For 75 years, the Finnish furniture-manufacturing company Artek has largely been synonymous with the designs of one of its founders, the midcentury modern architect Alvar Aalto. But late last year, with a goal to improve viability, the company broadened its product offerings by acquiring the rights to the entire furniture collection of Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914-1999), a Finnish designer and one of Aalto’s contemporaries. “Artek had not been making revenue for years,” says Mirkku Kullberg, the company’s global managing director, about the time before she came on board as CEO. “In people’s minds, Artek equals Aalto. We thought that we should shake that [up] a bit more,” she says. Though Artek sells designs by Vitra, Knoll, and other Artek-commissioned designers, in 2010, 60 percent of the revenue generated by the company’s Finland-based retail stores, and almost all international sales, came from selling classic Aalto designs—such as his Armchair 401 and Stool 60 (both with wildly popular Ikea copycats).
Kullberg was inspired by Artek’s founding 1935 manifesto to find a designer such as Tapiovaara who could add variety to Artek’s line but who would also reflect the company’s belief in everyday design. As an interior designer, Tapiovaara admired Aalto’s work, and especially his philosophy of functionalism, which stressed informality and form subservient to function. Yet Tapiovaara didn’t shy away from flourishes of nonfunctional whimsy, designing kangaroolike rocking-chair feet and tree-root-styled stool legs.
The Tapiovaara acquisition is the latest attempt by Kullberg, who worked in the fashion industry for 20 years before joining the company in 2005, to help Artek’s bottom line. She first helped the company establish a global network of subsidiaries to distribute products, instead of shipping solely from the Helsinki headquarters. And then she refocused Artek on selling the idea of a lifestyle focused on design made for a lifetime, not a moment, by hosting provocative exhibitions at the Milan Furniture Fair—one of which had a row of the same chair, all in white—and acquiring vintage pieces for resale. Recently, Kullberg came to Washington, D.C., to launch a new partnership with modern-furniture showroom M2L. She talked to us about why she worked for years to acquire Tapiovaara’s work, and where Artek, and the furniture industry, is headed.
What made Ilmari Tapiovaara’s work a good match for Artek?
We thought, design-wise, they wouldn’t compete with each other. Aalto is very rational, mathematical; Tapiovaara is much more feminine. You shouldn’t be so fundamental that you decorate only with Aalto; Tapiovaara is more emotional. Aalto was an architect; Tapiovaara was an interior architect. Tapiovaara admired Aalto’s works, but was going his own way. Even when Tapiovaara was dead, the family wrote that Tapiovaara wished he had a sales organization like Artek.
As a company, Artek has stated that it wants to be bold and look for new perspectives. What direction is it headed now?
Our boxes have quotes on them that say, “One chair is enough.” We’re trying to say that you don’t have to consume. Design is an investment. Good things last. The former owner of Tapiovaara, Juhani Lemetti, has one of the biggest vintage collections of Alvar Aalto and Ilmari Tapiovaara furniture, so in 2006, we started to collect Tapiovaara’s furniture, too. We are opposing the design industry, which comes to Milan each year for design that will last one week. In 2004, in Milan, we showed 365 Aalto Stool 60 vintage stools to say that sustainability is an attitude.
What other ways is the company promoting sustainable consumption?
In 2006, we launched 2nd Cycle, a reclamation program for vintage Artek furniture, in which Artek actually buys back vintage furniture to be resold. Last November, we launched the retail store Artek 2nd Cycle in Helsinki to buy and sell used Aalto and Tapiovaara furniture. We buy as much as we can, refurbish, repaint, or we don’t do anything. We have had amazing success. I don’t remember when before we ever had a queue outside of a furniture store to buy a used chair. Young people understood sustainable consumption, the reason to buy good things. We are trying to get the young clients.
So is the company trying to hook young clients on classic furniture?
We’ve been having an internal battle [at Artek] over what is classic. We associate classics with history. These aren’t historical pieces at all, though, they’re for today and tomorrow.
How are ensuing economic difficulties affecting consumers’ relationships with furniture?
We see customers finding their way back to core values such as craftsmanship, timeless design, quality, and being responsible for the environment, which are Artek’s core values. Standing by these values has protected us against the recession.
Our culture has become obsessed with the midcentury modern style, created by the likes of Aalto and Tapiovaara and perpetuated by pop-culture phenomena such as the television show Mad Men. Is this style a trend or something that's going to last?
Retro was a trend in my eyes, but this isn’t retro. This is a phenomenon. This is the new normal, the class security. In these kinds of times, you start studying old architecture, literature, poetry. Even writers today are very much looking back. People are looking for their roots and how they should identify themselves. A lot of people want to identify themselves with products, and products of an intellectual background. Midcentury modernism will never be mainstream. It’s again something that people will be reflecting upon and then moving forward—like a DNA for new ideas.
Are different markets reacting differently to midcentury modern designs?
The taste is so different from the West Coast to the East Coast, to Japan, Germany, Sweden. Italy likes dark wood, but northern countries like light wood. We are getting really interesting enquiries from Korea, which has been quiet for a long time. And one of our most loyal markets in Australia. In 1930, in Britain, that’s where the first demand for Artek really came from as the Bauhaus people escaped Germany to the UK—a lot of intellectuals started to buy them then. Some places use a lot of modern pieces, some places they’re blended, some places are minimalist.
Seven of Tapiovaara’s designs are available to buy now through Artek. Do you plan to expand production to sell more?
We are going to bring one to two new products out this February. Each year we’ll release new pieces.
Are there any more parternships in Artek’s future?
We are working with designer Naoto Fukasawa and another European that is still a secret.
What is the best-selling product in the Tapiovaara line?
The Domus chair. The Domus was not popular in the past; it was just in every school and university. It’s a volume product. But people are now saying, “It’s the Domus! I studied with that for five years of my life.”
What piece of furniture is your personal favorite from the line?
The Mademoiselle chair—but not the rocking one. I have two white ones in my home.