At first glance there is little “Finnish” about the Karuselli, a lounge chair created in 1964 and launched the following year at the Cologne Furniture Fair by Nordic brand Haimi.1Developed by Finnish designer Yrjö Kukkapuro (b. 1933) the Karuselli was avant-garde and progressive, with a shell made from the contemporary material fibreglass and a scooped leather seat that hung from a metal frame so as to let it swivel and rock. The Karuselli was fun and futuristic, seemingly flying in the face of the dominant Finnish tradition of functionalism.
Rather than recall the simplicity and purity of the work of Kukkapuro’s countrymen such as AIvar Aalto or Ilmari Tapiovaara, the Karuselli steered closer to the spirit of Pop Art design, sharing a design language with chairs such as Arne Jacobsen’s Egg or Werner Panton’s Cone. Two years prior to the creation of the Karuselli, the arch-functionalist Dieter Rams had designed the 620 Chair for Vitsœ – a cubic leather lounge chair that also had in a fibreglass-like shell – and the Karuselli can at times reads like a subversion of this piece – an airier, flamboyantly “pop” take on Rams’ monolithic work.
Yet this sense of play belies the functional core to the Karuselli, an aspect of the design that has been somewhat lost in the fanciful anecdotes that surround its creation (that it grew from Kukkapuro building snow chairs with his daughter; that he had fallen drunkenly in the snow and been inspired by how the powder moulded around his body as support). Kukkapuro designed the chair to be highly ergonomic, developing its curves by placing wire meshes on existing lounge chairs to see how they reacted to a body’s weight. At the heart of the Karuselli project was a commitment to function, an approach echoed in Kukkapuro’s most widely known quote – “Does it make any sense to design a chair which is not good to sit on?”
Along with works such as his Ateljee sofa and A series of tubular steel rod chairs, Kukkapuro’s Karuselli has been in continuous production since its creation. Yet its appearance under the Artek banner this week is nonetheless significant. Artek’s acquisition of Kukkapuro’s back catalogue – and its plan to release the Karuselli – was announced on 2 September 2013. Four days later the company revealed that it had been purchased by Vitra.
While plans for the Karuselli began prior to the purchase by Vitra, it is nonetheless the first product to be released by Artek since the purchase. In many ways it is an expected one. Artek specialises in Finnish design, with much of its income generated through its re-editions of mid-20th-century designs by its founder Alvar Aalto and his contemporary Ilmari Tapiovaara.2 In this sense the Karuselli fits the Artek mould – a mid-century work created by a celebrated Finnish designer.3
Yet Kukkapuro is a less obvious fit for Artek than either Aalto or Tapiovaara. Rather than work within the strictures of functionalism, Kukkapuro’s work was more outward-looking and international. Along with his contemporary Antii Nurmesniemi, Kukkapuro’s sleek designs and modern material choices drew strongly on the International Style.
Prior to its purchase by Vitra, around 60 per cent of Artek’s turnover was accounted for by the domestic market, with the company’s CEO Mirkku Kullberg explaining the sale as being driven by a desire to increase the brand’s international reputation. “The international dimension, which was a clear goal already in Artek’s founding manifesto of 1935, needed to be revitalised,” admitted Kullberg when announcing the sale.
With this in mind, it is difficult not to see the release of the Karuselli as indicative of Artek’s future, fitting neatly as it does alongside Vitra re-editions such as Panton’s Cone chair and Charles and Ray Eames’ extensive back catalogue of plastic and fibreglass furniture. The Karuselli, one of the most international of Finnish chairs, may prove the first statement of Artek’s renewed emphasis on the international market.