"One chair is enough"

April 6, 2009

Mirkku Kullberg, CEO of Artek, talks to us about Artek's philosophy, sustainability, and the effects of the financial crisis on design trends.

One of Artek’s slogans – “One chair is enough” – is a bit odd for a company whose idea is to produce and sell furniture… Could you tell us about the philosophy behind this statement?

The original 1935 Artek Manifesto, the most inspiring brand manual and business plan I have ever seen, is divided into three sections; art, architecture/design and propaganda.  The basic idea of educating people to consume in an intelligent way is now lifted up by contemporary propaganda. “One Chair is Enough” is one way of questioning the consumption, more specifically the overconsumption. We should become much more responsible with our shopping habits and understand that the material well being and wealth do not make us happy and bring security. Most of us go for quantity instead of quality, lured by the ease of getting more stuff cheaper. When we become conscious about what we buy, we end up with more space for appreciating the objects that surround us. Less is again more. We believe that being provocative and propagandistic makes people think, and Artek wants to promote thinking. That is the best way of doing interesting marketing.

The Artek propaganda will also be visible in all our carry-away packages.

You are talking about the “sharing economy”. How would a company like Artek survive in such a system?

Actually this “sharing economy” has been around since Artek was founded. People bought the stools, chairs, tables and kept them as long as possible, donated them to their children and let them live on for generations. The "2nd Cycle" is indeed about that, products having a new life in a new environment with new owners. It is very obvious that the exchange of things instead of buying is becoming more and more relevant.

Somehow this is a combination of “gift economy” and sustainable thinking. It is important to understand all counter reactions to “shop till you drop”. I remember well when we shared clothes with my friends, books at school etc. and that is not so long ago. This hedonistic “mine and only mine” time is becoming increasingly depressing.

“Sustainability as an Attitude” is another Artek slogan. By creating the 2nd Cycle Artek wants to raise the discussion of conscious consuming, praise the authentic design and honour the importance of originality. How does it work in reality?

It is important to notice that Artek from the very beginning stated this attitude. The conscious consuming and sustainability can not start today and be ready tomorrow, it cannot be glued on company values without a deeper meaning and substance. It is a question of process; educating ourselves, as well as the environment around us. This is very much about everyday learning and how the world around us is challenging us.

The "2nd Cycle" is a good example of how a simple thing can actually be the most impressive thing. It is a way of connecting rational and emotional thinking. Old, used Aalto stools have had a life and through the "2nd Cycle" they are reborn. And you know you can repair these pieces, buy a brand new leg, paint them new and upholster them with your favourite fabric. These old pieces of furniture can lead to an interesting business idea of providing a service and maintenance for the Artek furniture. It is like a guarantee of quality, longevity and responsibility.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental and ethical aspects of design and production processes. This would presumably favour a brand like Artek which is committed to innovation and sustainability, right? Have you noticed any difference in consumer behaviour during the last couple of years?

There are interesting changes in consumption. The fashion industry is going to make a wider audience wake up. Fashion is very communicative. I think that fast fashion has had a huge impact on the design industry; it became equally fast and lost a lot of the functionality and beauty.

Now Artek has a great opportunity to be on the front line. The whole company strategy promotes these relevant values and aspects.

It is clear that there are differences between nations, but in general the world has become so much smaller through the internet with the result that critical consuming is an issue everywhere. There will be more people who care and people who do not care at all, but less of those who are without an opinion. The middle class in the consumers pyramid will get smaller - partly because of education and information but also because of the recession.

Last year was characterised by the turmoil in the financial sector. Consumption is now falling in most developed markets. How will high-end design cope?

High-end design will also be viewed critically. The value vs. the money you pay, must really be in balance. Good design brings security and it is an investment. Artek is an old company with a very solid brand image and this is of course a benefit.  The pop-star design, experience economy and “wow culture” have never really been the ambiance for Artek. The more responsibility driven, “why thinking” and simple functionality is more in line with our thinking. Empty values and promises do not work now.

Do you think that design trends in general will be affected by the financial crisis? If so, how?

Everything will be affected by the financial crisis. There will be fewer players in the end; companies have had to re-think their design processes and their product launches. The media will be critical towards novelties, questioning the real innovation, searching for intelligent approaches.

It is a paradox that we appreciate things only when we have lost them. This is kind of a hit back from the nature, overusing the nature and energy resources teaches us a lesson which will have an impact on everything.

The annual Milan Furniture Fair is soon coming up (April 2009). What will Artek be showing this year?

Artek will have a very strong presentation at hall 12 with the theme “One Chair is Enough” and that one chair is from Shigeru Ban. It will have the same ideology and logic that Alvar Aalto´s stools and small chairs. It is all about systems and standards. The 10 UNIT SYSTEM by Shigeru Ban is constructed from 10 similar components, so called L –units.  The research and engineering is visible in the material; it is the same wood-plastic composite from UPM that was used in the Artek Pavilion. This year the Pavilion architecture turns to design and to a piece of furniture - or actually a furniture system.

What is the most exciting happening within Artek at the moment?

Most exciting is definitely the Milan launch and the whole idea of propaganda and going again against the mainstream. That is inspiring. Then there is the Venice Art Biennale where Artek is collaborating with three top artists. Edgy projects within art, architecture and technology is making the company so vibrant and alive.

Proventus' engagement in Artek