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Form in abundance

The Ball Chair, Bubble, VSOP, Pony, Puppy, Tomato, Formula, The Tree. The first design, the Ball Chair, was made in 1963, and one of the latest, The Tree partition, in 2008. Prominent shapes, strong colours, fibreglass, acrylic, bold ideas. Interior architect Eero Aarnio has surprised the public for over forty years.

The young Eero Aarnio did not have any self-evident choice of career in the early 1950s. He was originally drawn to architecture, but his first attempt to become a student of architecture was not successful. While spending a gap year working at an architect’s office, he heard about the curriculum in interior design at the Institute of Applied Art in Helsinki. He enrolled in an entrance course and was admitted with the highest marks.

This was 1954. The studies lasted three years, during which Aarnio also married. After that he worked in the offices of Ilmari Tapiovaara and Antti Nurmesniemi and gained factory experience with the Asko company in Lahti. In 1962 Eero Aarnio was ready to step out on his own, quitting his job at Asko and establishing his own design office.

In 1963 the Aarnio family was decorating its home. “And then I started to think that it would be nice to have a proper armchair, with room for the whole family to watch television. I just started to draw a big chair,” recalls Aarnio. “And then it began to become round…”

That was how the Ball Chair came about. But how would it be made? “I then remembered a visit to a boatyard in Turku where they made fibreglass boats,” says Aarnio. “I already thought back then that this is a really good, should I say non-constructive, material that could be made into just about anything. I thought to myself: what about making the frame of this chair from fibreglass?”

The technique required some thought. A good piece of advice was to construct the form in the same way as a glider. The mould was made of plywood and the fibreglass was laminated around it. But it wasn’t easy: “I almost lost confidence every now and then. But my wife Pirkko would always say that if you don’t do it, someone else certainly will.”

Aarnio completed his prototype of the chair, but the first manufacturer to which it was shown was not interested. As a result, the Ball Chair made its way to the Aarnio home, where it was discovered a few years later by executives of the Asko who had come to look at other designs by Eero Aarnio. They couldn’t take their eyes off it. The chair was taken into production first on a trial basis and half secretly.

The Ball Chair produced by Asko was then displayed at Cologne International Furniture Fair in the winter of 1966 and it immediately became a cause célèbre. The photogenic chair formed an intimate space for the user and made a statement in relation to its surroundings like a work of sculpture. Within a week it was sold to over thirty countries.

But which came first, the form or the material? They came hand-in-hand, says Aarnio. The Ball Chair was followed by a series of furniture no less plastic – the VSOP chair and the Kantarelli table (1966), the Pastil and Bubble chairs (1968), the Tomato chair (1971), the Pony seat (1973), the Screw table (199), the Formula chair (1998), the Double Bubble lamp (200), the Parable table (2002)…  with no end in sight.

Researcher Fang Hai has observed that Aarnio belonged to that generation of young designers who began to challenge the principles of Scandinavian design in the 1960s. Nonetheless, furniture by Aarnio is highly functional, consistent, streamlined and honest with regard to the material – in the best spirit of Kaj Franck’s modernism. “At the time, the shape of the Ball Chair was something completely new and strange,” notes Aarnio. “But it was straightforward and logical in terms of its material. Minimum material, maximum strength. Round forms are best for plastic.”

Eero Aarnio has created his furniture over a long period. There is nothing to show when Tomato was designed, or when Formula was created, even though there is an interval of over 25 years between them. “I still stand completely behind these old pieces,” says Aarnio. “And I continue to follow this line. Of course, one’s sense of form develops all the time. It’s like riding a bicycle, the only way to learn is by doing.”

But is the central aspect of form functionality or plasticity? “They definitely go together,” replies Aarnio. “I proceed quite explicitly from visuality. But if it’s an object for use, ergonomic considerations are immediately included. It’s not hard to make a chair that’s good to sit in, but to make a chair that’s good to sit in while also a thing of beauty is a problem.” Ergonomic properties are even hidden in the Ball or Pastil chair, says Aarnio with a smile. “I always proceed from the fact that if I make a chair it has to be good to sit in.”

Many of the products designed by Eero Aarnio seem to have required experimentation and invention. “I certainly experiment, as much as I can,” says Aarnio. “At times there are really strange constructions in which I sit…” The next experiments are done in the production stage. “When I made one leather-upholstered seat, I had in principle only some kind of a sketch of what I was aiming at. It was done just by talking, in conversation with the upholsterer and the cabinetmaker,” explains Aarnio. It is not always possible to draw; one can see better with the eye and the hand – and above all by sitting.

Aarnio actually sculpted the Polaris plastic chair. He bought clay and shaped it, testing the piece by sitting in it. But the resin mould melted along with the clay when being washed in Aarnio’s bathroom. “It all went down the drain, a lot of work… But it ultimately became my best-selling chair.” A few prototypes were made of Styrofoam, as in the case of Pony, which Aarnio, now with the benefit of experience, sculpted outdoors. Inside the house, the statically charged scraps and bits of cut Styrofoam attached themselves to everything.

Aarnio no longer makes prototypes himself, leaving instead the work to professionals. But he still knows how to do it. “If necessary, I’ll do it myself. The Ball Chair’s a good example,” he recalls.

”I work with all kinds of shapes, but the plastic form is characteristic of plastics as a material,” says Eero Aarnio. “And anything that can be made industrially is inexpensive.” The manufacturing technology must of course be taken into account: it is from this that the further work on form proceeds after the initial idea. New things emerge continuously. For example the design of a watering can introduced Aarnio to injection casting, leading to the idea of making a chair with this technique.

Aarnio was also among the first to use computer assisted design. “I already used a computer a lot in 1980. It was something completely new then, and you couldn’t do very much with it.” The Kimara furniture collection for the Asko company was designed with the aid of a computer. It employed modular parts that could be combined to create an immense number of variations. “It received immense publicity back in 1982,” recalls Aarnio. “It was noted in the trade press, even as far as Germany, that Aarnio is now designing with a computer.”

Eero Aarnio works fast. He has several projects under way at the same time, and if one isn’t making progress, it can be set aside to mature for a while. Aarnio points out, however, that ‘fast’ is a relative term. The initial designs for some products may wait years. The ideas will reach quite a developed stage in the designer’s mind. “I have a computer in my head,” says Aarnio with a laugh. “I see forms as three-dimensional… The hard thing is to imagine them as a surface, to draw three projections. But it doesn’t take long to draw.”

Aarnio draws the blueprints by hand. ”I draw them in full scale. That’s the right scale for people, you can grasp it immediately. I almost always draw the upholstery with black felt pen. It’s almost like making the pieces, you can already see the mass. If I only draw the contours then it’s only a line. But if you give it, in a sense, mass, weight, visual weight on paper, then it’s quite close to the real feeling.

The plasticity of forms helps in seeing them already on paper. “My drawing process is quite fast,” notes Aarnio. “First I sketch in freehand. All the decisive things take place at this stage. Then I start to check measurements, to have the right ergonomics. Then I already start to draw the final version. And always with a felt pen, you don’t make mistakes with that. The only thing that can help is a pair of scissors. And sometimes you have to do that, too… though fortunately less often. Or mask it with white tape or whatever. It’s all a kind of patchwork …"

The drawings are then worked to suit the production process in collaboration with the manufacturer. “I supervise that,” says Aarnio. “Changing things, I’m standing there behind the computer operator’s back, saying this isn’t quite what I had in mind. You can already explore a three-dimensional model at that stage. Everything that I’ve turned around in my head is now turned around in the computer, and I make changes to it. The watering can is a good example; there were a lot of small changes to it.”

Aarnio always has a vision of the manufacturing technique. “I know how the product is made. I could do it myself… The Ball Chair has a fibreglass frame, tubular reinforcement, an aluminium leg, upholstery. You have to know something about all of these things. And of costs…”

Many of Aarnio’s designs have a playful aspect to them: Puppy, Pony, Pastil and many others prompt a smile of understanding a joke on the viewer’s face. Is playfulness deliberate? ”No, I suppose it’s a character trait!” laughs Aarnio, but soon becomes serious: ”A sense of humour and play are synonyms of a kind of creativity. I think all these things function together.” The important thing is to experiment and to find a new aspect, to see it in some new way. “I’ve often said that a seat doesn’t have to look like a chair; it can be a stone or a stump, anything. You can sit in many ways on Pony. Some people call it a chair, but it’s not a chair – it’s a seat.”

Aarnio regards the Bubble chair, the manufacturing of which does not require a mould, as one of his most inventive products. The form comes from blowing air into acrylic sheeting, the same principle as a soap bubble – from which the whole idea for the chair in fact came, from childhood memories. The idea of the transparent chair, in turn, evolved from the Ball Chair, which was too dark for reading in. The result was, once again, a design icon.

When Puppy, an object or seat resembling a dog and made by Magis of Italy, came on the market, it immediately became popular. The time was right for it. Play and a childlike spirit were also permitted for adults. “For children it’s obviously an object for use, at least when our grandchildren came over, they started to ride on it straight away. And for grown-ups it’s a kind of modern sculpture,” analyses Aarnio. No less astounding is one of his most recent products, The Tree, a tree-shaped partition designed for the Martela company. Its sculptural shape demands space and attention.

Eero Aarnio is accustomed to celebrity and success: he has decades of experience in these matters ever since the widespread attention given to the Ball Chair. Aarnio’s first official distinction came already in 1964 at the International Competition on Furniture Design in Cantù, Italy. In 2005 he was awarded the Finland Prize of the Finnish Ministry of Education, and in 2007 he was given the honorary title of professor. A crowning achievement is the coveted Compasso d’Oro award received in the spring of 2008 for the Trioli children’s chair made by Magis. This prize has previously gone to only two other Finns, Kaj Franck himself and Harri Koskinen. “Of course it’s nice,” says  Aarnio. “My work has been noticed and recognized, and I have a very high regard for the Compasso d’Oro prize. It is awarded every three years, a highly esteemed prize jury, large numbers of good works are considered and only ten are chosen.” 

And now he is receiving the Kaj Franck Design Prize. What do fame and success feel like? “Of course it’s positive and certainly no drawback!” replies Aarnio. “I always maintain that if I have an idea that I think is good, I will start to work on it, regardless of the results. That’s how you learn. There’s no way you can succeed every time. But fewer and fewer things will go wrong. In this profession, age is no handicap but instead an asset. Your professional skills increase.

Although the public knows Eero Aarnio for his colourful plastic chairs, lamps and playful objects, his achievements include numerous items of “ordinary” furniture designed for homes and offices and made in large series. He still owns the rights to all his products and is quite strict about having as many of them as possible made in Finland. The copying of designs that has followed in the wake of fame and success annoys Aarnio particularly because it is a theft of not only his income but also of revenue for the whole Finnish chain of manufacture. Responsibility is also evident in plastic products. Environmental considerations are on Aarnio’s mind, although he notes that most plastics, among others those that are used in rotation casting, can now be recycled. 

Even after a career of several decades Aarnio cannot say where his continuing supply of ideas and creativity comes from. Time and again, new objects, forms and ideas flow from his drawing board. Only the material and scale vary. “That is precisely creativity,” he says. “My problem is not to find new ideas; it’s to find manufacturers that will devote effort and resources to them.”

The original ideas for many of the forms created by Eero Aarnio come from nature. “There are no forms that don’t exist in nature… whatever you draw, you’ll find it in nature,” he points out. “I can’t say if it inspires me or not, but I go around with my eyes open.” But of course, rather than applying the forms of nature as such, Aarnio abstracts, shapes and reduces them into original designs.

A great source of inspiration for the unity of forms, material and function has also been provided by vernacular artefacts and architecture. He does not find tradition and heritage to be a hindrance, quite the opposite. “As a Finn, I always point to our National Museum as a treasure-trove. How clever our forefathers were in solving all manner of practical problems from building houses to making tools and clothing. Everything had to be obtained from nature unaided, materials and solutions alike.”

Eero Aarnio still has the energy for wonderment, enthusiasm, ideas and endless experiments. The result has been an inimitable oeuvre full of the abundance of form.

© Anne Veinola

Portrait: Liisa Valonen