated with the nature here and have already visited 4–5 national parks. Also took my sup board with me, it’s a nice way to explore places and cities, too. Yet, I’m very much a city person, I love the hustle and buzzle, street life, markets, culture, and I love to dance. Helsinki is nice but calmer than my former cities, it has a very different energy, so it’s an interesting place to discover one step at a time. What I also like to do is to hang out in the city just to explore the architecture, that’s one of my favorite outdoor activities.’ 

See video: Tools for togetherness & reconnecting nature

Associate Professor in furniture design Tomek Rygalik

Man looking at a wooden chair, holding it
Photo: Studio Rygalik

Who? 

  • Position: Tomek Rygalik, Associate Professor in Furniture Design at Aalto University since 1 August 2022 
  • ​​​​​Other: Founder of Studio Rygalik (2006) and cofounder of DesignNature (2016) 
  • Education: BA in Industrial Design at Pratt Institute, New York, MA in Product Design at Royal College of Art, London (2005) 
  • ​​​Age: 46 
  • Background: Originally from Poland 
  • Family: 4 and 10 years old kids and spouse 
  • Hobbies: Running, dancing, loves nature, thinks of starting on sailing again 

Contact: 

Associate Professor Tomek Rygalik, Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, [email protected], +358504668963 

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