If you’ve ever stepped into an Anthropologie store or flipped through a West Elm catalog, you’ve seen the work of Johanna Uurasjarvi. After leaving her native Finland to pursue a career in America, Johanna has taken the world of design by storm. Not only does she have the creation of her own fashion line and a successful career at Anthro (and other places!) under her belt, she’s now the creative director at West Elm (aka the dream job). Here, Johanna shares a bit about her professional journey, her favorite trends, and the ways she decorated her home for the holidays this year.
Name: Johanna Uurasjarvi, Creative Director at West Elm
Current Location: New York City
Hometown: Helsinki, Finland
What was your first job?
While I was still at Design University in Helsinki I landed an internship in Hong Kong. I wanted to not only learn about design, but understand the manufacturing processes. After this internship ended they helped connect me with a small fashion label in New York. I knew I wanted to be in New York as it is the melting pot of inspiration, ideas, and culture. The day after I graduated I moved to New York.
How did you land that position?
My internship in Hong Kong was unique — typically students would aim for big fashion cities in Europe, but I really wanted to have this experience. After researching different opportunities, I found that one of the professors at my University had a connection to a large fashion manufacturer in Hong Kong, so I pursued that internship.
What valuable lessons and skills did you gain from these working experiences?
The first and most important is to trust your inner creativity. No matter how commercial of an environment you are working in, you must always listen and trust your inner ideas. Another thing that is incredibly important is knowing and understanding the technical aspects of design and building the perfect product. Whether you are designing a sofa, a pair of shoes, or a dress, when you enter into a new category it is vital to stay close to the maker and manufacturer to better understand the technical aspects. Good design is more than the aesthetic of the product, it is the functionality that is achieved by intelligent engineering and using the right materials. The last value is simple, just stay positive. I always say no matter what is happening, if you put a smile on your face, you instantly feel better.
Your first U.S. job was at Anthropologie in Philadelphia. What convinced you to move to the U.S. and how did you land the position?
I actually started at a small fashion label and worked in a few different fashion positions before I found Anthropologie and really put down my roots. When I first came to Anthropologie, it was right around 2000 and it was still a small company. It was an amazing experience to grow with the company and build the connection to the customer, build the design team, and help determine the look of the product.
How does working in fashion and design differ in Europe and the U.S.?
While fashion and design does differ significantly between Europe and the U.S., I think both have their unique strengths. American designers truly connect with their customer and understand the need for the commercial aspects, while European designers focus more on the creativity behind design and artistic expression.
The first and most important is to trust your inner creativity. No matter how commercial of an environment you are working in, you must always listen and trust your inner ideas.
While at Anthropologie, you created your own fashion brand, Leifsdottir, which was a massive success. Tell us more about the project, from conceptualization on.
Leifsdottir was my passion project. Anthropologie wanted to create a wholesale line that was fresh and new. The collection evolved and I was able to develop my vision of a modern, Scandinavian design aesthetic. It was exciting yet intimidating to create a new brand — as anyone knows who has been tasked with something like this. I just pulled from my background and what I knew, combining Anthropologies’ storytelling with the minimal Scandinavian design I grew up with.
Leifsdottir was carried not only by Anthropologie but also by over 200 other amazing retailers. What was the process like to get your products into stores?
Leifsdottir was presented at New York fashion week as well as an exclusive showroom as part of the wholesale business. It was exciting to see and experience its growth.
What did you learn at Anthropologie, and what was the best part of working there?
Spending 15 years building a brand and getting to watch it grow was a tremendous experience. I learned that it is important to really love the product you make and to give it soul. If you achieve that, you find yourself with devoted customers that will trust and love the risks that you take. That emotional connection with your customer is vital for any brand to succeed.
About two years ago, you became the Creative Director at West Elm. This was a big change, as your design focus is now solely on home as opposed to home, fashion, and accessories. What inspired this big change?
After focusing on fashion for so long I was excited to shift gears and focus on home design. I have always had a great respect for home design. It’s just as beautiful as fashion — only more permanent. I have also always loved West Elm as a brand because of its values, social consciousness, and modern design aesthetic.
Your home should look and feel like you! If you have pieces that you don’t connect with, you should get rid of them, constantly edit your space, and invest in pieces that you love.
Do you miss working in fashion? Why or why not?
Fashion is still my first love, and I feel fashion can be connected to home design through bigger cultural trends or trends in color and textiles. But to be honest, if I really miss fashion, I go shopping!
How would you describe your personal design style and philosophy?
I think whether you are creating a fashion look or decorating a room, each and every piece is important. I love strong architectural shapes, in a clean palette as a base, then layering in art or a bolder artful statement piece that showcases your personality. Your home should look and feel like you! If you have pieces that you don’t connect with, you should get rid of them, constantly edit your space, and invest in pieces that you love.
If someone wanted to make small updates to their home, where’s a good place to begin?
Refreshing or changing your textiles into a new color palette is the easiest way to bring your home into a new season. A new patterned rug or colorful pillow cover can completely change your room. I also believe in the power of editing anything you don’t love and investing in one thing you really love. Find that special piece that really lifts you up and make it the focal point of your room.
Where do you find your inspiration for the current holiday collection/season?
Holidays are a big deal and our customer [at West Elm] loves entertaining with their family and friends. Every year we try to come up with something new and inspiring. This year, we felt that everyone is in need of bit of fantasy, and we took inspiration from Venice — the Venice Biennale where the gorgeous historical setting meets a romantic past. This inspiration can be felt throughout the collection with our velvets, glass, and brass accents.
How do you decorate your home for the holidays?
This season my family and I will be traveling for the holidays, but we still want our house to feel festive. Instead of a tree, I’m going to mix seasonal botanicals like the Kraft and Glitter Garland with Faceted Mercury Candleholders and Vases to create holiday sparkle.
Be confident, don’t be afraid, and trust yourself. While you are young and fearless go for your dreams. If it doesn’t work you still have time to establish a career. Invest in yourself.
What’s your best advice to someone who wants festive decor for the holiday season, but also wants to stick to a budget?
Candlelight is a great and inexpensive way to add a festive holiday touch. I would try the Crosshatched Textured Mercury Vases and candle holders. I also think that our accordion paper trees are a really fun, novel, and budget-friendly way to add cheer to your home.
Which product are you most proud of this holiday?
This season I love the Sputnik Flushmount light and Starburst Coffee Table because of their striking, fun shapes, that bring a lot of personality to any room. I am also really happy with our Brocade pillow covers that came together this season as well as the entire Klaus Haapaniemi collaboration, as it perfectly blends modern design with storytelling.
Which of your designs are you most excited to gift?
I think the easiest things to gift are throws and pillows because they are perfect for the season as they warm your heart and body. I love our Deco Stacking Game, it is fun and also a nice artful object to display on a coffee table. I am also very happy with all of our gifts that give back this season, felt ornaments from Nepal, St. Jude Glass Cats, ASPCA Ornaments, Quaker Oats, and HRC collection. It is a nice way to give a gift while doing good.
What do you love about working at West Elm?
Working for a company that embraces the clean modern aesthetic is perfect for what I like to create. I have an amazing team to collaborate and work with on a daily basis to make these designs come to life. I also really appreciate working for a company that embraces the artisan, handcrafted, and sustainably sourced product in a beautiful way.
Additionally, what can we expect to see from West Elm in the coming months?
Our spring collection comes out at the end of December and it is looking great. It has been a full year since we introduced The New Modern aesthetic and I’ve loved watching it develop. This season you will see architectural furniture forms in beautiful colors and a fresh new organic cotton bedding collection inspired by shirting stripes… I can’t wait for you all to see it.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Start your own company. Be confident, don’t be afraid, and trust yourself. While you are young and fearless go for your dreams. If it doesn’t work you still have time to establish a career. Invest in yourself.
Johanna Uurasjarvi is The Everygirl…
Favorite American food?
By the time I chase my daughter around and get her showered and ready for bed it is already pretty late. I do like to try to read before bed instead of letting myself binge a Netflix show.
Favorite country to visit?
Do I have to pick just one? The ones I am really into right now are Mexico, New Zealand, Japan… and of course Finland.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Frida Kahlo. Her art and life was so incredible and she made herself into an icon despite any difficulties she faced. I would love to feel her aura and spirit.
SHOP OUR FAVORITES FROM WEST ELM