Shoe philosophy

November 2014

She takes her cues from architecture rather than fashion and sees shoes as chairs – and is praised by Manolo Blahnik. Julia Lundsten has become somewhat a cult name in the world of shoe design.

If you’ve encountered her designs, you will remember them; lauded ‘exquisite’ and ‘divine’ by Manolo Blahnik, Julia Lundsten’s design aesthetic is not for the faint-hearted. Her boldest signature shoes resemble buildings, not footwear, but staying true to the Nordic pragmatism she claims one can actually walk in them, too.

I met Julia in her studio in central London to talk about the philosophy behind her distinctive style. (At that point I was blissfully unaware of the ‘practical’ part of this interview. Had I known what was about to come, I would have worn more presentable socks – and practised walking in heels; something I, at a dash under 6ft,  have never had the courage nor need to do.)

Hello Julia, and thanks for having the time to meet us. You’ve said in a previous interview that a shoe is like a chair. What do you mean by this?

When I start designing a shoe and especially its heel,  I think of the structure first. Material, shape, details and colour follow after that. For me, the heel is similar to the legs of a chair, and the sole is where you sit. It’s all about functionality.

Where else do you draw inspiration from than interior design?

I grew up in an architecture family, which is a big influence. On every holiday we would go and look at the buildings, and that’s stayed as a habit of mine. I don’t consciosuly think about architecture as a source of inspiration, it comes naturally to me. I look at how a roof is attached to a wall, for example, and how that could be applied to a heel on a shoe. All those tiny details fascinate me. And then of course the bigger picture, lines and forms of buildings. I like clean lines. Nature is also strongly present in what I do.

Do architecture and nature also influence your materials?

I love wood and leather. My style is fairly graphic, so I try to balance that with softer and more natural materials. This contrast with the material and form is intriguing.

It’s funny how nature always comes up when talking to Nordic, and especially Finnish, creatives.

It’s probably almost inevitable, considering that most of us have grown up in the middle of or very near nature. Imagine growing up in London…you would not see a lot of nature. Parks yes, but not real nature.

What do you think about the skyline of London? Any inspiring architectural gems?

I do like it. Lot of the newest buildings are great, but what appeals to me the most are the vast open spaces such as Hyde Park or Regent’s Park. You don’t get similar open spaces in Helsinki. I’m also drawn to all the crazy buildings in the City.

Sometimes crazy or ugly can be beautiful, or at least interesting. Which architects do you admire?

Eero Saarinen and his lines, of course, but the traditional Japanese style is my current favourite. Names like Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito, both have a fairly graphic style but they’ve started using more natural materials. This is especially admirable these days, when you can artificially produce anything. Big is not always beautiful.

Does this thinking affect your design philosophy?

All my products have to be ethically sustainable and have longevity – not only in the sense of quality but also style. I don’t care about quickly changing trends. I’m personally involved in every stage of the manufacturing process; it’s important that everybody else involved is also excited and proud.

 What was it about shoes that enthralled you so much that you decided to dedicate your life to them?

I have a degree actually in Fashion Design [LCF] but when I worked on a project that involved shoes, I was drawn to the structural element and went on to do an MA in Footwear at the RCA. With clothes, the form changes according to whoever is wearing the design, but with shoes the form stays. I wanted to work in fashion but concentrate on the stucture – the answer was shoes.

 So there’s a little engineer in you as well?

I guess I’m a bit of a geek in that sense!

There’s an abundance of compelling stories and anecdotes about footwear throughout the history; from Henri VIII’s colossal 6 inches wide soles to Alexander McQueen’s infamous armadillo heels. Does the cultural history of the shoe inspire you?

Absolutely, and especially the different processes of making shoes. I’ve been studying a lot about how inuits manufacture shoes; how they bite the skins to make it softer and sow the piece together in a very specific stitch – and bite the leather to make sure it’s waterproof.

Chinese women used to bind their feet for centuries to appear upper class and more petite. I guess feet have often represented something bigger than just body parts, especially to women – and they still do?

The belief that small feet are beautiful influences my work, too. My heels are quite substantial, but I use, for example, diagonal lines to make them look delicate. I like the challenge; how to make a big shoe or feet seem less heavy. My main purpose is, however, to make shoes that are easy to walk in, and which make you feel strong and confident – the opposite of foot binding.

You are empowering women through their feet?

Precisely. I want my shoes to make the woman feel good, not just look good in the eyes of others.

Your brand, FINSK, is nearly ten years old. How have you evolved as a designer since the beginning?

I’ve had my ups and downs, and a lot has been tried, tested and learnt. The most important thing is that I’ve managed to stay completely true to myself, which isn’t always easy in pursuit of commercial success. Of course I’ve tweaked some details in order to market my designs, but I’ve avoided any major compromises. Our ten year anniversary party will follow next year!

We are looking forward to that. Thanks, Julia!

(In case you were wondering what happened in the practical part of this interview: I tried on Julia’s most extravagant heels and fell down like timber. The shoes looked and felt amazing nevertheless.)