Artek’s British Import

Tom Dixon updates a classic collection.

Typed in capitals at the bottom of Artek’s founding manifesto are the words FÖR ÖKAD MONDIAL AKTIVITET. The world has changed a lot since 1935, when Alvar and Aino Aalto, Nils-Gustav Hahl, and Maire Gullichsen started the Finnish design company—combining modern art and technology to make finely crafted bentwood furniture—but the goal of “increased global activity” remains the same. So when Tom Dixon, former creative director of London-based Habitat, assumed the same role at Artek last year he had reason to believe that developing a new line of products to improve the fortunes of the small Helsinki-based company was consistent with its original ideals.

However, Artek has become so identified with Finnish heritage over the years that some people feared this new stage in the company’s globalization would mean selling out a national treasure. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand what the actual assets of Finland and Artek are,” Dixon says. “It’s often better to be an outsider to spot that. And given that Artek was always going to be an export company selling Finnishness to the outside world, it’s not such a bad thing to be British.”

To put off fears that the company—purchased in 1994 by Swedish investors—was abandoning its roots, Artek also brought in a new Finnish managing director with experience rebranding local fashion companies to facilitate international expansion. “I wanted to open the story of Artek again, not only its history but also its future,” Mirkku Kullberg says. “After I was informed that I would start at the company, I got phone calls from colleagues in Scandinavia, and even in London and Japan, saying, ‘You have to build something new, but you must remember the roots.’ And I thought, How is it possible that you say, ‘Don’t change everything but change something?’”

Artek’s spring editions are mostly iterations of Aalto classics, such as Stool 60 and the Paimio and Tank armchairs, with a bit of color and new fabrics added to liven them up. But there is also Kanto, a new system for storing and carrying objects, by Pancho Nikander, and a computer desk and TV stand adapted from the Aalto archives by Dixon. For the company’s 70th anniversary this fall Dixon plans to release a collection incorporating new materials and technologies while remaining integrally connected to the local culture. “I’m not interested in doing more sub-Aalto work,” he says. “You’ll be seeing very functional furniture based on rational Nordic design as well as the two big attributes of Finland and Scandinavia generally: the yin and yang of high technology and love of nature.”

Recent Programs