Business is booming for the Moomins – but they didn’t do it by selling out.
Sophia Jansson, niece of Moomin creator Tove Jansson, tells us about an unlikely renaissance
(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2013. Photography by Liz Mcburney)
Moominpappa and Moominmamma never worried about money because, in Moominvalley, life is about so much more than that. Yet the characters first created by Tove Jansson in 1945 now help to create rather a lot of it, making the Moomins one of Finland’s less likely business success stories of the past decade.
Oy Moomin Characters Ltd, the company behind the brand, has doubled in size in the past five years, growing for 60 consecutive quarters. After 40 per cent growth in 2012, it currently pulls in more than half a billion US dollars in retail sales. Finnish magazine Talouselämä has called it the country’s most cost-effective business.
Business has certainly changed since the 1950s, when Tove Jansson and her brother Lars set up the Oy Moomin company to deal with the requests that were flooding in to make Moomin dolls and other products on the back of what was already becoming one of Finland’s best-loved literary creations. The nine original books and the comic strip that ran from 1954-1975 have now been translated into 45 languages; Moomin animations have run everywhere from Germany to Poland, Japan and Russia; and the brand extends from original songs to stage shows, a museum and the Moomin World theme park in Naantali, near Turku.
The carefree and adventurous hippo-like creatures are so ingrained in Finnish culture that former president Tarja Halonen was nicknamed Moominmamma, not just because of the Moominmamma bag she carried around – and yet it’s only been in the last five years that the business success of the Moomins has come close to matching their popularity. The turnaround has been led by Lars’s daughter and Tove’s niece, Sophia Jansson, who joined her family business in 1997 and took charge in 2005. In 2008 she employed managing director Roleff Kråkström, the former marketing director at WSOY, Finland’s largest publisher, who set about coming up with a plan for the brand.
“We knew it needed to be more professional,” Sophia tells me when we meet at Oy Moomin’s modest HQ on the Helsinki waterfront, around a table spread with colourful sweets and biscuits. “For a lot of the time the Moomins were being created, Tove and Lars made the corrections themselves; they haggled with publishers themselves. They were bad at saying no, but it was too much for them, and everything was being managed by touch and feel. In the long run, it wouldn’t have worked.”
When Sophia joined the company as director of artwork in 1997, it was in the wake of a resurgence of a resurgence of interest in the Moomins – what Finns call the muumibuumi (Moomin Boom) – prompted by a wildly popular 1990 animation that was shown in 60 countries, as well as the opening of Moomin World in 1993. Disney were interested in the brand, and its artwork was proliferating wildly. The obvious thing seemed to be to ride the wave – but Sophia did the opposite.
“In the 1990s, there was this great mix of Moomintrolls drawn by different people,” she says of a time when the ageing Tove and Lars were playing more of a backseat role in the company. “Some of it was hideous and I didn’t want to see these great works turn into a cheap, nasty brand.” One of her first moves was to remove unacceptable pictures (Tove was said to have been appalled by a Moomin holding a gun in one Japanese animation) and to draw up a style guide, which decreed among other things that all Moomintrolls should be white rather than coloured.
After Lars and Tove’s deaths, in 2000 and 2001 respectively, Sophia went further and insisted that all Moomin merchandise only feature Tove Jansson’s original artwork. “We wanted Tove to be remembered by her original vision,” she says.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, that seems to have been good business sense, not least in waking up the adult consumers who now make up half of all Moomin sales. “We’re criticised for being old-fashioned, but that’s the quality that sets us apart,” explains manging director Kråkström, who currently oversees more than 400 Moomin licensees around the world. “There are lots of literary characters and books, but very few have remained so true to themselves – many have sold out to big entertainment monsters. There’s this idea that books are disappearing; that all the illustrations should be 3D. But that’s not true. And increasingly, especially among the world’s growing middle class, there’s an interest in looking back at things that are more durable, whether it’s Burberry, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. We’re still a family business and we’ve had the same agent since the 1950s – that’s comforting for people, and it adds value.”
Another advantage is that, in many countries, three generations have grown up reading about and watching the Moomins. Japan, which still accounts for more than 30 per cent of all sales, has been reading the translated comic strips since the 1950s, and the country’s first Moomin animation in 1969 was one of the first cartoons in its soon-to-be-famous anime industry (Hayao Miyazaki, famous for Spirited Away, worked on it). In Soviet Russia, some of the Moomin books were mandatory reading in schools, while Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin and co also starred in a Soviet cut-out animation that ran from 1980-’83.
It’s a serious history, and Jansson had to suffer stinging criticism that she’d committed sacrilege by turning the Moomins into a streamlined business. “People said, ‘How dare you commercialise this heritage?’ I had to think about it, but I have no doubts now. First and foremost, it’s about keeping the books alive – it’s not evident to me that the books wouldn’t have been forgotten. We’re reprinting and translating works all the time, which shows that people are interested in the original works – not just mugs and candy.”
For Sophia, the whole business is deeply bound up with family, as the Moomins were to Tove, who based some of the characters on her family life (Moominmamma was based on her mother, and Tuu-ticki on her partner Tooti). Having lost her mother aged six, Sophia grew up with her father Lars, her paternal grandmother, her aunt Tove and Tove’s partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, known to the family as Tooti. The family were all artists in some way or other, and all distinguished in their own right – Lars had published a book aged 15; Sophia’s grandmother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was the daughter of a priest to the Swedish king, had founded Sweden’s girl guides and was married to famous Finnish sculptor Viktor Jansson, who died in 1958.
“After my mother died, the family all made a special effort with me,” Sophia says of her bohemian upbringing, with summers spent on the Pellinge islands 80km east of Helsinki, where the family bought houses to escape an increasingly intrusive media and public. “A lot of what was there in the Moomins was there in my life, though I didn’t recognise it then. The most important value was to care for your loved ones and there was an emphasis on enjoying life: books, films and nice, funny things. It was about being an individual and seeing beauty in little things.”
Tove was an artist and illustrator as early as the 1930s, designing postcards and drawing cartoons for Swedish satirical magazine Garm (one depicted Hitler as a baby, being fed cake by Neville Chamberlain). She wrote and illustrated the first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, after the war, disillusioned and determined to write something defiantly unpolitical. But it was a comic strip for London newspaper Evening News in 1954 that made her famous, not least as she was said to be Europe’s first female cartoonist.
By the time Sophia was born in 1962, Lars had taken over writing and illustrating the cartoons, which he did until the last strip in 1975, as Tove became increasingly reluctant to embrace her burgeoning fame. Tove also wrote novels and short stories for adults, and painted her whole life, exhibiting her early impressionist and later modernist works in seven solo exhibitions.
Sophia says she grew up with little sense of who her aunt was. “I increasingly speak about her as a public figure. But growing up, I had no idea of her public persona. Only now do I realise how extraordinary and unique she was.” Sophia says her aunt was “friendly, funny sharp and loving. She could be verbally direct and distant if she didn’t like you, but she was always nice to me.”
As a teenager, it also dawned on Sophia that her aunt was gay. “It was suddenly, ‘Shit, she lives with a woman,’ but at the same time it never seemed that important. Tove didn’t flaunt it, because until 1972 it was a crime to be gay in Finland, but she wasn’t hyper-concerned about not showing it, either.”
As for Sophia, she wanted to travel more than be an artist. “I had a go at painting and writing but I felt daunted by the artists in my family. Tove said you have to do things you’d die if you didn’t do – and it wasn’t a do-or-die thing.” Instead she wanted to escape “bleak 1970s Finland”. She went to the States as a teenager, then to Spain for four years, where she met her husband and moved to London for the next eight years, importing glasses frames. After Lars had been diagnosed with cancer in 1997, he proposed that the now-divorced Sophia move to Helsinki with her two sons and work for the family business. “It wasn’t my first choice initially,” she admits. “Though when I came back and started working with the Moomins, it didn’t seem to be an option to let someone else do this.”
The Sophia I meet is an open interviewee and has a twinkle in her eyes that you suspect is a Jansson trait. But through the warm, bohemian side, I sense a steely character, even if she insists that Kråkström is the business genius. “It’s a fine balance between the heritage and staying commercial,” she says. “And though the company keeps growing, we know it can’t be forever – most things are cyclical. The challenge is to keep it alive, but we have the big advantage of having all these wonderful books with such
Though her role is to keep the Moomin brand alive, she admits she also does it in part for the family. “I do hope, if they’re on some cloud, they’re proud of me.”