Kaj Franck Design Prize 2022
Cabinetmaker Kari Virtanen knows wood. Its structure and character, the various wood species and their features, the best ways to work with wood. The joints, surface treatments, the season to fell and dry out wood. He also knows how to turn wood into furniture, chairs, benches, tables and cabinets.
Kari Virtanen’s childhood dream was his own woodworking shop. He started to study cabinetmaking as soon as it was possible: learning to make doors and windows, pieces of furniture and building parts. And based in Ostrobothnia, he also acquired the wood-carving skills for which the region was known. He found opportunities to make furniture of various styles and to repair old pieces. As a pattern maker, he also learned to read architects’ and designers’ drawings. That taught him a lot about structures and dimensions, he says.
Kari Virtanen was 19 years old when he bought his own workshop in 1967. Its former owner was a company called Nikkarinkoski Oy; over the years the name developed into the company and brand Nikari. The brand is now known for its furniture collection that combines Finnish design with wood knowhow and high quality craftmanship. In addition to the products designed by Kari Virtanen, the collection includes furniture by several Finnish and international designers.
Alvar Aalto’s architectural office was one of the first clients of Nikari. They were building a parish centre in Seinäjoki, which meant work for a pattern maker for several years. Studying Aalto’s drawings made Kari Virtanen see his own work from a new perspective. By then he had built plenty of furniture in historicism styles. But shouldn’t every period produce the style and form ideas of its own? Another important influencer was Kaj Franck, who was then developing the handicraft industry in Ostrobothnia. From him, Virtanen learned the importance of ecology, sustainable design, functionality and teamwork.
Kari Virtanen designed his first furniture items in the end of the 1960s. After that came small production runs, often in cooperation with architects. The serial production began in the end of the 1990s. The chair KVT1, originally designed for teaching purposes for the University of Arts and Design in Helsinki, was of interest to Steven Holl, the architect of the Kiasma museum, and a stackable version was created for the museum. The chair was followed by other pieces of furniture, and the first collection, called Seminar, was born.
Kari Virtanen’s designs do not start at drawings. “For a cabinetmaker, the drawing is kind of an unnecessary intermediate phase,” he says. The product must exist as a clear vision in your mind, and then you just start working on it. “You learn to perceive the product by doing, it already exists in your mind. Often the decisive factor is the structure; I have an idea of it, and that may produce the form.” The material and the need form the basis, and they, organically and naturally and together with the function, produce the resulting item.
In design work, the production process is key: the capacity of the factory, the costs. Nikari would not have sustained in business for over half a century without a solid understanding of production and cost structure. We can talk about commercial matters for a long while, Kari Virtanen laughs. Nikari’s sales are divided in several sectors both in Finland and abroad: private consumers are found through one resale network, professional interior design projects through another. The “key players”, says Virtanen, are those products that form the basis of the collection and keep selling year after year, such as the Seminar furniture.
Naturally, one has to know one’s raw material – wood – and its possibilities, as any wood species cannot be used for any product. “Material and form go hand in hand; they need to complement each other in the right way and create a useful solution,” Virtanen says. “For example, for flexible strength, we need to use European ash in certain products. The core cabinetmaking skill is good knowledge of the material.”
Professional skills have been a key factor in Kari Virtanen’s success in addition to high quality, and this is what designers and architects appreciate. Since the early pattern making assignments, Nikari has collaborated with designers in various construction and interior design projects in and outside Finland. One of Nikari’s strengths is flexibility: design, production and sales are all managed by the company itself, so almost any item of the collection can be customized when necessary.
In addition to architects, Kari Virtanen has often worked with students; with both future designers and cabinetmakers. In doing that he can pass on woodworking and cabinetmaking skills to a new generation, just like he was able to learn from the masters in his early years. He has studied Japanese wood working, for example, to awoke new ideas regarding the material, product quality and the value of maintaining traditions.
Wood inspires Kari Virtanen as a living raw material that changes over time. Long experience, perhaps those wood-carving skills, too, have provided him with a deep understanding of wood. One has to know how to work (with) wood and how different wood species behave. How to carve wood into three-dimensional forms, what kind of forms or structures are feasible? Or how wood behaves in different conditions: wooden parts may become tighter or looser over time, how do you cope with that? And what about the various joints available: the classic finger and mortise and tenon joints, the dovetail – they are all parts of the product, yet decorative motifs at the same time.
In the spring of 2022, it will be 60 years since Kari Virtanen first started to learn about cabinetmaking. The years have brought him success, awards and projects that have ended up in museum collections, all of which he is grateful; his career proved to be the right choice. Now he has time to explore and invent in his own “experimentation workshop”, as he still has plenty of ideas to share – and a lot of wood material stored. One must trust that the best work remains to be done, he says, smiling. “The keynote, however, has always been wood knowhow,” he says. “And the fact that the craftsmanship of the woodworker will never be obsolete. It continues to pass on from generation to generation.”
Design Forum Finland