A Cut Above the Rest: How Finland's Orange-Handled Scissors Inspired a Design Revolution

By Evan-amos - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Evan-amos - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Finland is home to brands like Marimekko and Artek, and has produced architects and designers like Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen. But you don’t need to go shopping or visit Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, to fully appreciate the nation’s design legacy. All you likely have to do is open a kitchen drawer, office closet, or garage toolbox and pull out a pair of orange, plastic-handled scissors.

Even if you don’t immediately recognize the maker—Fiskars Corporation, the Finnish consumer goods company—you’ve likely used these lightweight shears at least once while sewing, gardening, or wrapping presents. More than 1 billion pairs have been sold since they first hit the market in 1967, and in Finland, the word “Fiskars” is even synonymous with scissors. Their ubiquity, though, isn’t without reason: As the world’s first plastic-handled scissors, they’re considered a game-changer in the field of industrial design.

Scissors are likely thousands of years old, and were used by everyone from the ancient Egyptians to members of China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE). Fiskars itself—which was founded in 1649, in Fiskars Village, Finland—has manufactured the tools for centuries. The brand was once known for forging quality metal scissors that were used in tailoring clothes and upholstering furniture. But these tools were “quite, quite heavy,” and cumbersome to use, Jay Gillespie, the company’s vice president of marketing, tells Mental Floss.

Olof Bäckström, the Finnish industrial designer who created Fiskar's famous orange-handled scissors.
Olof Bäckström, the Finnish industrial designer who created Fiskars's famous orange-handled scissors.
Courtesy of Fiskars

This changed in the 1960s, as plastic was just starting to become a popular material. Fiskars began using the light, strong compound to make tabletops and dishes, but one of the company's industrial designers, Olof Bäckström, sensed an opportunity to completely reinvent one of the company’s signature goods. Using plastic, he created a lighter scissor handle that was curved to fit the hand, thus making them easier to hold. Ultimately, this tweak also helped make the scissors easier to manufacture, helping them become affordable to the masses.

With a single prototype, “we completely redefined a product,” Gillespie says. “Today it’s very hard to find scissors that don’t have plastic handles.”

Bäckström didn’t technically invent the concept of ergonomically designed scissors, as Fiskars had been casting similar designs in metal for years, Gillespie says. However, the designer “probably took it to the next level,” he concludes, as he “solved the problem of weight and fit.”

Fiskars scissors over the ages
Fiskars scissors over the ages
Courtesy of Fiskars

Bäckström originally wanted his scissors to be black. But at the time, Fiskars was making orange juicers from—you guessed it—orange plastic. The first prototype for plastic-handled scissors was created with plastic from a juicer that was left in a machine. Fiskars employees ended up liking this original look so much that they ultimately voted to stick with it.

Prototypes of Fiskars scissors in black and orange
Prototypes of Fiskars scissors in black and orange
Courtesy of Fiskars

Save for a few minor tweaks, like a more durable plastic handle and an improved angle, the scissors’s original design has remained largely unchanged since Bäckström’s initial stroke of genius. They eventually became so iconic that competitors began copying their look, forcing the Finnish company to trademark their signature “Fiskars Orange.” Today, Fiskars is the only brand in the world that’s allowed to manufacture orange-handled scissors in the U.S., Canada, and Finland, according to Gillespie.

For all these reasons—and to mark the product's 50th birthday in 2017—the Design Museum Helsinki has created an ongoing exhibition that celebrates the utilitarian household staple. The “Our Scissors” exhibition, which ends on October 29, features works by artists and designers who use (or simply appreciate) orange-handled scissors. They include contributions from fashion designer Tracy Reese, Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney, and other creative influencers, all of whom sing the praises of a tiny Finnish tool that ended up taking the world by storm.

"Our Scissors Exhibit," a special art collection inspired by the orange-handled scissors created by Fiskars, on display at the Helsinki Design Museum.
"Our Scissors Exhibit," a special art collection inspired by the orange-handled scissors created by Fiskars, on display at the Helsinki Design Museum.
Courtesy of Fiskars

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Remembering Sara Little Turnbull, Whose Bra Cup Design Became the N95 Mask

Design innovator Sara Little Turnbull.
Design innovator Sara Little Turnbull.
Photo Credit: © Center for Design Institute

The coronavirus pandemic has made something of a celebrity out of the N95 mask, a particle-filtering face covering that’s long been used to protect wearers from inhaling or exhaling pathogens. (The “95” refers to the fact it can block 95 percent of airborne particles.)

Like most nondescript and pervasive products, not many people stop to think about where it came from. Now, owing to the attention placed on it as a key tool in the health care professional’s fight against coronavirus, the woman behind the mask has come to the forefront. Her name is Sara Little Turnbull, and she designed what would become the N95 based on the shape of a bra cup.

A design consultant, Turnbull was working with the 3M company in 1958 in their gift wrap and fabric division when she was exposed to Shapeen, a non-woven material made of polymers and used for decorative ribbons. Turnbull was fascinated by the molded version of Shapeen and devised the first-ever pre-made bows for gift wrap.

Turnbull didn’t stop there. She saw endless possibilities in Shapeen and assembled an audience of 3M executives to present a number of ideas she had for products—more than 100 in all—using the material. At the presentation, which she titled “Why,” she impressed 3M with the scope of Shapeen's potential. The company quickly enlisted her to work on a design for a molded bra cup.

But Turnbull had another, arguably more important notion. At the time, she was taking care of three ailing family members who were under the care of doctors. Turnbull was often in a medical setting and noticed health care workers were constantly adjusting thin masks that tied in the back. She returned to 3M with the idea of using that same molded material to make a mask that would fit more comfortably on the face.

Again, 3M saw potential in Turnbull’s idea. By 1961, they introduced a non-woven lightweight medical mask based on her concept, with elastic bands instead of strings, an aluminum nose clip, and a form-fitting "bubble" shape. (The bra patent was approved in 1962.) Though innovative, the mask couldn't block pathogens for medical use and was marketed for dust filtration instead. An improved respirator hit the market in 1972 that was suitable for other industrial purposes. As the mask’s filtration evolved, so did its usefulness. In 1995, the N95 respirator was introduced in the health care field, fulfilling Turnbull's original ambition.

Though Turnbull had been relegated to a nondescript part of 3M, she had an extensive background in design, graduating from the Parsons School of Design in 1939 and later becoming the decorating editor of House Beautiful magazine. After Turnbull wrote an article taking companies to task for not designing products suitable for the end user, she was hired by 3M. As a consultant, she also collaborated with Corning, Revlon, General Mills, and Ford, among others.

After Turnbull died in 2015, the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute was formed, which offers information to the public on the value of design and supports the efforts of disadvantaged women's design education. Turnbull's vast archive of material is available to view by appointment. A foundation in her name also provides educational grants. The “Little,” incidentally, was in acknowledgment of her height. At 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Turnbull wasn’t terribly physically imposing. But her contributions were gigantic.

[h/t NPR]