Long live
the Moomins

The iconic Moomin spirit lives on in the work of artists and artisans inspired by the works of Tove Jansson.

Text and photos by Laura Iisalo.

Paper to mug

Nobody could have predicted how popular Moomin porcelain mugs would become – not even Tove Slotte, the graphic designer behind most of the colourful creations. Finnish ceramics company Arabia will not reveal exactly how many mugs have been sold, but admits the figure is in the millions. The most popular, the pink “Love” mug, has been in production since 1996. Some special editions have become collector’s items fetching prices of up to €6,000 at auctions.

About four new mugs are launched each year, and the design process starts two years in advance. For Slotte the creative process begins by flicking through the pages of Tove Jansson’s books – she has them all – and making collages of suitable images before drawing the design by hand.

Although Slotte knew she had landed a fantastic opportunity, she remembers being very nervous when first offered the job 27 years ago. “I respected Jansson so much that I didn’t know what I could possibly do with her illustrations. In the beginning I almost didn’t dare to touch them at all,” she says. Slotte still feels the same excitement whenever she embarks on a new creation. “We promised Tove that we would always use her original drawings but even so, I never have to repeat myself. After all these years, I still enjoy coming up with new interpretations.”

Passing the torch

Working from her home studio in a big garden with 20 apple trees, Slotte enjoys the peace and quiet. Many of her best ideas come to her when she is walking her dogs in the nearby woods. “I started making lots of jams and juices when we moved to the countryside 23 years ago. I had young kids back then and I could really relate to Moominmamma,” she recalls.

A die-hard Moomin fan, Slotte still warmly remembers her first experience of reading Jansson’s books. “My mother gave me The Book about Moomin, Mymble, and Little My, which had little cut-outs on every page. I was fascinated and I can still quote many of the stories. I also remember drawing the characters back then,” she says.

Slotte has passed on her fondness for the Moomins to her own two children, who have grown up hearing the same stories. Her older daughter Hanna Elevant assisted Slotte last summer when her schedule grew hectic. “It was nice to collaborate with her because I’m so used to working alone. She said my job is so much fun, which felt really nice.”

Tove Slotte

  • Freelance illustrator and ceramist
  • Slotte has designed 73 Moomin mugs for Arabia based on original drawings by Tove Jansson
  • Lives and works in Karjalohja
  • Lesson learned from the Moomins: “The Moomins are always ready for new adventures, yet home is always a place to return – I like that sense of security.”

See the Moomin mug collection at arabia.fi.

Moomin fairy godmother

The forthcoming opening of the new Moomin Museum in Tampere, Finland, is keeping conservator Eija Kangasmäki-Kurtti rather busy. The vast collection consists of about 2,000 original works by Tove Jansson – many of which have passed through the skilful hands of Kangasmäki-Kurtti.

Being a conservator requires plenty of patience, an eye for detail, and a strong will. “I have to think about what’s best for the exhibit, not only what’s best for the audience. The Moomin illustrations are so popular that we often have to decline requests to loan out the works. Transportation and exposure to light, heat, and moisture can damage the artwork, and it’s my job to prevent that from happening,” says Kangasmäki-Kurtti.

Maintaining the vast collection of Jansson’s Moomin illustrations, originally created for the books and later donated to the Tampere Art Museum, is a full-time job. The difficult aspect of the job is deciding which method is best for long-term preservation. “Bleaching the paper to dispel discolouration may look good for now but over time it shortens the lifespan of the artwork. It’s important that future generations get to see these creations too,” Kangasmäki-Kurtti explains.

Bodyguard on the road

One of the biggest challenges from a conservation viewpoint is that Jansson glued her original drawings on a highly acidic paper. Kangasmäki-Kurtti has spent hours detaching and washing the drawings to prevent brown spots from developing. Her main goal is to stabilise the work in its current condition – not to renew or change the original artwork. “If a character is missing a detail because the paint has peeled off, I’m not going to redraw it because it wouldn’t be an original Tove Jansson anymore. What I do is reattach the existing paint to prevent further damage,” Kangasmäki-Kurtti says.

The Moomins are regularly exhibited all over the world and Kangasmäki-Kurtti travels along to make sure that their journey proceeds safely. She admits that working so closely with the artwork for ten years has had an impact. Kangasmäki-Kurtti has read many of Jansson’s books to understand the history behind them, and the more she learns, the more she values them. “When I know the story behind the piece that I’m working on, it becomes much more than just an image – these are characters from real life. I suppose they have become my babies in a way,” she says.

Eija Kangasmäki-Kurtti

  • Paper conservator at Tampere Art Museum
  • Conserves the original Moomin illustrations donated to the museum by Tove Jansson
  • Lives and works in Tampere
  • Lesson leared from the Moomins: “You can see a very realistic side of the Moomins in the cartoons. They remind me to be more carefree in life.”

Read more about the Moomin Museum at tampereartmuseum.fi.

Snufkin meets Pythagoras

A self-confessed Moomin fanatic, Anne Paso has turned her fascination into a fulfilling business. An industrial designer who enjoys combining art with logic, in 2001 Paso invented a jointing method that allows small plywood pieces to be assembled into fun little 3D figures. “I love mathematics and I used the Pythagorean theorem to create the joint. I wanted a product that can be manufactured in Finland and is made of local wood,” says Paso.

The first Lovi products were wooden Christmas tree decorations of various shapes: baubles, hearts, angels, reindeers, trees, and little piglets all laid out in a neat flat format that doubled as a postcard. Paso realised the potential of her invention and patented the joint, which remains the crux of all her product development.

Paso used to joke that she would start incorporating the Moomins if she ever ran out of ideas. Eventually she did – not for lack of ideas, but to re-engage the Japanese market, which she nearly lost because of the 2011 earthquake and its vast economic impacts. “I had to come up with a ground-breaking idea to get back in the game. I have always loved Tove Jansson’s books and illustrations and I admire how her text is perfectly in tune with her drawings. The wooden characters are my own simplified interpretations but it’s important to me to capture the same spirit,” Paso explains.

Little wooden messengers

The first Moomin figures were launched in 2012 and there are now seven characters altogether in the range. Little My is the top seller but Paso’s personal favourite is Snufkin – so much so that she waited a while until she felt ready to create the little philosopher using 15 carefully cut wooden pieces. “We have a lot in common. He is a free spirit who couldn’t care less what others think about him. He wanders from place to place but feels at ease wherever he goes.”

Paso feels like her wooden characters are little messengers encouraging people to find out more about the Moomin way of life. “My hope is that people would read Jansson’s amazing books and dig deeper into the Moomin philosophy, which is very accepting, tolerant, and sophisticated in spirit. All sorts of things happen in life but everything will always be all right in the end,” she says.

Anne Paso

  • Industrial designer and founder of Lovi
  • Creates plywood 3D figures based on the original Moomin characters
  • Lives and works in Oulu
  • Lesson learned from the Moomins: “According to Snufkin you can’t ever be really free if you admire somebody too much. I agree.”

Find out more at lovi.fi.

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of Finnair’s in-flight magazine Blue Wings.