80 years of Artek
When the architect and designer couple Alvar and Aino Aalto, the arts patron Maire Gullichsen and the art historian and critic Nils-Gustav Hahl decided to found Artek in October 1935 in Helsinki, it marked the beginning of one of the most unusual and ambitious projects in the history of furniture. The immediate impetus for this step was the desire to professionalise the international distribution of the furniture designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto. Yet the new furniture business was also tied to a cultural mission that went beyond purely commercial aspects. The founders conceived Artek as a platform for modern art, industry, interior design and propaganda. The company’s self-described purpose was ‘to sell furniture and to promote a modern culture of living by exhibitions and other educational means’.
A project of the modernist era
The founding of Artek occurred in the context of the still-young international modernist movement in art, design and architecture, as a reflection of its ideas and ideals. The name Artek should be understood as a programmatic affirmation of the fusion of art and technology. Such a synthesis, as exemplarily executed in the designs of the Aaltos, was considered one of the central objectives of modernism – both in Finland and abroad. From the very beginning, the founding generation saw Artek as a vehicle for entering into a multi-layered dialogue with the international avant-garde and intensifying the cultural exchange with the world. Artek’s intended mission was two-fold in nature. Within Finland, the company acted in many capacities as an ambassador and propagandist of design and art, while its international activities focused on promoting the Aaltos’ works and their Nordic embodiment of modernism and boosting the export of their furniture.
Artek and Aalto
In the period around 1930, Alvar Aalto had already begun to utilise wood, a traditional furniture material, for designs that emerged from the modernist spirit. The use of wood as a natural raw material was quite intuitive in a country like Finland – with vast forests but a minimal level of industrialisation. Functional advantages such as the warm appearance and pleasant feel of wood were additional factors. Through intensive experimentation and close collaboration with experienced craftsmen, he succeeded in introducing a number of technical innovations that laid the groundwork for his seminal designs. The stools with L-shaped bent legs come to mind as well as the cantilever chair in plywood or the Paimio armchair with its resilient birch plywood seat – all icons of design history with an almost archetypal character. Over the years, Alvar and Aino Aalto developed a comprehensive collection of furniture and lighting with Artek that satisfied practically all furnishing needs – in both the private and public settings. In line with modernist principles, the furniture designs were not conceived as extravagant one-off pieces, but as functional standard solutions for mass production. And wherever possible, the Aaltos thought in terms of systems. For instance, the L-shaped leg first used for a stool was subsequently applied to other seating furniture and table bases. Distinguished by clarity, functionality, suitability for daily use and poetic simplicity, the works by the Aaltos perfectly exemplify the unique character of the Artek collection. As an embodiment of essential solutions, their designs have proven timeless and maintained their appeal over the decades. Especially today, when people increasingly long for things that are enduring and authentic, the Aaltos’ designs have acquired a renewed relevance.
Artek in Finland
For decades, Artek has had a profound influence on interiors, lifestyles and everyday culture in Finland. The company itself has become part of the modern Finnish identity and its national cultural heritage. Artek products, which are still largely produced in Finland, have always been widely represented in the domestic market. They can be found in numerous public buildings and countless private households. Artek shops in Helsinki are nationally renowned institutions and must-see attractions for visitors to the Finnish capital. Acting also as an importer of international design products, Artek has a longstanding history of bringing the world to Finland. For generations, the company has served as a guarantor of good taste and quality design.
Since its founding, the Artek project has experienced highs and lows and gone through numerous transformations – time and again demonstrating its ability to adapt to changing contexts, even in face of radically different circumstances. This can be seen in the development of the collection, which has expanded and widened its focus over the years in a decidedly contemporary direction. The furniture, lighting and objects by Alvar and Aino Aalto, which have long since established themselves as classics, represent the core of the Artek collection. In the meantime, however, designs by important masters of Nordic design such as Ilmari Tapiovaara, Tapio Wirkkala, Eero Aarnio and Yrjö Kukkapuro have complemented and enriched the product portfolio. The more recent past has seen an intensified collaboration with international architects, designers and artists whose creative vision, aesthetic idiom and intelligent use of technology exhibit a great affinity with the Artek philosophy – such as Shigeru Ban, Enzo Mari, Tobias Rehberger, Konstantin Grcic, Hella Jongerius or most recently Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. 80 years after its creation, and in the spirit of its radical founders, Artek continues the search for future paths at the intersection of design, art and architecture.