Lukki 5 from Artek

Lukki 5 was designed by Ilmari Tapiovaara and has been in production since 1956. The seat and back are in pressed birch ply and the legs and the back support in painted steel tube. The current colours are black, a soft cream colour called stone and a very soft green described as sage. The use of steel rather than bent wood for legs and frame is relatively unusual from Artek. Here, as always, the use of plywood is deceptively simple … the precise shape, with a gentle roll to the front edge behind the sitters knees rather than a sharp edge that would cut in, and the level of flexibility in the plywood are crucial in making the chair comfortable.

As with all Artek chairs, it is interesting to look at how legs, seats and backs are supported and fixed together. Here there are three steel tubes - a single tube for the front legs and a tube for one back leg and half the back support then mirrored - joined by a circular plate which is fixed to the plywood of the seat. The buffers or dampers between the seat and the frame are crucial … if the frame was just fixed directly to the seat it would feel rigid and unforgiving but too much flexibility could make the seat feel odd and slightly unstable.

Is it just me, or do the three fixings of the back to the support look like a slightly surprised cartoon face?

I can see why Artek continue to produce this piece. 

It is essentially a 1950s kitchen chair … not something that is strictly needed now because of the different way in which we arrange and use our houses. When I was a child in the 50s most families had a kitchen large enough for a small table with light small-scale chairs, often metal framed, that was used for breakfast and for the kids when they were eating their “tea”. Most of those families would also have a proper dining room with a set of matching chairs and used by the adults or, in some families, used just for high days and holidays. From the 1970s onwards many families moved over to combining kitchen and dining room or dining room and sitting areas where the traditional dining table and four chairs was used and the kitchen table and chairs became much less common: in middle class homes, if there was still a large kitchen table in their Victorian or Edwardian house, it was invariably stripped pine with an assortment of old chairs or benches. 

Now, with smaller family units, less family time eating together, and generally less space in new flats and apartments, chairs like the Lukki are again useful along with a return to popularity of the gate-leg table. Flexibilty is crucial in a small space and the Lukki 5, relatively cheap and light, can be stacked away but be brought out on those occasions when you want or need to have more people sitting around the table. It has a family resemblance to those now fashionable 50s plastic-covered metal-framed kitchenette or dinette chairs but in its subtle colours has a slightly different and more sophisticated style.

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.

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.

Marimekko, Artek and Iittala in Helsinki

Perhaps the best place to start to explore design in Helsinki is from Esplanadi. This is a long park or garden running east to west that is lined with shops and hotels. The Cathedral and main government buildings are close but with the harbour, where the main Baltic ferries arrive, at the east end of Esplanadi and with the central railway station (designed by Eliel Saarinen) just three blocks to the north, this is often one of the first places visitors to the city find.

On the north side, at Pohjoisesplanadi 33, is the flagship store of Marimekko. This is on a large corner site, so it has plenty of window display, and the shop is set out over two floors. The displays of textiles and clothing inside the shop are amazing and when you need to rest then Marimekko have their own cafe - Marikahvila - at the back of the store which opens out onto the circular atrium of a large up-market shopping arcade.

On the south side of the gardens, immediately opposite Marimekko is the flag-ship store for Artek at Eteläesplanadi 18. If you can’t make it from one store to the other without a rest then there is an open-air cafe in the middle of the gardens between them. 

Just to the east of Marimekko is the Iittala store and opposite that, to the east of Artek is, appropriately, the Savoy Hotel with the restaurant after which Alvar Aalto named the Savoy Vase . The vase is still made by Iittala and much of the interior of the hotel designed by Aalto survives.

design classic: Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto

Stool 60.jpg

This is a deceptively simple piece of furniture. It is too easy to glance at it and think - OK nice but surely I’ve seen lots of things much like this in IKEA or Habitat. Well the first amazing thing about the stool is that it was designed 80 years ago. Place this stool in the context of the political situation of the period and in the context of the houses that most of our grand parents or great grand parents lived in and it begins to look rather more remarkable.

In fact, the stool was designed in 1933 as part of a major architectural competition that Aalto won to build a new library in Viipuri, then the second largest city in Finland. The stool was designed for the lecture theatre and was therefore designed to be light and strong. They have three legs, rather than four, so they stack easily and of course are stable. All qualities that make the stool still, 80 years later, such a functional and flexible piece of furniture. I have two of the stools as bed-side tables, but, as they are the same height as the seat of a standard chair, they double as extra seating around the dining table when needed.

A few weeks ago I visited the house at 2 Willow Walk in Hampstead that was designed and built by the architect Ernö Goldfinger for himself and his family and completed in 1939. It is now run and opened to the public by the National Trust. There, in the main bathroom, was an Aalto stool. Chipped and stained but clearly much loved and presumably an early purchase by the family.

Aalto first exhibited his furniture in London in 1933 and setting up of the production company Artek, just two years later, was a direct response to the growing and International demand for his furniture. Certainly Aalto appreciated the importance of industrial-scale production to bring good design at a reasonable price to ordinary people but it is interesting for us today that he was also, at times, ambivalent about mass production. He certainly appreciated the importance of the craft tradition in Finland and understood timber as a construction material - his grandfather was the chief instructor at the Evo Forestry Institute in Lammi - and he understood what was possible with the inherent qualities of that material. In the design of the stool Aalto exploited the possibilities of using layered and bent wood and that is why it is strong and light.

In 1935, in a lecture to the annual meeting of the Swedish Crafts Association he explained some of the design principles that informed his work. There he said: 

“A standardized object should not be a finished product, but on the contrary be made so that man and all the individual laws controlling him supplement its form. Only objects embodying some degree of neutrality can be used to alleviate standardization’s constraint on the individual, and the positive sides of standardization thus used for the good of culture.” 

Twenty years later, in a lecture to the Architect’s Association of Vienna in 1955, he  suggested that even at that stage in his career he felt that: 

 “Form is a mystery which eludes definition but makes man feel good in a way unlike mere social aid.”

To understand why good design should be cherished, I recommend watching the short film about the stool and Artek that was made earlier in the year by the design magazine Monocle. It raises important issues about the relationship between good design and sustainable design that we all need to consider.

Artek, to mark the anniversary, have issued the stool in it’s original colours although it is still available in a natural finish and in the various painted versions.