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Estonian design goes global

The story of the Stigo Scooter

9 min read

Designer Matti Õunapuu creates standard equipment for homo sapiens

 

For the first time ever, design from Estonia has gone into mass production and is conquering the streets worldwide. Meet the folding electric scooter Stigo, designed by Matti Õunapuu.

Stigo was recently presented to Prince Albert of Monaco at the Monaco Car Show SIAM 2017. The prince who values innovation had especially admired the lightness of the electric scooter.

The folding electric scooter Stigo, designed by Matti Õunapuu, speeds up to 25 km/h and its elastic saddle is amazingly comfortable to sit on. The scooter can be folded up in 2 seconds and can be easily taken along like a suitcase on wheels. There are never any problems with parking, as Stigo takes up less room than a footstool. Once charged, the battery lasts for 20 km and the scooter can be recharged from standard outlets. Even when folded, Stigo looks cool − its slim bendy shape combines with an elegant, dark grey metallic surface and a splash of orange to complete the look.

 

Stigo fulfils one of the basic needs of any human being today – to move through the urban environment as fast and as comfortably as possible without creating environmental pollution. ‘Yes Stigo is a totally unique product, one of its kind, which is fully certified and in mass production today. You can probably find similar products on the web (which demonstrates consumer need), but those are all uncertified prototypes which will never make it into mass production because it is extremely difficult to fulfil the requirements for street vehicles,’ explains Matti Õunapuu.

Half a century of design education

The roots of the design are probably in Finno-Ugric soil but everything changed when a new design department, led by Bruno Tomberg, was created at the Estonian Arts Institute. New students who came to change the world were admitted with harsh scepticism – ‘forget your dreams of becoming a star, if you’re lucky you will be the foundation of a new field’ − but there was a passionate, obstinate kind of optimism behind them. Slogans such as ‘Less is more’, and ‘We do not pollute, we improve the environment’ were abundant.

The ideology that clearly opposed the prevailing conditions led to the formation of a half-secret united opposing front, whose goal was to improve the miserable Soviet environment. Back then it was crazy to hope that such idealism would triumph. Today we know that only such reckless courage and determinism can lead to the birth of real global design.

 

Matti Õunapuu stood out from other students with his strong and practical attitude. Whereas most students considered their activities a futurist game, Õunapuu started to open doors in real life. Before the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, when the Olympic yachting regatta was held in Tallinn, he worked together with the City Design Group, designing exceptional objects. His top design − the base for the Olympic fire − still stands in Pirita.

The Olympic project brought him into contact with the more forward-thinking men at the Tupolev factory. The renowned Russian airplane producer was interested in ordering modern designs for consumer goods. Their collaboration was successful and because the production profile enabled such ambitious designs, the next project scale ranged from kitchen equipment to mobile homes.

By the end of the 1980s, Matti Õunapuu founded the design studio MaDis. In the next few years, twelve talented designers worked in the company, including Arvo Pärenson, Üllar Karro, Heiki Zoova, Hugo Mitt, Raimo Sau, and others.

At the end of Soviet influence, new times brought the designers into contact with the Finnish Helkama Group (a renowned producer of sewing machines and bikes), which also produced kitchen equipment. The fresh fridge and stove design solutions submitted by Matti and his colleagues surprised the Finns, they were presented at trade fairs and received a fair bit of attention.

Stop waiting for the miracle and start producing

 

Just when it all could have taken off, everything went haywire. Instead of blossoming during the early days of capitalism, industrial enterprises started to collapse.

Designers had to look for production opportunities themselves. Using the most affordable production technologies − glass reinforced plaster moulding − Õunapuu started to produce car roof boxes. Suddenly the fashion world was launched and required movable mannequins, so he ended up producing those in thousands. Several companies have made use of his strict designer hand and his practical engineering side. For example, he has designed bathtubs for Balteco using their new technology, and this includes the stunning Pao model.

How faith in the potential of design was born

In 2002, Curonia Research, an Estonian company, presented a medical product on the international arena. Their appliance doc@Home was pioneering, as it enabled patients to monitor their health at home. Certainly one of the reasons for their success was good design, which was developed in collaboration with Matti Õunapuu. In the following year, experts declared it the best e-health product in Europe. Spurred on by their success, the enterprising people came up with a new idea − to create electric mini vehicles. And they turned again to the same designer. A smart and lucky choice, as it turned out. Today the company Stigo Plc has become unstoppable.

They developed the model for the folding scooter in close cooperation, but it was mainly the designer’s self-confidence which helped take the product to mass production. Despite the team’s efforts, the product did not want to take off and problems accumulated. However, according to Õunapuu, that is just a normal part of the process.  ‘It is not the designer’s job to create a pretty exterior, but to manage the whole. Ergonomics, functionality and thus also construction and an aesthetic look to tie it all together − that is what results in a product that makes sense to produce,’ explains Õunapuu, adding, ‘Due to the complexity of the problems you shouldn’t immediately hope that your pretty product will quickly find a producer. The internet is brimming with clever solutions, but a production company will only hook onto an idea when it sees profit behind it.’

The turning point

 

The year 2013 marked a moment for Stigo when, due to a succession of failures and differences in opinion, a decision was taken to stop the project. The designer did not lose hope but built a small army of 30 Stigos and asked some people to test them, in order to identify the last mistakes in the project and to find open doors. And this he found. How then was the team able to reach the unreachable − to start mass production? It was not easy.

Of course they made efforts to find opportunities in Estonia but, even if technically and in terms of skills and materials they could have found a satisfying solution, the costs needed to develop the required production base would not be realistic.

The solution came via a phone call from China. By pure chance, the managers of the large Chinese bicycle producer Ming were looking online for folding electric scooter models and happened to choose Stigo, their final decision was based on the attractiveness of the design − its simplicity, elegance and capacity. Fortunately or unfortunately, everything that would need to have been built in Estonia already existed in China − a huge, experienced, flexible and modern production facility with the capacity of 20 000 bikes per day. Stigo’s sales grip today reaches from Malaysia over China to Scandinavia, from the Netherlands over Europe to Spain, and it continues to expand.

Õunapuu is definitely satisfied with Chinese factories and their work ethic. ‘The elite of the Chinese industry has long ago struggled away from the reputation of low quality junk producers,’ says the designer whilst admitting that there still needs to be continuous quality control.

Although the production of Stigo takes place in China, it is not part of the Chinese economy – it’s just the location of the factory. The producer is still Stigo in Estonia who has employed Chinese labour and equipment. Tax on economic activity is paid in Estonia.

‘It is not a miracle or an anomaly − the process Stigo has gone through is actually the normal way to do it,’ claims Õunapuu. ‘Each designer should have more confidence, should be able to find a team and turn a potential idea into a product. Mass production should be contracted where the production cost is most optimal. In this sense, Estonian designers are not worse than any others. There is nothing in the world that cannot be made. One just needs to find the balance between the construction, consumer comfort, cheap production price and a great look. A favourable compromise in these conditions is a precondition for any product and also the most interesting task for the designer − to do it all without slipping onto the path of trivial commercial products.’

Today Õunapuu is tirelessly working on the future model of Stigo. In order to not lose its identity in the global commercial current, he makes sure that each Stigo scooter carries the label “Designed in Estonia”. More information on stigobike.com.

Single designer item versus mass production

Art schools usually educate artists to create single artefacts or limited editions. The design department, however, made students look towards the basic needs of homo sapiens.

A designer’s creative process has to start from point zero. The idea is to understand the need and the whole production process leading to the creation of functional consumer goods − which were very much in demand back then. Gradually the first “designer-like” products from Estonian toy and plastic goods producers started to filter into the depressing Soviet product landscape. Yet in the years that followed it became clear that designers would never be able to cooperate with the local industry.

Today several generations of designers are running on their own steam, uniting in their search for connections and to keep the status quo. In order to survive, they create clever, small items, limited editions of niche products or experimental designs. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as long as the items promote an innovative language of product design form. Will our participation in the language of global design remain a distant dream?

Perhaps not. Because an Estonian designer has created the first consumer product that has gone into mass production and is sold all around the world. Stigo is rolling along the world’s design arena.

Source: Life in Estonia

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