Do I Know You?
“Our styles are like the two sides of Finland,” say Chao-Hsien Kuo and Eero Hintsanen
Designer duo Chao-Hsien Kuo and Eero Hintsanen want to have the creative freedom to make unique contemporary jewellery.Julia Bushueva
Behind the jewellery brand Chao & Eero is a designer couple Chao-Hsien Kuo and Eero Hintsanen, who share a passion for unique wearable pieces.
Chao-Hsien Kuo and Eero Hintsanen are connected by their love for creating with their hands. The duo, who met while studying at Lahti Institute of Design and Fine Arts, describe their design aesthetics as different as the Finnish winter and summer. But they see this as a strength for their jewellery brand, Chao & Eero, which the couple established on Valentine’s Day in 2005. Today, the brand has an international customer base, and its founders have both been awarded the Goldsmith of the Year title in Finland.
The next step for the two master goldsmiths is to look beyond jewellery collections and focus on big, creative statement pieces. Good News from Finland talked with the design duo about their sources of inspiration, creative process and their ideal Sunday morning.
How did you get into jewellery design and became goldsmiths?
Eero: [Growing up] I was interested in many different fields. History, for example. But what happened is that I realised that I have a terrible memory. I don’t even remember Chao’s phone number. Today, I see it very positively as it steered me towards making something with my hands and something more tangible.
In the 1990s, the school in Lahti for goldsmiths [Lahti Institute of Design and Fine Arts] had a reputation that it was impossible to get into. So when I got accepted there, without knowing much about the school, I just packed as much stuff as I could fit into the truck bed of a car and drove to Lahti. That’s how my career with jewellery started.
Also, I was born in the countryside, and I’ve always been making, building and fixing things. So if something’s broken, my attitude is to fix it.
Chao: From childhood, I’ve been very interested in different kinds of crafts. But growing up in Taiwan, academic performance is preferred over art and crafts, which are considered more of a hobby. The traditional value is that you should go to university and then you can find a good job later.
You study for exams and try to memorise everything. That’s how I also noticed I’m bad at memorising things and I don’t enjoy it. Even though I graduated from the best girls’ senior high school in the south, I didn’t do well on the national university entrance exam. With my score, I couldn’t get into economics or the financial related studies that my parents preferred. Instead, I got into a private college to study commercial design and ended up really enjoying the different design courses. During those studies, I saw an exhibition of sculptural gold jewellery in Taipei. It planted a seed in my head about what jewellery design can be.
But after a year of studying in Taipei, my parents sent me and my sister to study English in Canada. They didn’t consider design as a promising future career. They thought it would be more useful for us to speak English well.
In Canada, I decided I want to study jewellery-related subjects. I didn’t know much about the field as the Internet didn’t exist yet. So I went through thick booklets of all the colleges and universities in North America at the library. I applied to about 10 schools and got into several. In the end, I chose Hofstra University in New York.
Hofstra’s jewellery classroom was really small and only had very basic equipment. Despite this, I knew from the first class that jewellery was the right topic for me because I liked to work with metal. And this is how I got started with jewellery.
What is the story behind Chao & Eero, how was the brand born?
Chao: I graduated and worked as a teaching assistant. My professor recommended the Lahti school to me, and I came to Finland in 1997. When I arrived in Lahti, it was Easter Time and very grey. But the school and facilities were very good, so I thought I can be here for two years. Then I met Eero at the school.
Eero: After my studies, I did basically any jewellery work in a cooperative with five goldsmiths. Chao went back to Taiwan for a year to design ladies’ watches and learnt a lot about a designer’s role in a company. Then she decided to come back to Finland and do a Master of Arts degree at Aalto University.
We started Chao & Eero in 2005 and decided to name the company that because it has a very personal meaning for both of us. We registered the company on Valentine’s Day as a gift for us and our commitment.
When we were planning to start a company together, we already set our goal to go international. So we tried to take part in international fairs to gain publicity and get to know different markets. As the Internet has become more common over the years, we have adapted and updated our business regularly to improve our online presence. We understand perfectly that we are based in a small city in Finland, and if we don’t reach out to potential customers around the world, they won’t search for us. After building up our reputation gradually, it is now possible for us to have an online shop and ship our jewellery internationally
How would you describe your design aesthetics?
Eero: Mine comes from my childhood, the 1970s. When you grow up in the countryside, you just pick a stick from the forest and stones from the beach. I always liked things that were a bit aggressive, dangerous shapes.
I studied for a year in Germany, and the teachers were excellent. They gave us very demanding exercises which pushed the limits of my skills in a good way. One was just to draw for a few weeks. Not to think about it but just draw everything. Now drawing comes really easy to me and I can use it in everything. I like to do very big things, big items and installations.
But I also like to do other projects than my artistic work. For example, we did a Lahti collection for our Chao & Eero brand. It is about the landmarks and inside jokes of the city. That was a very good exercise for me as it challenged me to do something different again. It’s good to always do other things and not just get stuck in your own thing.
Chao: My style started to develop more when I came to Lahti. Our styles are like the two sides of Finland: Eero is the winter and I’m the sunny summer. I’m very much drawn to the beautiful side of nature, like the sparkly snow and the shining sun and all these things.
Also, I think our styles have gotten more mature with time. The design skill is very closely connected to the craft skill. When you do more, you learn to understand how the materials behave. There is a connection between your fingers and what you see in your eyes, and it affects the design process as well.
What is your design process like, where do you start and what are the most challenging stages?
Chao: Very often how we design is by working with the materials. Because the skill is there. So it’s not just sitting on a computer or drawing, but it’s actually working with metal or wax. You don’t overthink, you just kind of trust what you can do, and just do it.
Eero likes doing big drawings. My drawings are more like a concept or an idea. When I go outside and see something that impresses me, I first have to create this image of jewellery in my head. Then I do a little sketch and add some sentences about it. The difficult part for me is how can I interpret this physical thing and turn the image in my head into a material object.
Eero: I don’t use bird bones or anything like that in my work. I take the mood and do my original take instead of a replica of nature. That is really important to me. Because if you do, for example, a bird skull, no matter how well you do it, it’s still the same object that has been done thousands of times already. It doesn’t bring anything new or different.
The difficult part for me is that I want to do everything really well. Not only the jewellery but the whole package. Nowadays, I also do photo shoots and I have started to build stories around them. There needs to be a character and a setting, I always need to go a step further. It becomes a kind of a trap because you always want to make bigger and more elaborate things. You can use half a year on one thing, which I absolutely love even though it doesn’t necessarily make any business sense.
We focused on designing [jewellery] collections and the business side at the start. We optimised everything to be sellable, and that started to limit our imagination. Then we decided to get more freedom. We are getting older and we want to make things that we enjoy, and not only small items might be easier to sell. You start with the basics, move on to collections and then the next step is to do what you are really passionate about.
Chao: I was invited to the Museum of Art and Design’s annual MAD About Jewellery event in New York. I brought several big necklaces, bracelets and earrings with me. A lot of people were trying them on and wanted to buy them. It really made a huge impact on me that this is possible. In Finland, there is one presidential party [where people wear my big pieces], but globally there is a lot more demand for these pieces.
I want to create unique and wearable pieces that also people who don’t know much about contemporary jewellery will buy and wear. This is why we have been working hard to make our jewellery known to the general public. We are confident that the more people know about unique jewellery, the more possibilities it will create for the industry.
It sounds like your design styles are quite different. What it is like to work together?
Chao: It’s a good thing that we have different styles. You can get blind to your own design when working with something for a while. You can show it to the other one and they can look at your work with fresh eyes. You get an honest, professional opinion. It’s a good balance.
If we are designing a collection for Chao & Eero, we make the first drafts and then we discuss and develop the designs together. We discuss how the piece looks, how can we make it, the price range and so forth.
If it’s unique wearable jewellery we are making, we design and make them separately. Of course, we can get each other’s opinion, but if it’s a more artistic piece, like Eero’s big pieces, then there is complete creative freedom.
Is there a favourite material you like to work with?
Eero: There are so many possibilities to work with silver. Price-wise it’s more affordable than gold and more flexible, so you can do more things, but it is also a more challenging material to work. For example, to solder a piece of silver you have to be very experienced, while gold is easy to solder.
What have been your most memorable experiences as goldsmiths?
Eero: I’m thinking about the works that are important to me. There are a few pieces I’ll never sell. They aren’t the biggest or the most expensive pieces, they just have a special meaning to me. One is the very first piece I did studying in Germany. I’ve been working a lot with this spine theme, and the first piece I did was a bit of an accident. It is very important to me.
Also, I remember soldering a piece of silver at the Lahti school and the teacher was really demanding. Then I did this perfect piece. The teacher looked at it in silence for one minute and couldn’t find any fault. That is one of those small memorable moments. That is the essence of our work overall. You get these small moments where you succeed in something almost every day. You don’t have to do your project for a year to see results.
Chao: For me, one of those moments was in New York when a lady bought this very sculptural silver necklace from me. I would love to create more sculptural pieces and I have lots of ideas, but Finns are shy to use big jewellery. That’s why I’ve been looking at international markets. In recent years I’ve also gotten more Finnish customers who buy unique pieces, which is a very positive sign.
I don’t want to just put pieces into an exhibition, I want to make wearable jewellery. [The event in New York] was kind of a defining moment for me as it solidified that people can actually buy and wear these pieces.
What is your typical day like?
Chao: We have a pretty slow start in the morning as we often work late. Eero makes the breakfast as I make the other meals. We watch international news and check our emails. Then we work in the studio most of the day, often until quite late. The studio is within walking distance of us, so we usually walk there.
Eero: We tried to fight working late to be like others who have fixed work hours, but we quickly realised it didn’t work for us. We don’t like to time our work by the minute, as our work and life are closely intertwined. If the weather is nice, we can decide that let’s get the camera and go somewhere. Then we just work later in the evening. We like to keep this kind of flexibility.
What would be your ideal Sunday morning?
Eero: We have now developed a plan that we should take one day off a week. We kind of started to lose the difference between weekdays and the weekend. Sometimes we have to work seven days a week or 12-hour days, and then we have to scale back because imagination suffers from long hours.
Chao: On our no-working days, Eero might go running and I exercise at home. We make lunch or, if I’m in the mood, I bake. I started baking during the corona time and enjoy making fresh food and more complicated recipes on quiet afternoons.
Eero: I might go porcini hunting if it’s that time of the year. We have collected a lot of vintage design furniture and have a lovely home, so we like to stay at home. Make good food and watch a movie. Creativity is hard when you are stressed. Sometimes you just need to walk in a forest, pick berries and do things that free your mind. Then you get new ideas.
If you could design a piece of jewellery for anyone in the world, who would that be?
Eero: I really like Rooney Mara. She has this kind of special glow or aura that I identify in my pieces. Her calm and very peaceful demeanour and style would be a perfect contrast to my strong jewellery.
Chao: For me, it would be Cate Blanchett. She is a really good actress and I love her confident elegance.