The Atelier of Tove Jansson


11 October 2016

“It looks terrible after the bombings,” writes Tove Jansson in a letter describing her attic studio and home in central Helsinki, “no windows, cracks everywhere, large pieces of the walls have collapsed, the stove and the radiators are destroyed. But it is still my great dream.”

Finnish artist Tove Jansson (1914 - 2001) was an illustrator, decorative painter and author. In the late 1940s she was propelled to international fame as the creator of the Moomins, a children’s book series and comic strip that today has over 500 licensees worldwide and an estimated annual retail value of €600m. Jansson moved into her apartment, a split level attic space situated on the top floor of the residential block Ullanlinnankatu 1, in the spring of 1944. “There’s a huge, decorative Jugendstil stove and a funny old door with red and green glass windows,” Tove continues in the letter that she penned to her close friend Eva Konikoff, shortly after moving into the apartment. “The studio, well I could spend the rest of my life doing it up. And next to it is an asymmetrical whitewashed room where I can keep all my feminine knick-knacks, all my soft, playful, glossy and personal stuff.”

Tove lived and worked in Ullanlinnankatu 1 until her death in 2001. In the 57 years that she occupied the apartment, the space underwent several transformations. Its most significant modification was executed by Reima and Raili Pietilä, two Finnish architects whose architectural projects include the Finnish embassy in New Delhi and Mäntyniem, one of three official residences of the president of Finland. Today, the apartment is privately owned by the Jansson family and is only occasionally opened to select members of the public at the discretion of the family. A press tour during the 2016 iteration of Helsinki Design Week was one such occasion.

From the outside, the apartment is inconspicuous, only a small plaque mounted on the building’s terracotta-coloured façade is indicative of its former resident. Inside, it is light and airy; punctuated by four arching windows that flood the space with natural light. Sculptures, several modelled on Tove and her mother, that were created by her artist father Viktor Jansson, are displayed at various points in the room while an abundance of books fill almost every shelf and surface. “Tove read a lot, these are all her books,” says Sophia Jansson, Tove’s niece and the creative director of Moomin Characters. “She read all of those and many more.” While a large wooden bookcase covers the back wall and part of the outer wall, concealing a further two windows, the inner wall is mounted with a canvas rack holding a number of Tove’s paintings. “Throughout her life Tove’s highest ambition was to become recognised as a painter,” says Sophia. “Her artist friends were openly hostile when she went back to painting. They would say ‘why don’t you leave painting for us, you can already make a living through the Moomins.’”

A steep wooden staircase that was designed by the Pietiläs leads up to a L-shaped mezzanine. Like most of the details in the apartment, the mezzanine has an explicit function. “Tove’s first love was art, she dedicated her whole life to it, but a close second was the sea,” says Sophia. “She knew that the sea was right behind the buildings that she saw out of her windows, but she couldn’t see it. This balcony was built so she could see the sea. In fact, when it was first built in the early-1960s, Tove used to sleep up there so she could wake up and see the sea immediately.”

Of the items on display in this main studio space, there is little trace of the Moomins. “You do not want to be living in Moomin Valley if you are the creator of Moomin Valley,” points out Sophia. Upstairs Tove’s legacy as creator of the Moomins is more evident. An elongated wooden bookcase mounted on the two outside walls of the balcony level is filled with Moomin memorabilia: stuffed toys, sketches, Moomin books translated into myriad languages and the first drafts of Tove’s Moomin comic strips; each title inscribed on the strips’ book-like covers in handwritten back ink. A rectangular opening, so slight in height that you must crouch to walk through it, leads to a small bedroom. At the back of the apartment on the lower floor sits the “asymmetrical whitewashed room,” affectionately named Lilla Rummet (Swedish for little room) by Tove.

Today the apartment, although typically uninhabited, presents a comfortable living space. This differs greatly from when Tove first resided there in the mid-1940s. “Initially this space was built as a work or storage space. It wasn’t really fit out for living: there was no running water, no heating, no amenities. It was virtually an attic,” says Sophia. “We know from Tove’s diaries that at times the temperature plummeted to -1°C in the atelier. Despite these harsh conditions, she worked in that space all winter long.” After the war, Tove gradually made improvements to the space adding windows and rudimentary heating however as an artist, Tove’s income was limited and the apartment remained basic: there was no kitchen and the bathroom comprised only a toilet.

In the 1950s, Tove met her life partner, Finnish graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who worked in a studio situated on the other side of Tove’s apartment. It was through Tuulikki that Tove was introduced to Reima and Raili Pietilä, Tuulikki being Reima’s sister. And it was Tuulikki who prompted Tove to renovate the apartment, enlisting the Pietiläs to carry out the necessary works in the early-1960s. “Reima was an incredible creative but he had very airy-fairy concepts,” says Sophia. “His wife Raili was instrumental in bringing all his fantastic ideas onto paper and making them understandable to a wider audience. Raili was also responsible for planning most of the interior here: the light wood panelling, the clear angles and the use of white as a basic colour.”

Although the Pietiläs led the renovation of the apartment, Tove also contributed to the design. The original windows had wooden struts and, as a painter, Tove pointed out that when light shone through the windows the struts would create shadows that would interfere with her painting. As a result, the Pietiläs installed large, strut-free windows. To further minimise the shadows, the staircase was purposely steep in order to fit between the windows.

Not all the renovations were cosmetic. In its original state, the apartment had few amenities. “Raili was a very practical Finnish woman so she wanted to build a kitchen,” recalls Sophia. “Tove didn’t want a kitchen but a blue bath tub. For 20 years she had lived without a kitchen and all she wanted was a blue bath.” Tove got her blue bath, and instead of a kitchen Raili designed a stove that allowed Tove to cook.

For a person who refused to adhere to norms, the preservation of Tove’s living and working space for her family, and not for the public, is fitting. Although Jansson will always be famed as the creator of the Moomins, the architectural considerations of the space in which she both worked and lived for over 50 years, together with her paintings and other lesser known works, are an important part of her legacy.