“We’re definitely still experimenting,” Jouni Jarvela states as he leans against a workbench holding two freshly cast moulds of concrete.

“It’s sort of an evolving process. Especially the first two or so years, there was a fair bit of experimentation. We’re a bit more on top of it now I think, so now we’re bringing in new techniques and trying to streamline the process.”

Jouni Jarvela, along with his brother, Sami, is the co-founder and owner of Pop Concrete, a design and manufacturing company that produce anything from candleholders to bench tops. The firm has experienced a rapid rise in business over the past few years, asserting itself as one of Australia’s top concrete manufacturers. Originally working for the family concreting business, Jouni says he knew that he would eventually break away from this: “I was always interested in design so I decided to go study design at QUT”.

A little to his surprise, Jouni got in: “…it was a great four years there, learnt a lot.” When it came to graduation, Jouni, like a lot of us, found that he was unsure what to do next. “I didn’t have my portfolio completed yet but I thought, I really want to do this kind of thing, using concrete as a medium… and using what I’d learnt in design to back that up”.

Dodging a pitfall that often claims many other young designers, Jouni realised straight away that he needed a business-oriented mind to get his creative idea off the ground. His brother had since become a schoolteacher, but Jouni explains that, “Sami had always wanted to start a business of sorts, so I said look, ‘Why don’t we join up and start this?’ We did that and about two months after we’d tried it, we registered the company. We started underneath the house there, that I was renting at uni”.

A now popular train of thought in design is to focus on materials and process in order to achieve the desired solution to a problem or project. Australian ex-pat designer Marc Newson is a firm believer in the need to master a manufacturing process in order to produce a forward, innovative solution, while young British designer, Benjamin Hubert, has made “Materials driven. Process led” the mantra of his studio. It appears to produce results of substance however, as the designer is in control all the way from concept to manufacture. This is an ethos that Pop values as well. “You need to know what you can and can’t do with the manufacturing side of things,” Jouni explains. Pop often comes up with a design first and then tries to figure out how to manufacture it. Jouni explains that this is a good way to be forced to think of new ways to manufacture a product:  “A lot of the times we say to architects of something they want to include, ‘Yeah we can do that!’ Although we may not know at that point how to do it… then we try and sort it out afterwards, see how we can do it”.

“I’ve always been very annoyed by products that have built-in obsolescence and a poor choice of materials…

The making process from start to finish for any of Pop’s concrete products is more akin to working in a science lab than traditional concrete mixing. Measuring out pigment and thickeners to 0.1 of a gram, specially crafted ‘recipes’ for the glass-fibre reinforced mixes; the team at Pop are meticulously focused on the details of their products. But it makes sense when they are creating their objects to last. “I’ve always been very annoyed by products that have built-in obsolescence and a poor choice of materials, that they don’t stand the test of time,” Jouni laments. “The design intent with most of our products is that it will last.” Pop believes that if a product is designed well, people will purchase it, get attached to it, and the value of the product will evolve. Jouni proudly explains that some of their pieces will outlive their owners: “Australian Hardwood and concrete, they’re not going to be deteriorating in a hurry. We try to hold onto that, that people won’t feel like they want to throw it away, that they will pass it on.”

Unlike the instant-gratification driven culture that surrounds design and production these days, the team at Pop work meticulously on the details and manufacturing of their products. A set of concrete legs for a private-commission table they were working on while I was in the factory took 25 different steps to create, without including the wooden table top that fits between the two. Although this amount of work on a high-end furniture piece isn’t uncommon, it is refreshing to see a manufacturer truly respect a very common and mundane material. Pop works tirelessly on achieving the perfect design, ensuring the structure and finish are as well polished as possible. As a result, they have transcended the disposable, throw away attitude that society as a whole currently has and created an object that is very contemporary in make but very old in terms of its (desired) lifecycle.

It’s an interesting time for both beginning and established designers and manufacturers. Even five years ago, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram weren’t so influential in the retail arena; today one can’t survive without embracing it and taking advantage of them.

Some design manufacturers/retailers exist only online, bar the products themselves of course. Fab, probably the largest online furniture retailer (valued at over $1billion), now has headquarters dotted around the globe, but initially they started as a marketplace for designers to sell work.  Other ‘crowd-funded’ sites such as Kickstarter and, more locally (but still very global) Pozible offer the possibility for a designer to fund all manufacturing before the product is even sold, the dream scenario for a producer. Of course with the crowd-funded sites the designer needs to set up a supply chain etc., which is often difficult, but the point stands nonetheless.

It is these online companies that allow designers, both new and old, to access consumers without the need for large marketing budgets, showrooms or distribution networks. This removal of overhead costs has given start-up designers a chance to reach consumers and enabled existing designers to connect with their customers in a new way. These days, almost all designers have Instagram accounts, and those of high-profiler manufacturers are usually manicured, as though to look like a catalogue.

Although they have their own showroom in the Valley, Pop Concrete utilises social media, and definitely sees the benefits. “I find it’s a good way to get a temperature gauge for a new product. Or trying to get a vibe or a feel for what the response is for it,” Jouni says. “We’ve sold products through social media, people sort of seeing something we’ve posted, tagging someone else in the post on Instagram, even on Facebook. And then those people looking at it email us wanting something”.

However, the designers aren’t the only ones clued-in on the benefits of social media. With such a huge array of choices at their fingertips, consumers have become far more selective and savvy. As a result, we have seen the general public’s interest in design increase greatly. Jouni agrees: “There have always been those people who like their design and architecture, but I think now it’s a bit more mainstream”.

Within the design community, and also within the general public, there seems to be a shift in attitude or thinking towards more environmentally friendly materials, products and lifestyles…

Concrete, as a building material, has experiences waves of popularity in the design world; Brutalist architecture swept the globe in the 50’s and Robin Gibson’s Cultural Precinct in Southbank is a lasting tribute in Brisbane to this movement. Though in recent years concrete has made resurgence in interior design, home wares and buildings, thanks to companies like Pop. “That was our goal,” Jouni explains, “Originally it was to make concrete popular here in Australia, as a choice of material for kitchen bench tops, vanities through to furniture applications and lighting”.

Jouni’s drawn to concrete because it’s a, “fairly raw, earthy material”. Within the design community, and also within the general public, there seems to be a shift in attitude or thinking towards more environmentally friendly materials, products and lifestyles. Perhaps this explains the reason for concrete’s comeback, as consumers and manufacturers alike are demanding products that are raw, honest and durable.

All trends rise and fall, but will concrete continue to be relevant? If designers are producing objects with the intent to last a long time, will the consumer respond and keep the said product for that time? Perhaps concrete is a new classic, a material that allows a product to eclipse trends. Saying that, however, there are numerous cases of concrete monoliths and buildings being abandoned. Jouni seems fairly confident when he says, “It’s a very tactile material to use and people generally enjoy it and warm to it nicely.” However, only time will tell if consumers design needs and aesthetic desires continue to include concrete.

Originally setting out to boost concretes popularity as a design material in Australia, Pop is now expanding into more product categories and a greater diversity in materials used. “I never wanted to be stereotyped using concrete,” Jouni says. “We don’t want to limit ourselves or our design capabilities.” Over the next 6 or so months, Pop plans to begin manufacturing a line of furniture that does not have such a heavy reliance on concrete, but showcases other raw materials.

This year, for the first time, Pop Concrete participated in Melbourne InDesign, Australia’s most prominent commercial design event. “We had a really good response from people going through there and admiring what we do, taking photos of our pieces… We’ve already had inquiries about pieces and placing orders, that sort of stuff. It was a very positive experience to be amongst [the other] great designers as well,” Jouni says.

Though it wasn’t all smooth sailing coming into the fair. At the beginning of the year Jouni and Sami decided to attend but found themselves with too much on their plates and not enough cash-flow. About six weeks prior to the event however, they were invited to participate. So they packed their bags, headed to Sydney and used the opportunity to develop and showcase their newest product, Snowi: a concrete pendant light spanning 600mm, which is enormous considering the concrete’s weight.

Snowi was only made possible by using Glass Fibre Reinforced Concrete (GFRC). Jouni explains that weight is often a limitation faced when using concrete: “It’s quite a large, 600 diameter pendant, so [we had] to keep the weight down and the wall thickness down to about 8mm, [which] I was able to achieve with the GFRC. This keeps the overall weight down to about 11kg which is quite good for a large light like that”. It’s still a very experimental process however, with the team not knowing if some projects will work or not until they’ve built them. “Even on the one we’re doing now (a 6m table with concrete legs and mid-section), I’m not 100% sure how it’s going to go. I’ve done other ones before that are similar, but this is pushing the boundaries,” Jouni says. It’s this daring and bold approach, their artisanal fervour and the respect they show for their materials, that has earned Pop a healthy number of admirers over its short life so far.

However, heavy lights and long tables aside, Jouni says that the real challenge is in mixing business with his passion for design and trying to make ends meet. Being a designer, Jouni of course wants to spend his time coming up with ideas for products, but explains that, “…at the end of the day [it’s] the manufacturing side of things, getting things made…” that brings the money in. Although, Jouni goes on to explain that Pop is, “A business that’s starting out and still finding its feet.” The Brisbane company has successfully made its way through this rocky patch and, post-InDesign, have a full schedule of commissions for commercial and domestic pieces as well as their unique pieces for the showroom.

Once a student himself, Jouni knows the daunting feeling of trying to, “Find your footing and what sort of part of design you want to get in to, to get a feel for it”. He says experience is key and learning from others who have gone before is vital to succeeding in the design industry. “There isn’t much around, it’s pretty limited in Brisbane as well. So that’s why I always wanted our company to be as open as we can be to other people coming in, students coming in to learn. Even though it’s fairly limited at this point at how much design we actually do, but the whole process of it (is valuable), and the more you can learn of that process, the better”.

Sharing his own wisdom and experience he says that, “If you’re starting out on your own, you’ve got to be ready for a hard slog. I guess it’s been very hard for us, and it still is hard for us, trying to build a business. But if you can get a job doing what you like to do, enjoy it and get paid along the way, that’s great. Try and get as much experience as you can, I guess that is the main thing and learn from other people around you.”

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