Helsinki Design Week

Portrait by Chris Force

Helsinki Design Week

Image courtesy of Artek

A Decade of Helsinki Design Week: Part 2/4

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Text by Chris Force, Amanda Koellner, and Chloe Stachowiak

When Artek was established in 1935, its founders envisioned the brand as a "center for new housing ideology." Almost 80 years later, it's still at the forefront of innovation and functionality in Finnish Design. The company strives to synthesize aesthetics with ethics, creating pieces that are visually striking and, more importantly, designs that improve physical and mental wellness both at work and at home.

Design director Ville Kokkonen, whose work includes a swanky yet sustainable pavilion and flooring tiles made from recycled materials, has taken the company’s mission statement to heart. Best known for White, a line of standout light fixtures designed to combat seasonal affective disorder, he is a staunch believer in improving human habitats with design. We chatted with him about product development, honoring Artek’s legacy, and forging forward.

How does product development work at such an iconic brand? Artek has quite a long history and archive—is it daunting to create new products that still fit into that tradition?

It’s a challenge. They asked me to join product development around 2006, which is when we thought about how we couldn’t just repeat the bent wood or try to mimic at all what Artek has done. Instead, we wanted to take the values that surrounded Artek in the beginning, which were quite radical by Finnish standards. The furniture was considered weird and abstract rather than high-end home furnishings. Many see Artek as a propaganda center for new-housing ideologies. We took that and tried to do more research-oriented product design in house.

If we’re working with some- one outside of Artek, we look for those that can fill a gap in our portfolio and trust the designer’s ability to design for that gap. But when designing in house, we try to find a new way of looking at the product range. For example, when it comes to lighting, we found that there’s a lot of depression going around. Therapy lights have not found their own archetype. Our goal isn’t just to design new light fixtures but to put quite a bit of time and focus into what the need is.

Artek's Design is iconic and part of the modern design landscape. What is uniquely Finnish about it?

You can see an interest toward the Bauhaus. They did quite a bit here because of the resources that were available in Finland that weren’t available in Germany. Because of the war, it was difficult to use metal and was very expensive, so they mimicked what was done during that period by using wood and mastering it. What Artek brought to that was the mass-produced quality, repetition, and standardization of products. Artek never designed furniture for the sake of designing furniture. Everything was uniquely designed for particular spaces and particular needs. Not all of them became part of the product range—only a few successful ones were put into mass production.

What are you hoping to continue to develop with the brand as design culture becomes increasingly global?

We’re trying to survive and keep the heritage alive. We still have a lot of work in informing people of Artek internationally. We are, at the same time, trying to visually touch the subject of wellbeing. Kind of, “What is the role of the chair or the table?” It has to support our everyday lives, and it’s a difficult task. But we try to be on the forefront of making new discoveries.

For example, there’s a huge shift in office furnishings to- ward more relaxed pieces that support our social life. That led us to examining tables and looking at, for instance, the incredible qualities of birch. It’s been recently discovered that birch can work as a semi-conductor, meaning you can input information into a table and maybe activate a microphone or have it react to different temperatures. There are these things we haven’t discovered when it comes to the quantum physics of materials. Our team is small, but we’ll continue to keep our research mindset.

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