sámi knife exhibition at saint étienne biennale 2010
original content
dec 28, 2010
sámi knife exhibition at saint étienne biennale 2010


konstantin grcic (munich, germany)
steel, leather
prototype maker: pekka tuominen

the purpose of the ‘sámi knife II’ exhibition, presented at the saint-étienne biennale 2010,
was to bring attention to the current situation and future of the ‘leuku’ sámi knife,
an important tool used daily by the sámi people in lapland.

the ‘leuku’ is a traditional type of long sámi sheath knife with 300 years of historical development.
it is used in reindeer husbandry and trips through the lapland wilderness. the sámi leuku,
known in the sámi language is known as ‘stuorniibi’ or ‘sámeniibi’.


konstantin grcic’s sámi knife design with leather handle and case
image © designboom

curated by simo heikkilä, this exhibition was a presentation of these leuku knives reinterpreted.
traditionally made by the sámi people, the aim of the show was to arouse debate about how many
locally developed tools and utensils are disappearing as a result of more competitive prices
induced by mass production. on this occasion heikkilä invited renowned designers including
konstantin grcic, ronan and erwan bouroullec, naoto fukasawa, jasper morrison, gijs bakker etc.,
to redesign this knife, asking them to give it a new and contemporary existence. this revival project highlights
the importance of the handcrafted tradition as the basis for a tool culture, and also seeks new life
for the sámi knife by studying the potential for further development in terms of both its design
and methods of using it.


rendering of konstantin grcic’s design
photo by designboom

the oldest known finnish puukko knife is from the town of kaarina and dates back to 700 BC.
it is of a type known as a vökipuuko with a long, narrow blade and was probably used as a
sign of power as well as for self-defense. visapöä is an old name for a hilt made of curly-grained birch (visokoivu).
visokoivu is unhealthy birch which mainly grows in lapland. it is extremely hard and has a beautiful curly grain.
findland’s oldest puukko with a visapöä hilt was found in turku and dates from around 1300 AD.


technical diagram of grcic’s design
photo by designboom

the oldest copper puukko from the sámi areas were found in nesseby in the varanki (varanger) area
and is believed to be about 4, 000 years old. because metal-working skills were still unknown in this area,
it is assumed to be the result of barter on the russian trade route. the so-called ‘inari-puuko’ dates from the
time of the crusades, around 1000 AD. it was carried crosswise on a belt and is decorated with metal crosses.
carrying a puukko crosswise was common throughout the baltic area and in sweden and the custom survived
for a long time among the finno-urgic peoples in siberia.


naoto fukasawa (tokyo, japan)
steel, stainless steel, birch, leather
 prototype maker: pasi jaakonaho

the development of the puukko and the leuku into their present form has been a long process.
bronze was made by mixing it with copper, but it was not until people learned to use the iron ore
found in bogs and on lake beds that strong iron tools could be made. the oldest furnaces for smelting lake-bed ore,
which date from about 200-300 AD, have been found in northeast scandinavia. the puukko’s period
of ascendancy in the nordic countries did not, however, begin until the swedes learned how to use rocky ore
from the mountains. knowledge about tempting steel with oil did not come to finland until the
mid nineteenth century when thomas woodward, an englishman, came to work at the fishers’ knife works.


sámi knife design by naoto fukasawa
image © designboom

separate puukko cultures developed in northern and southern finland in parallel.
lad tempering techniques were learned from the south, but the horn reinforcement of the sámi sheath
and the shape of its curve influenced the development of the sheath in southern finland.
the fenno-ugric peoples living in the sámi areas in varanki were known for the excellent puukkos they made.
actual smiths were unknown in the sámi regions until the late nineteenth century,
so puukkos were made at home for the maker’s own needs, just like any other tool.
the necessary skills were handed down from father to son. eventually the basic leuku became standardized
throughout lapland.


naoto fukasawa’s knife sketch
photo by designboom


louise campbell (copenhagen, denmark)
painted original josef laiti’s leuku, reindeer skin
prototype maker: josef laiti, samuel valkeapää
image © designboom

danish designer louise campbell on her contribution to the project:
I do not see any reason to re-design the knife. it is perfect as it is. big, sharp, durable,
and beautifully crafted from local materials. it serves its purpose perfectly. but I do see great reason
to honour the sámi knife. for what it is, for how it is made, and for what it can do.

I therefore kindly ask you to do to the following: produce a knife exactly as you would usually do.
from basic materials, and completely without ornament. then cover the entire knife with a thick layer
of pure white glossy paint, only leaving the sharpened side of the blade free. the same goes for the sheath.
for this, kindly use the palest leather found locally, and leave it untreated. again, no ornament, just function.
the white knife is an attempt to focus on the core point of this sublime produce: its purity and its purpose.
the sámi knife is made for use, not to be a showpiece. it is, when in use, covered with blood, dirt, wood stains,
fat, grease, and becomes more beautiful the more it is used.

the white knife will wear fast, until finally all the white has worn off. in honour of a fine tradition
from far up north, where snow still stays on the ground in the winter months, and where people still
produce the finest craftsmanship.


louise campbell’s sámi sketch
photo by designboom


shigeru uchida (tokyo, japan)
steel, stainless steel, wood, colored silk string
prototype makers: studio 80, japan

image © designboom

japanese designer shigeru uchida’s knife features a handle and case which have been wrapped with a colored silk string.


detail of shigeru uchida’s knife design
image © designboom


shigeru uchida’s knifesketch
photo by designboom


jasper morrison (london, UK)
steel, stainless steel, nylon, leather
prototype makers: janne hirvonen, arja lehtimäki
image © designboom


sámi knife design by jasper morrison
image © designboom



technical drawing of jasper morrison’s sámi knife
photo taken by designboom


gijs bakker (amsterdam, the netherlands)
steel, brass, reindeer horn, leather
prototype makers: martin hackenberg, petteri kyrö
image © designboom


sketches by gijs bakker
photo by designboom


sketches by gijs bakker
photo by designboom


erwan and ronan bouroullec (paris, france)
steel, reindeer horn
prototype makers: aimo pitkä, pasi jaakonaho / SAKK
image © designboom


models of erwan and ronan bouroullec’s knife design
image © designboom


sketch by erwan and ronan bouroullec
photo by designboom


alfredo häberli (zurich, switzerland)
stainless steel, silver, sallow
prototype makers: tomosi nakano, ari pykäläaho
image © designboom

the concept behind alfredo häberli’s knife redesign is to pass on precious traditions, stories and personal history
from generation to generation. the leuku is an everyday object that takes part in the owner’s actions.
that is how it becomes a souvenir of his adventures and experiences. the handwriting on the blade shows
the signification as a storyteller would write in a diary. the wooden handle and sheath form one unitary shape.


photos of inspiration of alfredo häberli
photo by designboom


alfredo häberli referenced diaries such as elizabeth simcoe’s (pages 6-7) shown here
courtesy of the archives of the government of canada


petteri laiti (inari, lapland)
steel, reindeer horn, curly birch, sallow root, silver, reindeer ear leather
prototype maker: petteri laiti
image © designboom


sámi knife sketch by petteri laiti
image © designboom

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