Artek in America

Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Alvar Aalto’s furniture company returns to its roots and prepares to conquer the American market once again.

Decades before Harry Bertoia created his wire-frame chair or Eero Saarinen designed the Tulip collection for Knoll, before George Nelson and the Eameses hatched their many classics for Herman Miller, there was Alvar Aalto. The great Finnish architect began crafting iconic pieces as early as the 1920s, so it’s no stretch to call him a founding father of modern design.

Last year, the Finnish company that has produced most of Aalto’s furniture since day one celebrated its own 75th anniversary. Artek was founded in 1935 by Aalto; his wife, Aino; Maire Gullichsen, an art patron; and Nils-Gustav Hahl, an art historian. The company’s goal was to make and market the furniture that Aalto had designed for buildings like the Viipuri Library and the Paimio Sanatorium. What’s often forgotten today is that it also wanted to educate Finns about “good design” and introduce them to contemporary artists such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Alexander Calder.

At a time when architects like Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were obsessed with making furniture out of tubular steel, Aalto experimented with natural materials by bending wood into curves, creating a softer, more humanist modernism. “He was obviously
one of the important architects in the development of contemporary design in Scandinavia,” says Jens Risom, who looked to Aalto’s creations when he designed his first collection out of cedar and surplus webbing in 1942 for Hans Knoll. “His furniture was one of the reasons that we knew that webbing could be used.”

“The furniture and lighting always had a connection to the architecture. They were part of a holistic approach,” says Mirkku Kullberg, a former fashion executive who was appointed managing director of Artek in 2005 by Proventus, the Swedish investment group that bought the company in 1992. When she joined the company, she thought she knew a little about it, having grown up in Finland surrounded by Artek furniture. “But really, I knew nothing,” she says.

During her first year, she read up on its history and mined the archives, looking for designs that could be brought back into production, searching for an understanding of what Artek was about and where it should go. “The cross-disciplinary thinking, the philosophical dimensions, the global connections all impressed me, but what really surprised me were the company’s international ambitions,” she says. “Early on, they were opening foreign offices, collaborating with international architects, participating in great projects around the world.”

Artek’s presence in the United States dates back to 1937, when Harmon H. Goldstone, a young architect who had visited Aalto one year earlier, formed a company with Wallace Harrison and Lawrence Rockefeller to import the Finnish designer’s furniture. During the early 1940s, Clifford N. Pascoe set up a New York showroom and a manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. A few pioneering retailers—mainly architects and designers, such as Louisa Conrad and Sarah Pillsbury, in Boston; Thomas Church, in San Francisco; and Kitty Baldwin and Jody Kingrey, in Chicago—began selling pieces by Aalto and other modernists. During the 1950s, Hans Lindblom, a Swedish architect, added the Artek line to his New York store, Scandinavian Design, which continues to carry Aalto’s work today.

Artek began to remake itself about six years ago, and Kullberg knew that instead of replicating company history, she wanted to create a contemporary response to it. “If something has been around for seventy-five years, there must be something solid about it,” she says. The biggest difference from the company’s early years is that it no longer has an intimate connection to an architectural practice. “The core of the company was the architecture and development by Aalto himself,” Kullberg says. Even so, she’s convinced that maintaining Artek’s heritage is crucial to its reinvention: the company has made furniture in the same factory (HKT Korhonen), using wood from the same forest, for 75 years. “Still, product development must now be the heart of the operations,” she says. “We need to embrace radicalism—new ideas, new technologies—and not choose the path of consensus.”

Kullberg sees the company’s collaboration with Shigeru Ban in 2007 as a turning point in the transition. Ban created a temporary pavilion for Artek and a chair system using a wood-plastic composite made from recycled sticky labels, which he developed with UPM, the Finnish forest-products group. “The process we had with Shigeru is the way we want to work: to have a close connection between architecture and material research,” she says.

She points out several projects that she says illustrate the company’s “radicalism”: packaging that argues against overconsumption with the tagline “One Chair Is Enough”; a film with Enzo Mari, who is associated with the antidesign movement; and, replacing an anniversary party, an international symposium about interdisciplinary thinking with speakers like the Pritzker winner Peter Zumthor (about whom there are rumors of a possible collaboration with Artek), the artist Tobias Rehberger, and the philosopher David Kleinberg-Levin.

Perhaps Artek’s most unusual undertaking is a project called 2nd Cycle. The company collects vintage furniture from flea markets, schools, and people’s homes, then tags, labels, and reintroduces it to the retail market. “It’s the idea of an Artek chair bought today becoming the second cycle of tomorrow,” Kullberg says. “It can be the one and only chair you need.”

At this year’s Milan furniture fair, Artek’s focus was on lighting, with designs from the archive—many unfamiliar outside of Finland—being brought back into production in advance of an eventual U.S. launch. “Aalto’s lighting plays with different shapes of shading to get different reflections,” explains Ville Kokkonen, Artek’s design director. “He mastered the mix of natural and artificial light in spaces, with scale, shape, and the positioning of fixed and unfixed settings.” Plans are also forming for the relaunch of Artek fabrics. The biggest push this month at ICFF will be the North American launch of Ilmari Tapiovaara’s furniture collection. (The company owns the design rights to the work of Tapiovaara, one of Finland’s best-known modernist interior designers, who died in 1999.)

Last year, Artek opened its first independent showroom in the United States. Designed by Kokkonen, the space in lower Manhattan also serves as the company’s North American headquarters. “We have a longstanding history in this country, which is one of the reasons we decided to come back to the American market,” says Simone Vingerhoets, Artek’s U.S. executive vice president. “We believe there are a lot of opportunities here. But the challenge will be to communicate that Artek products can be contemporary and modern but also be traditional.”

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