Hard and Soft

Teksti · words

Valokuvat: Emma Sarpaniemi

Instead of Scandinavian design, Man Yau sculpts dolphins and porcelain bongs.

Nowadays Aalto’s degrees in art and design focus on commercial and industrious design. You, however, call yourself a sculptor – as in, an artist. How did this happen? 

I started my studies in Aalto’s Ceramics and Glass Art bachelor programme fresh out of high school with the intent of making Scandinavian design – design that is as simple as possible, with colours comprising mainly of white and wood. I should probably dig up pictures of all the junk I made. I tried to make Scandinavian design and ended up with impractical blobs instead. My colour palette and materials diversified pretty soon, as I learned to trust my own visual style.

Back in my day the degree contained more courses focused on art, which gave me an opportunity to express myself. I practiced arts and crafts like crazy. Nowadays you can see a strong qualitative processing in my works. When you’ve learnt to handle one material well – which in my case is ceramics – and understood its characteristics, it’s easier to apply that knowledge to other materials, like wood and stone.

You taught courses at Aalto for almost a year and a half, but now you have gone back to making art. How did this break affect your artistic work? 

To be honest, I got a little depressed – when teaching, your art process stays on a theoretical level. I often found myself thinking about all the things I could create, but I just didn’t find the time to do them. I realised that in order to be happy, I have to do something physical at an atelier. Otherwise I feel empty.


I don’t want to force someone to walk into a commercial space if they are only interested in the installation.


As a Young Talent of the 2017 Muoto Gaala, you get to – or have to – make an installation for the Stockmann department store, which is the contest’s corporate partner. Making something for a commercial enterprise sounds like a challenge. 

It is indeed. It has a spatial challenge, where I don’t want to force someone to walk into a commercial space if they are only interested in the installation. Also, my visual style might seem provocative. I did show Stockmann representatives my existing works, like bongs and dildos. But now I have to take into the account that we are talking about a department store. The installation must simultaneously conform to the expectations of the department store and still look like my work. It might be challenging, but not impossible.

If all goes well, in the future you will be mentioned alongside Oiva Toikka and other legendary glass and ceramics designers. What’s your relationship with the classics of Finnish design, like Toikka’s birds? 

I can’t separate the birds from the artist. Oiva is such an amazing artistic spirit – so funny and talented. He radiates a certain confidence that only comes with experience. Once we’d booked a fancy restaurant at the end of some conference that Oiva was also attending. He just said ”fuck this” and demanded to get pizza.

I probably have a similar relationship with Oiva’s birds as all those who were kids during the 1990’s recession. Back then they were really cool, and that’s why they were put on display in every home. Later on I understood, how they were made. Each bird is mouth-blown, and that’s a very difficult technique. So I appreciate them.

How about your relationship with the Aalto vase? 

During our first year of studies our professor Tapio Yli-Viikari told us how the curves of the vase were originally formed in a glass studio, not a factory. Nowadays I’m into the technique, but back then I was somehow disappointed – it was around the time of my Scandinavian design period that I thought that everything should be factory-made.

In your exhibitions you’ve presented dildos and bongs among other things. Are they made for use? 

Yeah, the bongs work. And why wouldn’t the dildos, too. It’s up to the user, after all.

Man Yau is a sculptor with a bachelor’s degree in Aalto’s Ceramics and Glass Art Programme. She uses mainly ceramics, glass , wood and stone in her work. She was recognized at the Muoto Gala as a Young Designer of 2017. She is finishing her thesis work in the Aalto’s Product and Spatial Design Master’s Programme, and designing an installatio for the Stockmann department store.