Artek was founded in 1935 by husband and wife architect pairing, Aino and Alvar Aalto, art collector Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl. All four were modernists and convinced that radical contemporary art, architecture and industrial development was a crucial building block in the ongoing development of society. The Aalto’s were already established as architects and furniture designers in their own right, with the creation of Paimio Sanitarium; a bright and airy Gesamtkunstwerk furnished with clean, hygienic chairs for visitors in moulded wood that, together with the library in Viipuri, in its radical functionalist style, attracted plenty of international attention. The library was furnished with a stackable stool with moulded L-shaped legs. Otto Korhonen, who contributed his unique technical expertise to its construction, produced the furniture in Åbo.

The embryo of Artek got its first real outing in the summer of 1933 when Aalto was invited to CIAM (Congrés Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), which met in Athens. A worried Alvar Aalto, who at the time hardly spoke a word of anything resembling a second language, persuaded the also linguistically-restricted art historian Hahl to join him at the congress. The task was to facilitate a lively interaction with the architect, Le Corbusier, architecture theorist Sigfried Gideon, and artists Lazlo Moholo-Nagy and Fernand Léger. The subject was modern urban construction. The talks centred on how the public would gain an understand of the new, radical approach. Gideon, with his shop Wohnbedarf in Zurich, and Le Corbusier, mentor for Marcel Michaud’s boutique Stylclair in Lyon, saw a way to bring modernism forward by introducing new furniture by Marcel Breuer and Aalto, together with art by Max Ernst, Léger, Matisse or Picasso. For Aalto, furniture was both architecture and art; the legs of his Viipuri stool like the little sister to the architectural column.

In the autumn of the same year, Aalto’s radical furniture drew great attention when it appeared at London’s Fortnum & Mason store. To cope with distribution the company Finmar was founded, who sent orders to the factory in Åbo. Yet Korhonen had not yet mastered English and nothing materalised at the factory, which worried Aalto. Hahl was called in to rectify the situation. Best to open a combined gallery/store like in Zurich or Lyon, he thought. However, what was missing was money. In his circle of friends was Maire Gullichsen who had spent some time in Paris studying art at Léger’s painting school among other things. Gullichsen was a modernist and had financial resources at her disposal. Hahl initiated her in the plans and together they visited Aino and Alvar Aalto in the autumn of 1935 for further discussions. In Gullichsen’s mind she was terribly nervous – Aalto was already a name to be reckoned with. However he simply stared at her legs and said; “Well why not.” Perhaps a tall tale but regardless he soon came upon the ingenious business name ‘Artek’ – Art and Technology.

Some months later and Artek began in earnest, taking care of both domestic and export sales including a number of prestigious interior design projects. Aino Aalto was responsible for the design department and range development. Artek’s first art exhibition in 1937 showed works by Alexander Calder and Léger. Four years later Nils-Gustav Hahl, the first managing director, was sadly killed in the Second World War.

During the 1950’s and 60’s, Artek in Helsinki became a beacon for contemporary and modern design. The public was treated to a parade of Finnish form and curated international design. A stage for Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair as well as Charles and Ray Eames furniture, all interacting harmoniously with Aalto’s design language. But the generation of ‘68 would not be loyal to Artek’s exclusive modernism that they saw as being targeted at the staid middle classes. The business suffered a knock from this seeming rebellion against Alvar Aalto and went almost stagnant, burdened as it was by the responsibility of a production completely dominated by Artek’s own needs.

It was almost paralyzing yet perhaps support could be found in Sweden?

The year was 1992. Robert Weil had, through the successful company Proventus (harvest in Latin) and the contemporary art museum Magasin III, demonstrated a commitment to art and industrial production. Between Art and Tech. Weil was convinced of the importance of cross-fertilisation between different forms of creativity and let it permeate through his business. A Finnish/Swedish dialogue ensued between Proventus and the families of Aalto and Gullichsen, eventually leading to an agreement that saw the former take ownership of Artek.

The timing was perfect. For, while the deal was still being drawn out, the fascination for eccentric postmodernism was fading and in its place grew a new interest in modern classics from the 1900’s. Young designers saw with fresh eyes the quality created by modernists such as Aalto, Breuer or Kaj Franck.

With Proventus as new owners came an injection of new energy, allowing Artek to do an update of its classics and meet the rampant international interest. Aalto furniture made an amazing comeback. Brilliant even in the art field as demonstrated when German artist Tobias Rehberger showed his sculptural bar at the Venice Biennale in 2009 – a room where Aalto’s works and the artist’s own interpretation of Aalto’s forms invited the audience to become a part of the installation. It was no coincidence that Steve Jobs later specced the classic 60 stool throughout Apple stores to echo its own minimalist products.

And now to 2013. The furniture manufacturer Vitra, during the second half of the 1900’s and in the 2000’s, has always impressed with its design strategies. A name that has transformed from a licensed manufacturing company to one of the most high-profile design companies in its own right. According to history, Vitra’s Swiss founder Willi Fehlbaum went to the US where an Eames chair reportedly ‘Blew his mind’. The piece was produced by Herman Miller Inc. Seven years later in 1957, his company Vitra won the rights to produce and distribute Miller’s collection designed by Charles and Ray Eames in Europe. To meet US demand, Fehlbaum’s son Rolf came to help his non-English speaking parents. The experience of visiting Eames and George Nelson gave the young boy an intimate, private education in design strategy, knowledge that he could later expand through his studies in philosophy and anthropology. With his collection of chairs, Rolf Fehlbaum regarded himself as a font of knowledge in his field. The chairs provided considerable visual and cultural insights yet his goal was, ultimately, a career in academics.

These plans were amended in 1977 and, casting aside his previous aspirations, he took over leadership of Vitra and developed a new sense of purpose. It was in 1989 that Fehlbaum shook the design world by assembling his entire collection in a brand new design museum by Frank Gehry in Weil am Rhein and then converted the surrounding factory area into an architectural park with buildings by Nicholas Grimshaw, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Sanaa and Herzog de Meuron.

Another step was to meet the changing needs of modern office environments brought on by computerisation. The new workplace demanded a deeper understanding. Fehlbaum set the task to Ettore Sottsass Jr, Andrea Branzi, Michele De Lucchi and James Irvine, who responded by thinking heavily about the needs of the worker and create ‘Citizen Office’.

Fehlbaum’s ambition has never been to detect the stars before they rise, but to see potential talent and invite them for serious collaboration work. Ron Arad, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Antonio Citterio, Konstantin Grcic, Hella Jongerius, Jasper Morrison and Maarten van Severen number among the talents anointed by Fehlbaum to date.

Vitra’s formula to nurture classics, identify new ones in a contemporary context, and to cultivate a continuation of the Art and Tech agenda through teamwork and respect is deeply linked to Artek’s own 80-year history. Likewise Rolf Fehlbaum’s contribution to the new gender balance through the handover of operations to his niece, Nora Fehlbaum. All eras have a beginning and an end. Proventus’ own analysis is that Artek must be allowed to develop in a context that provides safety through being stronger internationally, reflecting a limitless potential for development. A ‘national tag’ is of little relevance when the focus lies in the deep understanding of human values. I can hardly think of a more constructive choice for Artek than to lie in Vitra’s embrace.


In years:



Artek was established by architect Alvar Aalto and his wife, Aino Aalto; visual arts promoter, Maire Gullichsen; and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl.



Proventus was invited by the foundersfamilies to became majority owner of Artek.



Artek falls under new ownership for the third time since it was founded in 1935. After more than 20 years with the Proventus group, it became a part of the Swiss furniture company, Vitra. The acquisition ensured that Artek would remain in a strong position to further realize its potential.


Daniel Sachs, Rolph Fehlbaum, Mirkku Kullberg, Robert Weil, Nora Fehlbaum