The slogan of Susanna Ahvonen’s YoDa yoga studio is simply: "do more of what makes you happay". It could just as well be her personal motto. We sit in the back room of her Marimekko shop, surrounded by bright swatches of fabric and interesting things, and she tells me her life story, a vibrant and thoroughly entertaining patchwork of anecdotes. Still, the motto runs like an unbreakable thread through its twists and turns: quietly determined, and unshakeably positive.
As a child in Vienna in the 1970s, Susanna Ahvonen was sure that what she wanted to be when she grew up was an architect - albeit for different reasons than most. "My parents’ friend was an architect. He had a very cool apartment, empty with a desk in the middle, and on it was a roll of aqua fix sketch paper. I was fascinated by this aqua fix, I loved drawing on it, I loved everything about it, I loved the noise it made when he tore it off along the edge of his triangular ruler. I loved his drawing tools and the clean, tidy white desk – I just knew I must get a job where you had a desk like that. I never considered doing anything else.”
The family returned to Finland, and on completing school Ahvonen applied to the Helsinki University department of architecture. There were 50 places for 2000 applicants; she didn’t get in. Undaunted, she studied maths, practised drawing for a year and re-applied; again she was refused. This time, she looked around for somewhere she could study without an entrance exam and found that Graz would have been possible, if only she had not missed the deadline for enrolling. Having discovered that the TU Rector’s wife was Finnish, she jumped on a train, and, leaving her suitcase in a locker at Graz station, went straight round to his house. She signed the enrolment papers at the kitchen table.
It was not the end of the chapter, however – after a year at Graz, she tried once again for architecture at Helsinki University, just to see whether she could. This time she was accepted, and decided to transfer. To make matters more complicated, she had in the meantime met her future husband (she is married to Markus Pernthaler). She spent a few years commuting between countries until she arrived back in Graz, for good. By then, she had graduated and already had some experience of working – in Finland, students are allowed to take part in competitions independently.
For the next 15 years Ahvonen mainly worked freelance, doing a mixture of small commissions and interior design in a Scandinavian style. Although she admits that juggling three children and work was not always easy, she enjoyed it. For women especially, however, working from home can be a double-edged sword: “one is working ‘never and always’ – home and work lives spread into one another and mingle, and it’s frustrating,“ she says. “I longed just to lock a door and go home at 6.”
Shortly after her 40th birthday came the turning point, a “sudden event, not gradual”. As a present she had been given a week’s holiday of fasting and walking: “On the third day, everything suddenly became clear. I wanted to do something else, not because I was unhappy, or not earning, but I just wanted a change.” She weighed up the possibilities. She had already worked successfully in Austria using Scandinavian products, and thought, Why not sell them here?
“I am the sort of person who strikes while the iron is hot – as soon as I have had the idea I see it through, I don’t waiver and complicate things. I rang Marimekko, I met them a week later, I found a site – the whole process took a few months, ruckzuck.” This happened in 2005. A few years later she moved the shop into larger premises, where she could also have an office (with a tidy white desk) from which to run her interior design service.
Yet while the shop gave her the opportunity for the communication and interaction she felt was missing from working at home, it also demanded a constant charm that - day in, day out - began to grate: “I am not a professional saleswoman”, says Ahvonen with a smile. She did not want to give up the shop, but decided it was time to find some balance, something with a different focus.
In 2011 she spent a rainy Easter in Opatija, walking the beach and wondering what to do. One morning, looking to escape a room full of bored teenaged daughters, she fled to the hotel yoga session. Within 5 minutes it was clear to her that she had found the solution. She came home and signed up for training as a yoga teacher within days: “As I might have mentioned, I am a woman of action!”
Soon after completing the training, she was parking her car near Marimekko and noticed removal men coming out of what had been the TU Graz kindergarten. She went in, called the estate agent, and signed the contract within the hour. “It was the ideal space. I thought, It’s a sign, under my nose, I have to do it. Only later did I start worrying.”
During her yoga training she had visited many studios - usually, she says, “very ugly, full of pseudo-spiritual eso-kitsch.” She decided she wanted to create a positive, neutral space - something that went well with the clarity of Marimekko designs. And the Marimekko philosophy too, as Ahvonen points out - their slogan being “Marimekko makes everyday life more beautiful”.
“Make everyday life more beautiful”: a down-to-earth motto that also aptly reflects Ahvonen’s bold, straightforward approach - and not just as an architect and designer. As she puts it, “Much has changed since I studied architecture, the technology is completely different, I have moved away from that side of it. But my attitude as an architect continues, and it flows into the yoga and also into all of the other areas of life.”