Jani Rämö and Liisa Ojanen are purveyors of all things weird and wonderful. Their Turku-based business, Uncle Wesley’s Thirdhand Store, specialises in bringing new life to a variety of artefacts. After following their social media presence for some time, I was lucky enough to meet with Jani and Liisa to find out more about this quirky local enterprise.
Their apartment, which currently triples as a workshop and warehouse for their online store, offers up an eclectic mix of skulls and skeletons, heart in jars, and insects and small lizards in display cases- the list of visual fascinations seems inexhaustible. While all this might sound more than a little morbid, seeing the items up-close-and-personal actually gives me the opposite feeling. These are tools for education and exploration, and can really bring something unique and strangely beautiful to a space.
Uncle Wesley’s is ultimately an interior design business, which came to life less than two years ago. Liisa says that “The idea was to make something that looks good, not just like gothic skulls and things, but really fashionable and stylish items- the kind of things that can go in different homes, not just homes that have a gothic interior.” Uncle Wesley’s also hopes to show people that there are alternatives to the current market of fast and disposable fashion. Their products are carefully handmade and built to last, and their quality craftsmanship is obvious as I admire their collection of artefacts.
While the pair have different interests and specialities- Jani has a past in death metal music and is a self-described bone collector, while Liisa has a unique background in biology and fashion design- these merge together beautifully in the form of Uncle Wesley’s. Jani explains, “It’s more about anatomy. We want to take a more anatomical or scientific view on it rather than this whole celebration-of-death type of deal. We’re not trying to be morbid- we’re actually interested in the science behind it. Of course sometimes ‘shocking’ is kind of what I like to do, because of my past in rock’n’roll, but I try to keep it out of this project.” Liisa adds, “And I try to kind of pull him back a little bit. We can meet in the middle.” Jani laughs and observes that, “Yeah, because not everything needs to have pentagrams and inverted crosses on it.”
Due to their differing backgrounds, they each take on their own roles to develop each Uncle Wesley’s product: Liisa is in charge of the design, while Jani is in charge of all the “weird shit”. In other words, she has the idea and he executes it. And there’s certainly no shortness of creativity between them, with the pair eagerly tackling any challenging commission presented to them. Some of their previous work includes a man-size carrot suit; a mic stand embraced by a full deer torso, complete with a dried pig’s heart; and a dragon skeleton (“I said yes before I even thought about it,” laughs Jani). The pair welcome commissions and relish the chance to explore their creativity.
“It seems I get the weirdest phonecalls now. ‘There’s a dead badger somewhere, do you wanna go and get it?’”
Among all of these fascinating and fantastical artefacts and designs, I’m curious if Jani and Liisa have any particular favourites. Jani points to his recently-acquired bear skull (from Finland, with required paperwork) and a British sheep skull which has four horns. Liisa says that her favourite was a display dome with 3 different cicadas, which has since been sold. However, a taxidermied armadillo called Wesley- the business’s namesake- is a clear frontrunner. He’s a long way from his original home in the United States, but since arriving in Turku he has become a part of Jani and Liisa’s family, and wins hearts everywhere he goes. (He certainly won mine.)
Both Liisa and Jani are aware that working with animal products obviously gives rise to some ethical questions, and during our meeting we talk a great deal about how they approach and deal with these. Jani explains, “We don’t want to have anything to do with endangered species, illegal hunting or animal cruelty. The main thing for us is that it needs to be legitimate and as environmentally-friendly as possible.” This means that they ensure that all products come with required paperwork, if necessary, and they generally only work with products from animals that require population control.
While the skulls and skeletons are sourced mainly from Finland, the EU or the USA, the insects and butterflies used by Uncle Wesley’s come from Asia. Liisa and Jani know for sure that none of these insect species are endangered, but say that they just have to trust the original seller’s word that the animals have been legally caught and well-handled. Liisa says, “We draw our own line [on what is ethically-acceptable] and that’s it. We love animals, and we don’t want them to suffer. So we do our research and we stand by all our decisions.”
Still, the pair are acutely aware that their line of work will not be popular with everyone, as Jani quips that Uncle Wesley’s is obviously not a store for vegans.
Jani and Liisa recently presided over the interior design for the new restaurant Kakolanruusu, and Uncle Wesley’s currently has a display case featured there. Many items exhibited in the restaurant are available for sale. “We hope that when people go to Kakolanruusu, they see these things in this really nice setting, and they see that, ‘oh cool, this looks really nice, and I can buy this for my home also!’ Because we kind of need some higher… authority, maybe… that accepts our stuff so other people can see that it’s cool”, Liisa explains.
Furthermore, the pair are hoping that the future will bring more interest in hiring out their products for events and media productions. “It might seem, when you look at the webpage, that everything has a single price on it, but we want to make it clear that if you need a bigger bunch of stuff, we can make deals and offers on it”, Jani says. Uncle Wesley’s also has a lot of items that aren’t available on the webstore. If customers are looking for something specific, it’s best to enquire about it.
Jani and Liisa use the term ‘thirdhand store’ to describe their business, and this is a reflection of their philosophy. The pair explain that ‘thirdhand’ comes from wanting to tell the stories of secondhand artefacts and give them a new life. In this vein, they use recycled materials in every aspect of their work- even the mirrors and display cabinets are made from recycled glass.
Another great example of this philosophy and process is the handbags which Liisa expertly handcrafts using secondhand leather jackets. After sourcing the jackets from fleamarkets, Liisa designs and constructs the bag using a one-off pattern. I’m particularly taken with the small details she includes, such as a photograph of the original jacket inside the bag.
It’s these extra touches of personality which really leave a lasting impression on me after I leave their apartment. This quirky local business- two people making and sharing what they love- is certainly the perfect antidote to today’s fast and disposable fashion.