Under a spell

Klaus Haapaniemi’s illustrations may be reassuringly cute, says Dominic Lutyens, but his folksy, vibrant style also has a magical, psychedelic edge that is sure to appeal to a wider audience

Klaus Haapaniemi might not be the hottest name in design, but it might only be a matter of time. In his fantastical, experimental style, he’s produced textiles for hip Finnish brand Marimekko, created a pattern design to cover a PlayStation 2 console, designed prints for Diesel, and worked as art director for Italian fashion brand Bantam. He illustrates the Observer Magazine’s problem page every week, Gestalten is publishing his illustrations of The Little Mermaid in a book of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales next spring, and Pocko has already published two of his illustrated books, Quattro Staggioni and Giants. Haapaniemi’s latest project, a limited edition charity book for Selfridges, may further widen his appeal.

You might speculate that Haapaniemi, from Finland, is fascinated by Scandinavian folklore. And that he plunders a plethora of retro, mainly 1960s and 1970s illustrative styles. Both would be right. His work seethes with Scandinavian and East European motifs: folkloric figures in Lapp costumes, silver birches, onion-domed Russian churches. Mythological creatures – lank-haired, snaggle-toothed ogres, crones and wood sprites – rove across primeval landscapes, towering above forests of fir trees.

You can see why Selfridges commissioned Haapaniemi to illustrate its book, Christmas Stories. Wintry, nocturnal and dream-like, his designs are festive, yet leftfield enough for the store’s cutting-edge brand. Selfridges marketing director Beverley Churchill says he was chosen for his ‘truly original and magical style’.

Nordic folkloric imagery is currently very hip. London’s Skandium store is selling mugs picturing the Moomins of Tove Jansson’s classic books; Islington furniture store TwentyTwentyOne stocks Danish designer Kay Bojesen’s iconic 1950s wooden monkeys; and designers’ agent du jour, Thorsten van Elten, will sell carved German figures in his soon- to-open store in London’s Warren Street.

In a climate which is dominated by the threat of terrorism and economic instability, perhaps we hanker nostalgically for innocent, child- like imagery. The quaintness of traditional Nordic folklore is comforting, and the fact that it is regarded as kitsch serves to make it all the more hip.

The most obvious 1960s/ 1970s references in Haapaniemi’s work are found in his depiction of vegetation as hallucinogenically bright. It is generally ordered into stylised floral patterns redolent of retro wallpapers and carpets. His work is influenced by Aubrey Beardsley (the 19th-century illustrator idolised in the 1970s). Haapaniemi echoes Beardsley’s style with his baroque, black and white illustrations of louche, fin-de-siècle courtesans, their haughty features delineated by delicate, sinuous lines, their hair in ribbons or surreally surmounted by birds. When his Beardsley-esque doodles include 1970s Biba-style dollybirds, they almost replicate illustrator Julie Verhoeven’s work.

The ghost of Heinz Edelmann, animator of the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine, is ever-present. In Haapaniemi’s book Giants, a blue giant with bared teeth and malevolent eyes resembles one of the film’s villainous Blue Meanies.

But Haapaniemi denies his work is retro. ‘The word gives me toothache,’ he winces, but admits he is inspired by ancient nature-based Finnish folklore, known as Kalevala. ‘Finnish folklore and fairytales are really inspiring,’ he says. ‘I [was influenced by] Eastern European – mainly Russian – animation that was shown on TV in the 1970s. But I prefer a more contemporary approach.’ Indeed, Haapaniemi occasionally creates computer-generated, hard-edged illustrations, in which his characters resemble garish Fisher-Price-style toys.

Expressing a complex variety of moods, from the melancholy to the charmingly kooky, his work can feel more like art than illustration.

Christmas Stories is available from Selfridges stores, priced £14.95. All profits go to Teenage Cancer Trust

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