The design and manufacture of top-quality office furniture has been the Vikström family’s passion for 90 years.
ISKU, the Vikström’s business, has built a reputation for exemplary design and environmentally friendly production practices. Their manufacturing facility in Lahti, Finland, uses the latest technology to build high-quality furniture from responsibly sourced wood.
From the designer’s drawings to the finished products, ISKU’s entire operation chain is optimised for sustainability. Surplus material from one product becomes the raw material for another. Their functional, brightly coloured furniture can be found in schools, hospitals and government buildings all over the world.
Today, ISKU continues under the auspices of third-generation family member Seppo Vikström, who serves as Chairman of the board. Seppo maintains that flexibility is crucial to their design philosophy. ISKU is always looking for new ways to innovate and their catalogue is constantly expanding. The important role family plays in the business, however, is unchanging. Seppo’s father Timo, who began working at ISKU when he was 15 and is now 89, still makes biweekly visits to inspect the furniture.
Recently Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Seppo Vikström to discuss his journey in the family business, the inspiration behind ISKU’s eco- friendly manufacturing process and the key ingredient that has led to their 90 years of success.
You represent the third generation of leadership at ISKU. When you were younger, did you know you would one day lead the family business?
Not at all. I had been studying economics at Uppsala University in Sweden. However, I was strongly considering going into medicine. The most important thing for me was that I find a career where I could work with my hands, which is why I was also considering carpentry. Around that time, my father asked me if I wanted to come work in the family business. So, after I completed my studies at Uppsala in 1985, I came back to Lahti and started as an export manager. Initially, my focus was Sweden and the Middle East – mostly the Gulf countries.
I later took over as managing director at ISKU, where my primary focus was supervising the designers. Now, I have been Chairman of the Board for almost 15 years, and my responsibilities are much broader.
Is your father still actively involved in the business?
My father officially retired in 2005, but he still comes in about twice a week, even though he’s 89. He is extremely critical, and his taste in furniture is impeccable – it’s in his blood. After so many years in the business, it’s impossible for him not to be involved at least to some extent. I’m sure I’ll be no different.
I’m 62 years old now, and when I retire I expect my two sons will succeed me. At the moment, they are not working at ISKU, but I hope they’ll want to join the family business in a few years. Both are in Helsinki – one is a lawyer and the other works for a digital company in the financial sector. It’s early; they’re still young. Besides, I think it’s crucial that they get some experience in other work environments.
Was furniture design and manufacture always ISKU’s primary focus?
Absolutely, making office furniture has been at the core of our business since the very beginning. We make home furnishings as well, but the majority of what we do involves office furniture – it’s been crucial to our sustained success. We’ve built up a very loyal and passionate customer base. They know we can deliver quality furniture for public spaces, so they keep coming back. You can find ISKU products in schools, hospitals and offices all around the world.
Have you maintained a single design philosophy over the years or has it changed with time?
Our design philosophy is flexible. Being based in Finland gives us a distinctly Scandinavian style, which is simple – bright coloured and functional furniture that is not too big. We tend to have small homes and offices, so we try to make effective interiors that include small to moderately-sized pieces of furniture.
We try to introduce new designs every year and are continuously scouting the latest trends. Through the 1950s and 60s, our operations had grown to such an extent that we couldn’t be so flexible. We were producing quality furniture for mass consumption. However, when the 70s and 80s rolled around, the whole system changed, and we were able to start building furniture made-to-order, which we continue to do to this day.
Was the ability to make custom furniture the result of innovative manufacturing technologies?
That’s correct. Previously, a limited-run series was unfeasible because the production and assembly process was time-consuming and very expensive. Today, however, advanced manufacturing techniques have given us an unprecedented ability to do this. We have invested about €25 million in machines that can cut every piece to different specifications. The time spent switching between cuts for different designs has been reduced to mere seconds as opposed to hours.
Sustainability was part of ISKU’s core identity well before it became a trend. What inspired the move?
Back in the 80s, we were redesigning our logo and decided on a green colour scheme. At that time green was becoming associated environmentalism, and we took notice. We’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing, so in a way it came naturally to us. ISKU began to incorporate environmentally friendly production processes, and we even had a slogan, ‘ISKU – Natural Choice.’
At that time, it was standard practice for both people and companies to divide their portfolios between common investments and environmental investments. However, I’ve always believed all investments need to be sustainable, and at least in Scandinavia, that view has become widely accepted today. The entire integration chain is filled with opportunities where we can make a difference – reducing
air pollution in the transportation of products and materials, for example. We even have environmental marketing.
Do you believe you have an added competitive advantage because you’re a family business?
Our identity as a family business has mostly been in the background. That said, however, we definitely enjoy an advantage when it comes to trust – our clients know they can depend on our stability. We’re like a lot of family businesses in that we operate with long-term goals in mind; we’re not trying to make a quick profit. That’s why we invest so much of the revenue we generate back into the company. We don’t want to take money from ISKU – we want to see it grow.
Can you share with our readers your secret to longevity and success?
First of all, the reason for our sustained success is no secret – it’s the result of a fundamental business principle. You’ve got to have good people, and when you have good people in the company, you attract more good people. This is important because we conduct business all over the world. Our retail arm makes lots of sales where we are in direct contact with our end users and customers. You need the right people in place to ensure the manufacturing side gets the correct information. If we had third-party retailers coming between us and our customers, we’d miss out on the direct pipeline of product feedback.
Finally, as you look to the future, what is your greatest wish for ISKU?
I wish to see ISKU remain in the family. For that to happen, the next generation will have to take an interest in the business and I hope that this will be the case. I’d also like to see us stay ahead of the curve when it comes to digitalisation. The extent to which digitalisation will affect the furniture industry around the world remains to be seen, but we need to be prepared regardless. Furniture is unique – you need to feel it with your hands and sit on it. It’s like buying a suit. To make an informed decision, you need to see how it feels when you wear it. So, it’s difficult to anticipate the changes that digitalisation will bring. In general, though, I’d like to see the continuation of what ISKU does best. That is, designing functional, sustainable interiors in a Scandinavian style.