Little Box Sauna Brings Nordic Design to the Mobile Sauna

The mobile sauna is popping up at the Walker Art Center this winter.

When Nordic immigrants first came to Minnesota, they brought their sauna culture with them. By the late 20th century, it wasn’t unusual for Twin Cities homes to have a sauna in the basement. But while saunas remain common in northern Minnesota, they have mostly disappeared from the area—until recently. Over the past several years, a group of sauna enthusiasts have popped up in Minnesota, including Sauna Times founder Glenn Auerbach; 612 Sauna Society’s John Pederson; Andrea J. Johnson, architect and faculty member at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, and Molly Reichert, designer and senior instructor at Dunwoody’s Technical College.

(Bruce Silcox)

Five years ago, Reichert worked with some friends to build a sauna shanty for the Art Shanty Project, which they dubbed the TönöSauna. Then came Little Box Sauna, a mobile sauna created by Reichert and architect Andrea J. Johnson in 2015 as an experimental creative placemaking project through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was awarded through Bloomington arts organization, Artistry. Reichert and Johnson partnered with Radisson Blu, Mall of America, and Ikea on the building of the sauna, which first appeared outside the Mall of America before traveling to Ikea, Como Park in St. Paul, downtown Minneapolis, and this February, the Walker Art Center.

We talked with Andrea Johnson, who now runs Little Box and has been working with the Walker on the upcoming event, about the inception of the mobile sauna and the process of designing it.

Little Box Sauna at Radisson Blu Mall of America. Photo by Bruce Silcox

How did the Little Box Sauna project come together?

Molly and I proposed creating a public mobile sauna for Artistry’s 2014 call for creative placemaking projects in Bloomington’s South Loop. We were awarded the project in December of 2014, to be designed, built, and rolled out by February of 2015. This was a very quick turnaround for a project like this! But with our teamwork, [lead builder and Andrea’s father] Chris Johnson’s dedication, many volunteers, and the program and sponsor support, we made it happen. It was in Bloomington for the project in February and March, first at Radisson Blu Mall of America, then at Ikea.

How did you partner with Radisson Blu, Mall of America, and Ikea?

Part of the program’s requirements was for project teams to gain the support of local businesses, so the project could truly be connected to the community and strengthen relationships among diverse constituents. Mall of America and Ikea agreed to support our project by hosting the sauna at their locations in Bloomington. The Artistry/National Endowment for the Arts award was for $20,000, which is wonderful, yet Molly and I wanted to create something that was large enough to hold at least eight to 10 people at a time and a changing room so it could truly be mobile and work as a social activator. We also wanted to create something lasting that could continue to be used and not go to waste as landfill or scrap material. The size and quality needs required a larger budget, and Mall of America and Ikea both contributed funds to cover costs. Ikea also provided some of their products that fit nicely with Little Box’s design, and Radisson Blu contributed t-shirts and shorts so the public could pop in and take a sauna without having to bring their swimming suits.

Little Box Sauna at Radisson Blu Mall of America. Photo by Bruce Silcox

What inspired or informed the design of the Little Box Sauna? Was it based off of any previous mobile sauna designs, or was it a combination of sources?

After the project was awarded, Molly and I convened a group of designers and sauna enthusiasts for an informal evening of charrettes and discussions around questions of what could be possible with a mobile sauna. This was a great springboard for launching into the concept design and refine that along with all the project logistics. We looked at all the mobile sauna designs we could find, from plastic bubbles on the back of bikes to individual inflatable pods to floating boxes on platforms—I’m sure we derived a lot of inspiration from these different sources, but we also gave a nod to old-timey travel trailers that expressed directionality and movement or speed with slight angle shifts at the front and rear. The front undercut is made under the front sauna benches to reduce material where space isn’t needed, and the back angle helps give the feeling of more room in the changing area. The roof slopes away from the center joint that actually splits so that the changing room and sauna room can be taken off the trailer separately. The interior ceiling follows the same slopes, reinforcing the warm feeling of wood wrapping across all surfaces. We incorporated two windows into the sauna so people could feel connected to their surroundings while in the hot room and allow for light to play into the space through the exterior wood slats.

The interior of Little Box Sauna. Photo by Bruce Silcox

How big is the sauna?

The sauna is about eight feet and six inches wide by 20 feet long and nine feet high, and with the trailer it’s 11 feet and ten inches high. About half of it is the hot room and the other half is the entry and changing area. The sauna room comfortably fits about eight to 10 adults at a time for a good sauna experience. Together with the trailer it weighs five tons. The sauna uses a propane heater to be truly portable and environmentally friendly, and allow the sauna to go to city locations where wood burning would be prohibited by regulations.

How did the partnership with the Walker come about?

Public programs manager Jacqueline Stahlmann reached out, and we have been working together on developing the sauna programming and Little Box installation for the #Winter at the Walker events. I will be the lead host for the sauna for its month at the Walker. I’ve had an interest in saunas and just generally being warm since growing up in cold South Dakota, but my interest really sparked when living in NYC, where my friends and I would regularly go to the Russian Turkish Baths in the East Village. I always looks for a bath house to visit when traveling. I’ve experienced incredible banyas throughout Russia and saunas in Helsinki, hammams in Istanbul, and onsen in Japan. Little Box was my first sauna design-build project, and I continue to design and consult on custom sauna and bath house projects, both mobile and fixed.

Little Box Sauna pops up at the Walker Art Center from Feb. 8–March 4. Reserve a sauna at the Walker at walkerart.org. Tickets are $20 a person for a 90-minute session or $300 for group rentals. For more information about Little Box Sauna, visit littleboxsauna.com

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