the old and the new

The Artek offices in Helsinki

In September last year the Finnish furniture and design company Artek was acquired by Vitra, a Swiss company whose headquarters are in Weil am Rhein in the northern suburbs of Basel. The news was released just a few days after Microsoft bought out Nokia so there were articles in the press about the decline of Finnish industry, questioning the future for Finnish design.

In fact Artek had been controlled by Proventus, a Swedish investment company, since 1992 and so was not, strictly, Finnish owned and an article by Dan Hill for the web site Dezeen, published on the 19th September, was rather more nuanced and is worth reading as an immediate reaction to the news.

Ostensibly the acquisition of Artek appears to be promising: Vitra were quick to issue a statement on their web site to say that this was a “partnership … based on shared values” and Vitra certainly have a proven track record in producing furniture of a very high quality and they understand the ongoing appeal of classic furniture from the mid 20th century from major and well-known designers and architects. They also set out an initial aim to extend the wider international appeal of Artek, pointing out that currently 60% of Artek sales are to their home market.

Vitra was founded by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum in 1950 and is still controlled by the family so again they would appear to be an appropriate company to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of Artek ... a family controlled business right through to the 1990s. 

Initially Vitra focused on manufacturing shop fittings but from 1957 they produced furniture from the Hermann Miller Collection, under licence for the European market, including designs from Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson. In 2004 there was a deliberate move by Vitra to manufacture furniture for the home in addition to their office furniture. The company now produces pieces by major European designers including Antonio Citterio, Jean Prouvé and Jasper Morrison. 

However, their workshops are located in Weil am Rhein and Neuenburg in Germany, Allentown in the USA, Zhuhai in China and Goka in Japan so it will be interesting to see, over the next months and years, where Vitra decide to manufactures Artek furniture and to see if they maintain a separate Artek design studio in Finland or follow the trend to commission appropriate new designs from free-lance designers. 

This is relevant because the core designs from Artek were and are essentially Finnish and significantly focused on wood and on timber technology in Finland. There is a problem that companies, as they move towards global production and tighter financial control, can loose sight of the value of both high-quality production and unique or specific local or regional style. A sense of place is important.

Artek evolved from the vision and work of the singular designer and architect Alvar Aalto. Early major architectural commissions included a new Library in Viipuri and a Sanitorium in Paimio and both projects required specific furnishings that Aalto designed. Some of this furniture was exhibited in London and Milan in 1933 and Artek was founded in 1935 primarily to full fill an increasing number of orders for furniture. 

Aalto's furniture designs developed from both a clear understanding and appreciation of timber production in Finland and his practical knowledge of woodworking techniques … his father was a land surveyor and his grandfather was the chief instructor at the Evo Forestry Institute. The furniture designs Aalto produced through the 1930s show clearly the way he experimented with plywood and explored the possibilities of bending and forming birch ... the main timber from Finland"s forests.

The main Artek store in Helsinki last summer

Stool E60 designed by Alvar Aalto - two versions of the four-legged stool photographed in the Helsinki store

Through the 1950s and 1960s Aalto, with a growing International reputation, concentrated more and more on his architectural commissions - the majority of the Aalto designs for furniture produced by Artek date from the 1930s - and new designers were brought in to the company including Ilmari Tapiovarra and then Eero Aarnio, and more recently Harri Koskinen and Juha Leiviskä who expanded the range of lighting.

Ville Kokkonen has been the design director of the Artek studio since 2009.

Artek 2nd Cycle in Helsinki

Artek 2nd Cycle in Helsinki

In this century Artek has promoted its design heritage as crucial to its reputation and central to its sales and has deliberately nurtured brand loyalty. Through 2013 there were exhibitions and promotions for the 80th anniversary of Stool 60 that Aalto designed in 1933.

In 2012 Artek produced a set of simple canvas bags printed with just bold text. One stated ONE CHAIR IS ENOUGH, another TIMELESS CONTENT INSIDE and the third BUY NOW KEEP FOREVER. As mantras both for the ongoing importance of classic designs from the 20th century and for the growing focus on sustainability surely few ad agencies could do better.

Significantly, the Artek division called 2nd Cycle that acquires and then sells on old Artek furniture is on Lilla Robertsgatan in premises that are in the Helsinki Design District and is on the short walk between the main Artek store on Södera esplanaden in central Helsinki and the Design Museum further down Högbergsgatan.

In the large basement display area of 2nd Cycle there is changing stock of classic pieces from Artek but also an important reference collection of major examples of early pieces from the company so that customers and visitors can see clearly how the designs for various forms of stool, chair or table evolved.

Surely Artek have a strong future as an independent design studio adding to the reputation they have established, producing designs that build on their specific and unique Finnish heritage.

Stool 60 at 2nd Cycle

Early chairs from Artek at 2nd Cycle

An early Savoy Vase by Aalto in the reference collection at 2nd Cycle

Pirkka Stools by Ilmari Tapiovaara designed in 1955 and the Rocket Stool by Eero Aarnio from 1995 in the Helsinki store

Kanto by Pancho Nikander designed in 2004  -  building on the Artek tradition of working with plywood