Chair 406 by Alvar Aalto 1939

 

Alvar Aalto produced several variations on the design of the Paimio cantilever chair of 1932 including versions with upholstered or padded seat and back. Chair 406 - designed in 1939 -  is interesting because Aalto reused the design of the cantilevered bentwood frame from the earlier Paimio cantilevered chair but with webbing woven across the frame for the seat and back rest rather than moulded plywood.

This seems to acknowledge the limitations when it was still only possible to curve plywood in one plane … so forming what is, in effect, a scroll shape along the length to form a seat that then curves up to form the back from a single piece of plywood but without also being able to scoop or hollow out the profile across the width of the seat.

The main part of the cantilevered frame of the 406 is a simple elongated H (172cm by 57cm) in laminated wood with the uprights of the H bent to form the runners, the front supports, arm rests and short uprights on either side of the back rest. These main lengths are rectangular in cross section - 1 inch by 2¼ inches (25mm x 57mm) and set flat for maximum strength and flexibility. The crossbar of the H supports the seat and the frame thins down immediately above that cross bar where the curves are tighter and slightly more flexibility is required.

A simple and separate rectangular frame (110cm by 46cm) for the webbing, is bent to a shallow curved shape that forms the seat and the back rest of the chair. The webbing is two inches wide and is taken across the frame and returned underneath and round and nailed or, in the modern chairs, stapled onto the inward facing edge of the frame.

The only other piece of timber is a stretcher, fixed across the back with screws, just above the seat to keep the side pieces of the frame a consistent distance apart and parallel where otherwise they could be forced inwards with the weight of a person sitting in the chair pressing down into the webbing and potentially moving the sides together.

There are remarkably few points of contact between these two parts - between the side frames and the frame of webbing that forms the seat and back and with the pronounced cantilever it reinforces the impression of the seat being suspended in space. Where the seat rests across the cross bar there are long screws - one on each side - that are countersunk and fix the seat frame in place from below and at the top of the arm rests, where the side frames are nearly vertical and running parallel to the back rest, they are fixed together with, I presume, hidden or blind dowels rather than taking a bolt or screw through to link the pieces.

The cross bar of the H-shaped frame and the corners of the frame of the seat / back are fixed with simple butted joins that are glued and again there must be hidden dowels through to fix and hold square the separate pieces. This form of construction is simple and honest and takes straightforward skills, with the holes drilled and controlled by jigs or patterns, but cabinetmaking skills are not required. The form and construction of the chair reflects honestly that it was designed to be made in a factory system rather than in a cabinetmakers' workshop.

details of the frame - from the top, the front of the seat from the side and from above and the front edge of the seat from underneath to show there is a single countersunk screw on each side to fix the seat to the crossbar of the frame

 

That does not stop this being a sophisticated and elegant chair. The design has a clarity and deceptive simplicity with precise curves and the angles of the front and arm rests giving the chair a much less angular profile than the comparable Bauhaus chairs in tube metal … so, for instance, the seat is not simply folded but rises up slightly towards the front and then dips down slightly once over the cross bar and the top bar of the back rest is gently curved.

There are clear contrasts with Danish furniture. The 406 has a good sitting position with high back support but it is not a chair in which to move around and, although the design is good looking and dramatic, it is certainly not to be seen from the back.

It is a relatively light chair that weighs just 6 kilograms - although, for comparison, the Wishbone Chair by Hans Wegner weighs just 4 kilograms. In some ways Chair 406 is similar to but not strictly comparable with the Safari Chair - because it does not fold - but it is light and informal and is certainly good for use on a terrace or balcony although, with the webbing, obviously not weather proof.

 

Alvar Aalto Paimio Sanatorium

 

This small exhibition - described by Designmuseum Danmark as a "pop-up exhibition" - is based around two chairs from the permanent collection - Armchair No 42 and the Paimio Chair - also known as The Ring Chair - designed by Alvar Aalto and both used in the Paimio Sanatorium. The hospital in south-west Finland designed by Aalto was built specifically for the treatment of patients with tuberculosis - and was completed in 1933.

The chairs are displayed with historic photographs and copies of drawings that have been selected to show how important the hospital was and to put those two chairs in context.

Aalto was born in February 1898 so he was four years older than Arne Jacobsen. The exhibition does not compare directly the work of the two architects but there are marked and very important similarities. They grew up and then studied as architects in a period of massive social, political and economic changes in Europe and in a period that saw rapid advances in technology and industrial production that had a huge impact on architecture and furniture design. Political changes were more dramatic for Aalto because Finland only emerged as a nation, independent from both Sweden and Russia, in 1918 after a revolution.

 

Both architects, through the 1920s and through their first commissions, absorbed and readily adapted their designs to building in the relatively new material of concrete and the new techniques of construction that went with that material … so generally buildings with piers in concrete that supported concrete floors and, as a consequence, with freedom to experiment with external and internal walls that were no longer load bearing and with few restrictions in terms of height in buildings that could be constructed quickly.

Crucially, both architects worked on all aspects of a project … so not just the plan and structure of a building but all details of windows, door handles, light fittings and, for both men, designs for furniture.

They each achieved a uniform aesthetic in their buildings, and that was important, but it was also driven by the need for efficiency and an attempt to rationalise construction and manage costs - to produce as much as possible off site and to reduce the number of variations and options for the same reasons … so what became important was how they put together the parts and that was determined by function and not a hierarchy of fittings as in so many public and domestic buildings before the 20th century.

 

Here, in this exhibition, the two chairs show how Aalto was at the forefront of technical developments in furniture manufacture. His grandfather was a forester and taught at the Evo Forest Institute south of Tampere and Aalto himself developed a specific technique of cutting down into a length of squared-off timber, interlayering with thin slips of wood inserted into the cuts and with glue and steam bending and formed the timber for the frame for chairs and tables and other furniture.

He was one of the first designers to exploit and develop the use of plywood which again was bent - rather than used as flat sheets - to create a continuous surface for the seat and back of a chair but he also extended the bend or curve of the plywood to form a rounded support for the head and a rounded support for the back of the legs.

It is important to look carefully to see how the plywood shell of the seat and back and the bent-wood frame are joined together - with lugs or tabs in strategic positions on the edge of the plywood that fit into slots in the frame - and how crossbars link the frame on each side but also support the plywood at critical points.

 

Because of its topography and climate, Finland does not have the variety of native timbers for furniture making and house building that are found in Sweden and Denmark so the form of the chairs is not an odd whim of aesthetics but was necessary to be able to use native rather than imported timber - to do what was possible with native birch - a relatively small tree.

And the design of the chairs - and the distinct features of the building - reflect the nature of the disease treated at the hospital.

Tuberculosis was a contagious disease that effected the lungs but could also infect bones and the nervous system. By the early 20th century it was the cause of death of 7,200 people a year in Finland or about 13% of mortality year on year in the country.

When the hospital opened, treatment was based around providing patients with good nutrition and bed rest in the early stages of the disease and then with sun and fresh air although bright light and noise effected many sufferers badly.

The chairs are relatively low and long so the sitting position is close to reclining and the bent-wood frame and plywood provide a level of flexibility for long periods sitting in the sun or fresh air. The construction in wood was lighter than anything comparable that used tubular steel, so the chairs could be turned easily to be angled towards the sun and they were not upholstered to reduce contamination. Note that the Paimio Chair has narrow horizontal slits cut through the head rest so that air could circulate around the face.

The first private Sanatorium in Finland was opened in 1895 and the first owned by a federation of municipalities opened in 1914 but after passing a Tuberculosis Act in 1929 eight large sanatoriums were constructed with total of 2,500 beds and Paimio was the last to be completed in 1933 for 296 beds for patients from 52 municipalities including the city of Turku with an allocation of 100 beds. Because tuberculosis was contagious, the hospitals were generally set in countryside away from towns … the Sanatorium at Paimio was 20 kilometres east of Turku set in an area of woodland.

With the discovery of anti biotics, it became possible to alleviate and then control the spread of the disease and in 1960 the sanatorium buildings were modified and converted for use as a general hospital.

 

The exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen continues until 21 January 2018

 

note:

comments on this post were received today (19 February 2018) and, because these were interesting and raised some important points, it was worth posting a longer reply that has been posted on Copenhagen architecture & design news as an update

Webbing

the woven seat of the Shaker chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

In 1942, when the cabinetmakers Rud. Rasmussem made a close copy of a Shaker rocking chair, the webbing for the seat, imitating the original, was woven by Lis Ahlmann but the chair did not go into production and, just two years later, when Hans Wegner designed a rather more free interpretation of the Shaker rocking chair to be made for FDB - the Danish Co-op - paper cord was used for the seat.

webbing on traditional upholstery - both chairs  in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

Red Chair by Kaare Klint

Chair by Børge Mogensen

 

 

Webbing had been used as the support for traditional upholstery through the late 19th and early 20th century as the first layer that was stretched and fixed over the seat frame to support some form of padding that was then covered with fabric or leather.

Webbing was used on its own for the seats of some Danish chairs in the 1920s and 1930s - one good example being the chairs designed by Edvard Thomsen for the Søndermarken crematorium in 1927 - but as paper cord became popular in the 1940s, linen or canvas webbing became much less common.

Hans Wegner used webbing for the seat and back of the Pincer Chair from 1956 and the recliner JH613 (above) and the designer Finn Østergaard, who graduated from the Furniture Department of the School of Arts and Craft in 1975, produced a range of armchairs and high-backed chairs with woven webbing across the seat and back.

Generally, webbing works best with a square or a rectangular seat … it can be difficult to keep the tension even and webbing does stretch more than paper cord with use … and, certainly, webbing cannot be used with the complex joinery of many of the chairs designed by Hans Wegner whereas he could take cord across curved seat frames or around spindles or down through slots that were cut to take the cord around arm supports or the mortices and thin splats of chair backs.

Webbing was used more widely in other Scandinavian countries and by several prominent designers … so in Sweden, by Bruno Mathsson (below) and in Finland by Alvar Aalto.

detail of the webbing on a bentwood chair by Alvar Aalto

Chair 406

 

The traditional Shaker webbing - unbleached and a deep cream or buff colour - looks good with Danish oak so it is a pity that it has not been used more often as an alternative to cord for more straightforward dining chairs.

 

Shaker style webbing bought from America to recover a chair and photographed on the seat of a Wishbone Chair

 

Bentwood furniture by Alvar Aalto

Chair 42 1932

 

Perhaps the designer most strongly associated with bent wood for furniture is the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Many of his designs dating from the 1930s are still produced by Artek.

 

Armchair 44 1932 - Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen

Armchair 400 1936 - modern version, Artek Helsinki

Trolley 900 1936

Trolley 901 1936 - 2nd Cycle, Helsinki

Shelf 112 1936

Chair 406 1939

the cost of good design - the value of good design

 

A friend opened a design store in England selling Nordic furniture and there was usually a group of the stools designed by Alvar Aalto in the window or close to the door - the Stool 60 that was designed in 1933 and still produced by Artek.

Several times when I was in the shop, people came in, the stools would attract their attention, there would be a comment, maybe about the attractive colours, and then they would look at the price tag. Invariably the reaction was the same and the wording almost predictable … “WHAT” …. “I’m not paying that for a stool. I can buy exactly the same stool from IKEA for virtually nothing.”

The customer is always right and it was not my shop so I said nothing but every time wanted to say … “Yes. You can get a cheap stool in IKEA but it’s not this stool and surely you can see the difference.” 

I told the story to another friend and showed him the two stools from Artek that I have and tried to explain why there was no comparison. Next time he went to IKEA he bought a Frosta stool for me as a present … and a joke.

The Frosta stool in the UK is £8 and a Stool 60 by Artek is about £200 - depending on the colour and finish. This was a challenge. There is a huge difference between the two stools but is the stool from Finland better than the stool from IKEA by a factor of 25?

 

Stool 60 was a groundbreaking design that came from Aalto’s understanding of wood and carpentry techniques and his understanding of the specific qualities of local timbers … his grandfather had been a chief instructor at the Evo Forestry Institute. The design exploits a specific technique developed by Aalto himself where, in order to bend wood, he made a series of vertical cuts in the top, inserted thin sheets of ply and glue before steaming the wood and bending it to shape. It could be bent at a sharp curve but would retain that shape with the same strength as the main solid-timber part of the leg. Normally legs would be housed into a frame on the underside of the seat but with the Stool 60 the bent legs are screwed directly to the underside of the seat so that it does not need the skill of a cabinet maker to form a circular frame and housings or joints for the legs which, if badly made are a weak point. This makes the stools light and strong and the arrangement of the three legs meant they were more stable on an uneven floor and could be stacked … a distinct benefit when using the stools as temporary seating in the schools and libraries that Aalto was working on as an architect

The stool was robust and was designed to last and last it did. It became a standard item found in many Finnish homes and it was passed down in families from generation to generation. They were painted different colours over the years and personalised so most Finnish families have a Stool 60 - much as many Danish families have a PH5 lamp. That’s really how a design should become an icon. Not the easy way by being declared to be iconic by a design magazine or an advertising department.

 

As to the Frosta. To make it much easier to produce and much cheeper to produce, the legs are cut from a sheet of plywood and then bent at the top. That is why the bottom of the leg is rounded off … to try to stop the plywood splitting where it is cut across … and that is also why, when you look at it, the whole leg is slightly bent or warped and certainly gives or flexes when anyone sits on it. The proportions are thin … slightly mean … and I really can’t imagine anyone passing this down through the family … if it lasted that long. But then IKEA would argue that for that price, what more could you expect.

And before someone who is too clever for their own good points it out … I do know that with the IKEA stool, for the money, you even get an extra leg. 

alternatives to Stool 60

 

Stools by Arne Jacobsen at a flea market in Copenhagen

There are alternatives to the Stool 60 but few are actually that much cheaper. 

One option is to buy second hand … so at the moment Abel Sloane of 1934, the English dealer in mid-century furniture, has three stools for £200 that were customised by a previous owner in that distinctly 60s colour of what I think was called Burnt Orange. Or in flea markets in Denmark you can find the metal and wood version designed by Arne Jacobsen called the Dot Stool. 

 

Stacking stool by Hans Wegner photographed in Designmuseum Danmark

 

Hans Wegner had a go at designing a comparable stool but for me this is one of his few oddly awkward and unsuccessful designs … far from the stark and completely rational form of the Stool 60 … but I’m not sure how many were made or how often it appears in auctions.

There are modern versions of the stool. Normann make the Tapp Stool for 1,299 Kroner - about £126 - and the interesting stool from Hay, with angled metal legs and a cork seat, is 999 Kroner or just under £100.

 

Tapp Stool from Normann

Stool from Hay

design classic: Chair 406 by Alvar Aalto

 

First produced in 1939, Chair 406 was designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). 

The frame is in laminated and bent birch with solid birch cross rails. In this example, the webbing is in natural linen but the chair is also made with black linen webbing or with leather strapping. Chair 406 is still in production by Artek although now only available in Finland.

 
 

Its form and details come from the honest and straightforward use of laminated or plywood techniques of production so, for instance, the ends of the side pieces are rounded off by sanding because cutting plywood square, as carpenters do with solid timber, can leave splits or tears along the edge of the outer layer of the piece. 

 
 

The open shape of the side pieces form a stretched or distorted S shape - so in effect the seat is cantilevered without back legs and means that there is some flexibility or a slight give in the seat and back that makes the sitting position comfortable even if the chair does not have traditional padded upholstery. 

 
 

A high back gives good support and the long arms and their relatively low position makes them comfortable as a rest for the elbows if your hands are in your lap - so when reading a book - but also support the under arm if you sit with your arms along the wood with your hands over the end, palm down, and from that position the arms provide perfect support and balance when pushing up or steadying yourself to stand up.

 
 

Upper and lower cross rails of the seat and frame in solid birch are tenoned into the side pieces and the lower section of the frame below the seat is thicker to give it strength and make it just slightly more rigid. A middle bar across the back is simply placed across the frame with a lapped or halving joint and drilled and fixed with screws … not the most elegant part of the design but originally this was intended to be a relatively simple and relatively cheap chair.

 

chairs in plywood by Alvar Aalto

Through the 1930s the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed a number of chairs that had a shaped seat in plywood. One of the earliest designs, Chair 23 produced in 1929, had a simple tubular metal frame that supported the simple plywood seat but, as the designs became more sophisticated and more complicated in form, Aalto used a bentwood frame that was again, for many of the chairs, cantilevered. 

One of the chairs that went into production was Armchair 41 from 1932 that Aalto designed for the tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio.  These chairs were strong, stable, relatively light - so they could be moved onto the balconies where patients could sit in the sun - provided good support and were low with the sitting position slightly reclined and of course without upholstery they were seen to be more hygienic because they were relatively easy to clean. 

Their simple construction also meant that they could be manufactured in a workshop with no cabinet making skills. That did not mean that the chairs were crude or unsophisticated but the form came directly from the materials ... note that the shaped seats were generally held into the frame with a tab or ear of the cut plywood set into a long, narrow slot cut into the bent birch frame.

 

Note: photograph of chair from back and detail of the arm from abelsloane1934 *

Armchair 403 also from 1932 is a dining chair or desk chair with four legs both using a similar plywood seat to the metal-framed chair. The wood frame has slightly angled legs with a cross bar and an arm rest across the top that has a joint cut like a basic version of the comb with veneer layers at the top of the leg of the Stool 60 designed the following year.

Armchair 42 and Armchair 402 also designed in 1932 were cantilevered chairs and both low and rather long from front to back. The most striking feature of all these chairs is the silhouette.

 

 

 The 1934 site has good photographs of original pieces and, unusually, good details of construction. Well worth checking out.

a first for Artek

At the recent Furniture Fair in Milan Artek introduced their new Rival Task Chair, a first design for the Finnish company by the German designer Konstantin Grcic.

The chair is a new type for Artek, a swivel chair for working at a desk or work station, but its shape and style can be seen as the evolution of ideas and forms in older designs from the company. The chair is in birch (the hall-mark timber of choice for Artek) with legs that have a pronounced splay for stability but they also have to converge at the top for the swivel mechanism. The seat is a bold, bowl-shaped plastic shell but with a seat pad or cushion that can be covered either in fabric or leather. 

These splayed rather than vertical legs look back to the Rocket Stool designed for Artek by Eero Aarnio in 1995 and the form of the back of the new chair, with flat bentwood supports and a simple curved back, pays homage to the series of chairs designed by Aalto himself in the 1930s including Chair 65, Chair 66 and Chair 69. 

The chair can have an alternative form of back with a wider piece added to the frame for a wider area of lumbar support for the user and the wood of the legs and back frame can be either plain or lacquered in white, black or red.

There is clearly a trend in Nordic furniture design that is moving towards simple, more substantial and solid shapes and outlines with less emphasis on a structural frame or obvious traditional joinery.

 

 

 

Chair 69 designed by Aalto in 1935 and still in production and the Rocket Stool by Eero Aarnio from 1995

Photographs from the Artek site

news from Artek

Recently Vitra, the relatively new owners of Artek, announced that they have now acquired the furniture manufacturers Huonekalutehdas Korhonen Oy. 

The company, since 1975 based in Kaarina, just outside Turkuu, was established in 1910 by Otto Korhonen. He worked with Alvar Aalto in the 1920s, specifically experimenting with and developing techniques of steam bending birch and working with plywood, and Korhonen produced the furniture Aalto designed for the Sanitorium at Paimio including Armchair 41 and the famous Stool 60. In fact, Stool 60 has been in continuous production at Korhonen since 1933. 

In the 1990s HKT Korhonen developed new ranges with young Finnish designers but 75% of their production is still Aalto designs.

The transfer to Vitra is significant. It shows clearly that they aim to continue manufacturing in Finland rather than moving work to factories in Asia or even to lower-wage economies in Eastern Europe. Presumably this means that not only will they be able to monitor quality and determine tight manufacturing timescales, without having to allow for long shipping times, but it could also mean that they intend to preserve an independent design and technical research ethos that is specifically Finnish in character.

Brand loyalty to Artek in Finland is high but an accountant might simply have suggested trying to replicate that by doing everything on a larger scale elsewhere … it is much better to retain the integrity of Finnish design, making and selling furniture manufactured in Finland from Finnish timber using Finnish skills and expertise.

colour in architecture 3

In looking through images for posts about colour in architecture I came across these photographs of three staircases that in date are spread over a period of nearly two hundred years.

They are all in important public buildings and are all of their period and they demonstrate different approaches to the way that colour can be used in the design of interiors. The important point is that these should not be seen in terms of interior decoration, as in paint and wallpaper interior decoration, because these staircases, through the deliberate choice of materials, were given permanent colour schemes by their architects.

The first is the main staircase in a building in Oslo designed by Christian Grosch (1801-1865) and completed in 1830 for Norges Bank. It was restored at the beginning of this century and since 2008 it has housed the National Museum of Architecture.

This staircase is matched by a flight on the opposite side of the entrance hall giving a grand double access to an upper landing and to the board room of the bank on the first floor. The form of the handrail and its support is a stripped down classical style that continues the form of the facade which has a pediment over the centre. The impression created in the entrance hall is a sense of solid reliability: well built and built to last but not extravagant. The use of colour with the tile effect on the walls is restrained but confident.

The broad white staircase with a yellow floor is the main stair in the Sanatorium in Paimio in Finland - one of the first major buildings designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1933. 

Aalto designed not only the building but also fittings and furniture for the hospital and natural lighting and colour schemes were very carefully considered. The yellow on the stair is an original feature and gives a sense of it being clean without being starkly clinical. This was a tuberculosis hospital where patients were isolated, often for long periods, and spent much of their time on the balconies and roof terrace in the fresh air resting. 

The style of architecture and the concrete construction of much of the building relates it to contemporary work elsewhere in Europe including, most obviously, work by Le Corbusier, ten years older than Aalto, and the style, sometimes called the International Style, with plain white walls, large wide windows, often with metal rather than timber frames, and balconies, can be seen in works by Arne Jacobsen such as the Bellavista apartments north of Copenhagen completed in 1934. Jacobsen was ten years younger than Aalto.

Bright strong primary colours are found first in works from the Bauhaus group in Germany and the De Stijl group of architects and designers in the Netherlands and is a rejection of the use of heavy, rich or dark colour and ornate decoration in the previous century that was felt to be unnecessary. Colour, style and materials are all used to indicate a new start in this period after the Great War.

The concrete and steel staircase on the right is in an addition to the Royal Library in Copenhagen by Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen that was completed in 1999. The main way to upper levels from the main entrance to the building is by moving walkways or ramps so this is a secondary staircase but never-the-less it is of an extremely high quality in terms of both design and materials.

Concrete, glass and steel are robust and now of course common building materials and we tend to perceive them as “natural” colours.

In fact concrete can be coloured and glass for windows is invariably tinted - usually grey or soft blue or even light green. Clear glass is not only dangerous where people are walking around but it actually looks flat and lifeless - from the exterior sharply clear colourless glass can make windows look like blank holes punched in the facade - and from inside sunlight through very clear glass can be so bright that it is painfully unforgiving. 

Elsewhere in the stair halls and circulation spaces of the library, natural timber and high-quality leather are used to soften the design and add warmth but also reinforces this feeling of natural colour. The colours and tones of the staircase in the Royal Library were as carefully considered as the colour schemes of the other staircases.

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

2nd Cycle

It is easy to miss this Helsinki gallery and shop at Pieni Roobertinkatu 4. There is an archway in a line of shops and a very steep and dark ramp leading down to the entrance. Part of Artek, and just two blocks south of the main store but, more significantly, just one block north of the design museum, the two could not be more different physically. The store is bright, spacious, sharply clean to reflect the style and quality of the products. 2nd Cycle is a series of irregular basement rooms and spaces piled high with storage on display but here perhaps is the soul of the furniture company. That sounds stupidly melodramatic but I spent some time here looking at the furniture  and other items and discussing design with Antti Tevajärvi, a member of the staff. As we talked local people and tourists wandered in to buy or often simply to indulge in a little nostalgia and exchange stories about pieces of furniture they own or had once owned.

In an earlier post I recommended a film profile about 2nd Cycle that was made by Monocle design magazine. All I can add for myself, now having visited 2nd Cycle, is that this gallery and shop shows that not only should good design for mass-produced pieces have an important place in our lives but that well-made and well-designed items should have an ongoing place in our lives. The finest pieces here are of museum quality and as part of an Artek archive they are of real significance in the history of design but equally the less well-preserved pieces, scratched or chipped or worn,  reflect their important place in the real lives of real people.

design classic: Lederhosen of an Eskimo Woman

First produced in 1936, this glass vase was designed by Alvar Aalto inspired by the traditional costume of Sami women. Initially it was called Eskimåkvinnans Skinnbyxa but was subsequently renamed the Savoy vase after the luxury restaurant that opened in Helsinki in 1937.

The shape was created by blowing molten glass into a ring of irregularly spaced wooden sticks to create wave like and slightly sloping sides but as production increased first wooden and then later steel moulds were used. The vase was displayed at the World Trade Fair in Paris in 1937 and I believe it has been in continuous production since that year. The first vases were 140mm high but smaller versions are now produced by Iittala. Nord has one of the large vases, attracting much attention, in the window display, and a selection of smaller vases in clear, coloured and opaque white glass, sometimes called milk glass.