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Q&A: The Spirit of Alvar Aalto Lives, in Designs Meant to Save Lives and the Earth

Senior execs at Artek talk about sustainability, ideology, and the deeply held similarities between Finns and Japanese. And they reveal a hush-hush lamp that combats seasonal depression.

Artek

Artek, the legendary furniture firm co-founded by Alvar Aalto, is finally landing on American shores: The company has opened its first-ever American showroom, and, rather than relying on distributors, they’ve invested in an American sales force.

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At this year’s ICFF, FastCompany.com spoke with Artek’s newly minted Executive Vice President, Simone Vingerhoets (above left), and its baby-faced creative director, Ville Kokkonen (right), about how Artek is designing for a changing world–starting with products first dreamed up almost 70 years ago.

With design, there’s so much risk in balancing something that has wide appeal, and a design that’s fresh enough to get the market’s attention. How do you try to strike a balance?

Artek is different from most companies in that we have a huge product portfolio from the Aalto’s, which was created in the 1930s. His designs, their ideology, are still the backbone of what we do. We can’t compete with the big companies that push out lots of products, so we don’t do a new design if there isn’t an innovation in the materials or manufacturing. That’s why we often work with architects.

Shigeru Ban 10-Unit System

For example, Shigeru Ban’s 10-Unit System (picture above), which is made of recycled paper and plastic. This year, we’re working with Ban on a chair that goes with his new Pompidou Metz, and the material construction makes it looks woven, like the building itself.

Naoto Fukasawa chair

You guys seem to work with a lot of Japanese designers, including Naoto Fukasawa, who designed your new shelving system (pictured above). What about those designers makes them fit with Artek’s mission?

Well, we can’t produce many products, so we have to establish a relationship with our designers rather than picking someone new based on some project. We have to live with them and fight with them and email everyday. In Ban’s case, he had a history with Aalto, having designed lots of exhibitions of his work. He happened to be the “paper architect,” so it all came together in the 10-Unit System.With the Ban and Fukasawa, there’s a lot of similarity in the way that the Japanese live and Artek’s own history. When the company was founded by the Aalto’s, Finland was poor. You had one table and four chairs. That ideology is very much the same in Japan.

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It makes sense that Fukasawa always seems to work with archetypes of design—what is the basic thing you think of when you think “chair” or “stool” or “shelf.” Here, he took the dimensions and proportions of our line, and transformed them into a product we didn’t have, a really good collapsible shelving system. It’s incredibly simple, but that’s very, very hard. I mean just look at those chairs.

(Gesturing at a facing booth, featuring chairs that look like Gene Simmon’s tongue after drinking a Slurpee.)

Artek shelves

For example, with our new shelves, consider the frame on the back (pictured above). That’s not usually a detail you ever see. But because of how carefully the joints in the back are designed the piece doesn’t have to be against the wall. It can become a room divider and all sorts of other things.

The world is changing, as sustainability goes mainstream–and obviously, the project with Shigeru Ban attempts to address some of those issues. How else is Artek dealing with those changes?

Sustainability has always been Artek’s core, because we’re about producing single objects you can have for your entire life. And we can’t waste our resources on frivolous new products. But we also try and produce things based on research about how people’s lives are changing.

For example?

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Well, consider what people do when they go home and open a laptop and look at Facebook. Meanwhile, offices and cellphones and privacy have all changed office spaces in the last 10 years. That changes things like soundproofing and table sizes. But there could be new products that come out of those insights.

Does that mean furniture? What are you developing now?

No, not necessarily. For example, companies have started manufacturing these high-powered lights to fight seasonal affective disorder. Studies have shown they make people happier and the stimulant effect can be the same as a cup of coffee. But that design can’t be just a pendent or a desk lamp. There has to be a new archetype for that light. The shade isn’t meant to direct light to a spot close to you–it’s the opposite, in that it actually has to shine in your face. But it can’t shine in the face of someone next to you.

SAD is a huge tragedy for Northern Europe, and it contributes to the fact that we have the highest suicide rates in the world. Depression, meanwhile, is increasing in Northern Europe. There’s a potential to have a really deep impact by looking beyond more seriously at the world.

Enzo Mari chairs

(Above: Chairs originally designed by the legendary Enzo Mari 40 years ago. Artek is now producing the design for the first time; the kit comes as simply wood and nails, which the owner assembles.)

Simone, Artek for the first time has opened a store in the U.S., and it’s planning on representing itself in the market now. Have changes in the U.S. market driven that decision?

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I think the time is exactly right because of the way American culture is changing. There’s now a tendency towards quality, and people rethinking their needs. That means investing more wisely in things that aren’t impulse purchases. But there’s also a historical collection. What made Aalto famous internationally was the pavilion he designed for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. For a country so poor at the time, that was unusual, but it made his name.   

Artek armchair

(Above: Two of Aalto’s iconic designs, covered in fabric by Missoni)

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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