Interview by Katja Räisänen | Copy Editor Matthew Jones | Pictures by Lina Jelanski

Designer Laura Väinölä and contemporary artist Karoliina Hellberg opened their first joint exhibition recently at Finlandinstitutet in Stockholm. In their exhibition, titled Tower of Presence, they create a mystical, nostalgic and fascinating story about a fictional person through whom we can identify our own memories and associations. The artists reveal captions of the character’s life in an installation made of flowers, piles of paper, paintings, pottery, carpet, curtains, light and sound. Even the scent of the flowers is part of the ambiance.

Karoliina and Laura have created a special ambiance also for our rendezvous. We enjoy Vietnamese rice rolls at Karoliina’s dinner table, surrounded by flowers and candlelight but above all, a lively and inspirational conversation. We discussed their collaboration, the exhibition, childhood, education, flowers, art, multidisciplinary creativity and everyday aesthetic details. 

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer Lina Jelanski

About multidiscipline work

LAURA: I’ve always worked simultaneously in multiple and differing creative projects. In university, I was already questioning why people in different faculties and programs don’t collaborate more. I’d like to see more crossing of borders in creative areas.

KAROLIINA: It’s very natural for me. Most important is the aesthetic core. If you go back to the early 20th century, many artists worked in a multidisciplinary way. Have we forgotten it?

LAURA: Sometimes the question ’What do you do?’ is difficult, but I’ve come up with an easy answer:’I create and sell ideas and styles’. Flora & Laura is one concrete example of my approach but it is definitely not all that I do. Also, I’ve noticed that I’d always rather do something new than repeat the same.

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer, Lina Jelanski

How did you grow into creativity? Did your childhood affect it?

KAROLIINA: Well, I attended the art school in Porvoo my entire childhood and if it wasn’t for that, I guess the situation now would be completely different.

LAURA: I’ve always been encouraged to do things myself and to recognise that there are usually many right answers, not only one. I went to the Rudolf Steiner School, which used a pedagogical approach suitable to me. 

Why have you chosen creativity and art?

LAURA:  The best feeling comes from projects in which you reach new audiences and they experience something unique.  For example, during the Helsinki Festival in 2015, with Elsa Eventful we organized a Kite Festival in Kaivopuisto and reached a surprising amount and variety of people in the audience.

KAROLIINA: I think it’s very important to move people emotionally.

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer Lina Jelanski

About feedback 

When we discuss the feedback the exhibition has received, Laura and Karoliina burst to tell how an elderly person had visited their exhibition and ranked it the best ever. Another visitor had found personal liaisons to the details in the installation and reminisced of her honeymoon. The artists are also excited about a kindergarten group’s project where they make their own versions of the Tower of Presence exhibition into shoe boxes, inspired by their visit to the exhibition.

KAROLIINA: Even though some elements in the exhibition are symbolic and literal, they are not meant to be too obvious. The ideal situation is that the work starts to live its own life in a dialogue with the viewer.

How did the exhibition come about? Where did you start? 

LAURA & KAROLIINA: We thought we had to have something from which to build the theme and story. Using a question & answer technique, we determined the theme and the details. Iris, symbolizing both a person and something else, is central, but not the person we describe in the installation. You have to learn to know all the ingredients well and then leave them to the background. It was like a fun game where you control the atmosphere, but don’t give any ready-made answers. We made all the decisions together. We also produced most of the elements, like pottery, together.  Karoliina made the five paintings alone.

LAURA: Most of the elements were so well planned and thought through that no big surprises came up when installing the exhibition. The exception being the tremendous amount of paper sponsored by Stora Enso – though, amazingly, we used it all.  The work came out the way we had it in our minds. 

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer Lina Jelanski

What have you appreciated most in working together? How did the collaboration go along?

LAURA: It’s been super easy to work together. We are both creating spaces and atmospheres. Our media may vary, but we aim to create similar kinds of worlds.

KAROLIINA & LAURA: When making decisions, we mostly intuitively agreed. You kind of understand the magic of the moment; both of us would point at the same colour or fabric sample at the same time. It was effortless and fluid all the way through. It’s great that you can be relaxed even when the days get long. 

The whole gang worked really well together. Matti Ahopelto created the sound space and Kristian Palmu planned the lights of the installation, which was natural, as they had had previous shared projects.  

KAROLIINA: Our worlds can live side by side and partly unite. It was wonderful to meet and find this kind of a creative partnership. It’s important to have a good group of people to work together. It’s equally important to understand that you don’t have to do everything by yourself.

LAURA: The best thing is to be surrounded with people that you appreciate.

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer Lina Jelanski

About media and materials

In the exhibition, the versatile media and materials create a secret-like fictional world where hiding curtains are in major role as massive paper piles as well. Laura defines how the amount of paper depicts the age and experiences of the installation’s fictional person. The papers are filled with imaginative information that is not visible to the viewers. The sound initiates to the race around Lake Garda and soundscape from Federico Fellini’s movie La Dolce Vita, the favourite movie of the person. 

What do flowers mean to you, why are you fascinated by them?

KAROLIINA: The emotional and symbolic meanings come from my home. Funnily, the only man who ever brings me flowers is my dad. They have a big meaning. And atmospheres, flowers are related to different atmospheres.

LAURA: I use plants and flowers because they are timeless. You cannot control them, as they are organic living elements from nature. They are so diverse. I have this natural attraction to forest and meadow flowers, inherited from childhood landscapes. And it’s also interesting how similarly we treat them in different cultures. Often even the flower markets are surprisingly similar all around the world. But in Hanoi, I found a crazy flower market, which was full of orchids and loud techno music as the background rhythm.

LAURA: I believe if you have flowers at home it increases happiness. I remember Armi Ratia has once said we all should have live plants and flowers to feel happier. I totally believe in that.

KAROLIINA: Yes, I remember Tove Jansson has given a good advice that I try to follow: When traveling, always buy flowers to your hotel room.

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer Lina Jelanski

Can one express something rough and difficult using flowers as the medium? What role and value can flowers have?

KAROLIINA: I remember in the last Venice Biennale, there was the US artist Taryn Simon’s work inspired by important political events, reconstructed flower arrangements dealing with the symbolic value of flowers.

LAURA: I was once in the Botanical Garden of Helsinki, listening to some researchers. They mentioned the values of some flowers hundreds of years ago.  A rare tulip bulb could have the same value as a castle.  Also with flowers, like roses, we’ve made some decisions concerning the symbolic values, like with colours. 

How do design, art and fashion connect?

LAURA: I pursue the overall, experiential approach. I try to emphasize good ambiances and transmit positive atmospheres; we all need that a lot. One approach I like is to offer a rich experience to many senses simultaneously.

LAURA: I’m appalled by the lack of presence we have in our society. Our exhibition requires the visitor to be present, that’s how you get something out of it. I just love some museums that prohibit photography; they guide the visitors to be more present.

Tower of Presence, Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg, photographer, Lina Jelanski

We talk a bit about what the collective project gave and about future plans. Laura and Karoliina reveal they have some plans together, but don’t want to tell more yet. Also the main theme of the exhibition ’Iris’ is still alive in their minds and will possibly come up in another project one day. When asked about future plans, Laura lists various projects. Among others she mentions the upcoming fifth PRE Helsinki event and co-operation with EMMA museum, developing Flora & Laura and a dance project. She would like to concentrate on bigger entities and is therefore working on some larger-scale projects. Karoliina has not had time for a while to calmly explore new ideas and inspiration at her studio, which she is really looking forward to now as other projects are coming along. The Tower of Presence project left Laura and Karoliina very positive and enthusiastic. Teamwork teaches and rewards. 

LAURA: You get a lot of energy when working with great people and when a project succeeds well. Some projects succeed a lot better in a group than alone.


Laura Väinölä (1982), Young Designer of the Year 2016, graduated as Graphic designer, is known as founder of Flora & Laura –company, creative director at Duotone and brand director at PRE Helsinki.

Karoliina Hellberg (1987), visual artist graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki in 2015, has had exhibitions among others in Galerie Anhava and HAM Gallery. Her works are in collections such as the Saastamoinen Foundation and the Helsinki Art Museum. Hellberg is represented by Galerie Anhava.


Laura Väinölä & Karoliina Hellberg

Tower of Presence, Feb 10 – Mar 8, 2017

Finlandinstitutet, Stockholm