26th February 2020

Following their success at the 2019 [d]arc awards, we caught up with Joonas Saaranen and Arto Heiskanen, founders of WhiteNight, to learn more about the award-winning Finnish studio.

Named after the midnight sun that occurs during Finnish summer, WhiteNight Lighting believes that its values and philosophy are reflected in its beautiful natural surroundings.

Co-Founder Joonas Saaranen explained: “In our Scandinavian surroundings, light is constantly transforming with the change of seasons. Late in the fall, just when you think it couldn’t get any darker and gloomier, the first snow storm will suddenly wrap the landscape in dazzling white tones. Towards the spring, the sun clings on to the horizon longer each day, and come midsummer, sunlight has taken over both day and night with an overwhelming effect on all life.

“Our northern homes have taught us to truly value the light and our passion towards our work stems from a deep understanding of light and darkness.”

Founded in 2013 by Saaranen and Arto Heiskanen, the duo established WhiteNight with the “common goal to start an office that would technically be top-notch and push the project until the very end to take care of the customer and create a good customer experience”.

The pair first met while working at VALOA Design in 2010, but for Saaranen, his journey into lighting began much earlier: “I got interested in lighting in high school,” he explained. “I tried to get into the theatre to study lighting design but I didn’t get accepted. Instead, I studied industrial design at the University of Lapland, close to the Arctic Circle in the city of Rovaniemi. During my studies I was deeply affected by the surrounding natural light, and I’m guessing this had some kind of profound effect on me.”

In the summer of 2006, Saaranen enrolled in a partnership programme that saw him work with Saas Instruments – a small Finnish luminaire manufacturer. From here, he travelled to Barcelona, before enrolling in the Berlin Weissensee School of Art. While there, he entered into a competition ran by Licht Magazine to design a luminaire, and visited Light+Building and Luminale. This led him to the Architectural Lighting Design Master’s programme at KTH in Stockholm, and then a spot at Philips Research in Eindhoven, before eventually joining VALOA in 2010. After a year at VALOA, Saaranen joined Ljusarkitektur in Sweden, before returning to Finland to work at Kone Elevators, where he and his team designed the iF Award-winning RL20 elevator ceiling light.

Heiskanen’s route into lighting design was far more straightforward, as he explained: “My interest in light comes from photography. My dad had his own laboratory to make black and white photographs at home, and I’ve been doing photos with my dad and grandad since I was a young child. In black and white photos, light and shadows are the main thing.

“After high school I was studying classical music, and after a few years of studying and playing in orchestras I was ready for something else. That led me to study lighting design at the School of Art and Media at Tampere University in 1999. A year later I went to do my trainee period at VALOA, and I started to work in the same office while finalising my studies.

“In 2010 I met Joonas for the first time; we worked on a few projects and then he left, and it was a few years before our paths crossed again. In 2013, I was ready for a new challenge, and after thirteen years of working in the same office, I decided to jump into a new challenge together with Joonas.”

Alongside their shared ambition to establish a “technically top-notch” studio, the duo share an affinity towards the transformative power of light – something that was a key driver in their decision to branch out on their own. “With lights you can tell a story and guide the spectator to see a detail or steer into a specific place,” Saaranen said.

“Finland is a very dark country during winter, so my hope was to use light to enhance the quality of living.”

Based in Tampere, the Finnish studio has been very influenced by so-called Scandinavian style, as Heiskanen continued: “I think in some sense our ‘signature style’ is very Nordic: simple and functional.

“However, every project is different, so there isn’t a continuity between them. Our style could be recognisable in well-designed details – we try to pay attention to everything in a project. And of course, there is always something to learn in every project.”

“Due to very different natural lighting conditions between different times of the year, we have learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and the phenomena it can provide. We don’t feel like everything cool can only be done by designers and technology,” added Saaranen.

“We often explore ideas for our lighting scenes and colour changes from natural lighting phenomena. Lighting doesn’t need to be just a thing placed into a space or building to create some ‘wow effect’. It can also be a very composed and integrated part of the architecture, letting daylight and other things shine.”

The idea of using natural lighting phenomena as a source of influence is none more evident than in Aurora Experience; the [d]arc award-winning project in Saariselkä, Finland. Inspired by the tale of Tulikettu, the mythical fire-fox that used his tail to create the Aurora Borealis while running away from hunters, Aurora Experience consists of a dramatically illuminated toboggan run that lets participants live both the thrill of chasing Tulikettu, and being inside the natural light phenomenon.

Saaranen explained: “Saariselkä is a unique place, as is the whole of Finnish Lapland, with its nature, history and stories. It was quite clear that we should try our best to draw inspiration from those things. Luckily, the art plan for the ski resort area encourages the use of local folklore and heritage. We just had to find a good enough story to be told through the means of light.

“The Aurora Borealis is a distinctive phenomenon highlighting the beauty of natural light, attracting people around the world to witness it with their own eyes.”

The Aurora Experience begins next to the sky itself, above the treeline at the top of the Kaunispää fell. From this barren landscape, participants speed down an illuminated track through arctic scenery littered with projected imagery of Finnish lore.

Halfway down the fell, they arrive at a central plaza where “Pohjannaula”, the proverbial centerpin of the known world, according to Finnish folklore, stands. After this point, the tone of the course changes, and illuminated evergreens line the rest of the route down the valley, while projections and lighting mimic the dance of the Aurora Borealis.

Lighting on the route comes via streetlight luminaires, customised for this project and equipped with RGB LEDs – providing good optical qualities while still maintaining powerful colour effects – while the light projections were mainly done by metal halide GOBO-projectors.

The Aurora Experience saw WhiteNight pick up not just the SPACES – High award at the 2019 [d]arc awards, but also the ‘Best of the Best’ Ultimate [d]arc award – it received more than twice as many votes as any other project entered into the awards – and Saaranen exclaimed his delight at the success: “We started the company from zero seven years ago, and to get a prize like this with a small team is very uniting.

“We are constantly playing the game with big engineering offices, so these kinds of projects are a good showcase that a small team of devoted professionals can succeed.”

While Aurora Experience has given WhiteNight international recognition, the studio has gained a lot of plaudits closer to home for its work in and around its hometown of Tampere. From larger lighting projects like the Vuolteentori Square and Tammerkoski Power Plant, to smaller, more artistic pieces such as SuperSized IceLantern – a feature based on the Nordic tradition of freezing a bucket of water to shape a lantern and placing a candle inside – and the illumination of the Kultakutri (Goldilocks) statue in Konsulinsaari, WhiteNight has built an impressive portfolio of work across Tampere, in many cases using light to honour its industrial past.

“Tampere has a deep history in industrialisation and the rapids flowing through the city have always played a major role in the city,” Saaranen said. “The banks of Tammerkoski have many red brick buildings, and we have had the honour to light many of these over the years. Nowadays we have a good understanding of the essence and soul of redbrick buildings.”

However, one of the main points of pride for Saaranen is Hämeenkatu, the main street of the city. Modernised during the introduction of the Tampere Tramway, WhiteNight designed the lighting for the whole street, which separates vehicle and pedestrian traffic through colour temperature of the lighting – colder white light illuminates the road, while warmer lighting is used on the pedestrian sidewalks and crossings.

This lighting was housed in custom-made, multipurpose poles designed by WhiteNight. The shape of these poles is inspired in equal parts by the city’s old trolley bus poles, and the organic shapes of nature. “This might sound a bit boring, but the design of the pole is very radical,” said Saaranen. “Because the pole is used to carry contact wires for the tramlines, and hang seasonal lighting, there are special needs for the rigidity of the pole. It was designed to meet these requirements with an airy design, fitting in to the scale of the environment.”

Following their success last year, Saaranen and Heiskanen, alongside third team member Aleksi Riihimäki, who joined the team in June 2018, are showing no sign of slowing down. Instead, they’re taking stock of the emerging trends within the industry to try and predict where the lighting world will go next.

“After the fast revolution of LEDs, maybe the quality of the light and the luminaires is now more considered,” Saaranen said. “For example, preventing light pollution and achieving exactly the features needed from the luminaire, alongside reliability, are important.

“Artificial Intelligence and machine learning as a global megatrend is getting into the lighting industry too. Luminaires can already deliver data in their current state. In the future, probably more sensors will be integrated into lighting fixtures and poles, and luminaires will be able to learn and adapt to surroundings based on gathered data.”

On a more personal level though, Saaranen revealed that WhiteNight has looked at the increasingly prevalent use of technology as a means to improve its service offering. “Lately, we have put some effort into Virtual Reality and utilising it in our work,” he said. “We’ve found it to be a really helpful tool to visualise our ideas in an even more realistic way to the customer.

“We try to keep ourselves updated on the latest technologies, not just VR, but also the latest products and ways to control lighting too, for instance integrating open data into lighting control.”

Through all of these changes though, it is important to retain the passion that made you fall in love with lighting in the first place – the ability to tell a story, transport spectators to another world and create moments of magic. This passion is something that lives strong in WhiteNight, as Saaranen proclaimed: “Working with lighting is rewarding in itself.

“It literally lets you bring light into darkness, highlight the otherwise unseen, and bring forth beauty that would otherwise be hidden in the absence of light.”