An interview with Finnish designer Yrjö Kukkapuro

Dense rows of fir-trees pierced frozen lakes and red cabins with oxen’s blood; Children in snowshoes cruising on icy sidewalks; A crystal-tipped herb that grinds underfoot. A trip to Yrjö Kukkapuro studio on the outskirts of Helsinki is a proper Finnish excursion.

But once you get in, all the Scandinavian clichés end. Rows of chairs with colorful legs and patterned backs on the walls are stacked in seemingly random groups; Books, paintbrushes, drawings and models occupy every surface; The sunlit walls are crowded with images and reason, and in the middle of them sits Kookaburo in his canary yellow hat.

Yrjö Kukkapuro in his studio

Yrjö Kukkapuro in his Kauniaine studio, photographed in February 2020. The unique sofa was painted by his friend Pino Milas in the 1970s

If anyone has a back catalog of design summarizing the artistic movements and global economic transformations of the last century, it is Kukkapuro. Qualified as an industrial designer in the 1950s, a golden age in Finnish design thanks to Alvar Aalto, Kaj Frank and the like; He witnessed the plastic revolution of the 1960s, the postmodern rebellion of the 1980s, and the rise of CNC cutting technology in the 1990s – and embraced it all. In the 1990s, he saw his production move to China, and found fame there from the 2000s onwards, reaping the fruits of the digital revolution and the onset of globalization. Each new decade cements his reputation and solidifies his legacy as one of the greatest masters of modern design.

“Creating a bestseller, this is the dream” – Yrjö Kukkapuro

Almost every school, doctor’s surgery, museum, and airport in Finland, at one time or another, has had Kukkapuro chairs. Some still do. The Oodi Central Library in Helsinki, completed by ALA Architects in 2018, has ‘CNC’ chairs and ‘A500’ rocking chairs in the second floor reading lounge; His “Karuselli” and “Moderno” chairs fill the city’s Kaisa Library. Its survival, decades after it was first designed, is a source of great pride for Kukkapuro. “To make a bestseller, it’s the dream,” he says.

His daughter Issa sits next to him and guides us through the interview. His only child, she was tasked with documenting all of her father’s work and compiling his archive – currently a pile of papers overflowing from box files behind his desk. His wife, Ermili, a graphic artist, is upset by her mood board across from the studio, too sick to paint anymore. Its decline has been devastating. After an hour of conversation, the color drains from his face, and Kookaburo apologizes. He needs rest. He points to Eremily and they move, holding hands, to the next house where they now live. “It’s a very difficult moment,” Issa says.

Left, prototype of the “A500” seat, 1985. Right, prototype of the “Color Experiment” seat, 2016

Yrjö and Irmeli met when they were students at the Ateneum School of Art in Helsinki and married in 1956. Kukkapuro was studying furniture design and was the only one on the course who knew how to make prototypes. This was thanks to his childhood in eastern Finland, where he made boats and bicycles with his father (a construction worker and painter), and a seamstress with his mother (a tailor). Upon graduation, he set up a workshop, which he called Moderno, and created group after group of sofas, beds, and sofas with a typical Nordic look. A commission from an architect to create a chair and footstool for a new shoe store in Helsinki led to the Moderno chain. Over the years, this has expanded into six pieces and has become the perfect Kukkapuro collection. It is still produced today by Lepo Product in Finland and Avarte in China.

“Sitting on a Kukkapuro chair is like a treat,” says Johani Lemette, a Kookaburo collector and founder of the Lemmetti Gallery in Helsinki. “It’s designed with the lower back in mind.” Kukkapuro remembers that it was a lecture on work environment that influenced his approach. “It made me see that making furniture has a physiological and scientific dimension, and that’s been part of everything I’ve been doing since then.” This obsession with posture, comfort, and body means the chair can take years to adjust.

While searching for his “Karuselli” chair, Kookaburo wrapped himself in chicken wire, made a plaster mold of his body in a relaxed position, carved around it until he was satisfied with its shape, and then built a fiberglass prototype. As a result of four years of experiments, the “Karuselli” chair went into production in 1964 and was an instant success. Terrence Konran praised this chair as the most comfortable he’s ever sat on, and it’s still in production with Finnish manufacturer Artek.

Built on the outskirts of Helsinki by designer and his wife Irmeli in 1968, Yrjö Kukkapuro’s studio features a curved concrete ceiling.

Irmeli has also always been a good test model. Kookaburo says, she is younger than me, so we can compare the feel of the chair.

“But it has always been important to me to be close to her, to see color as she does.” The couple built the studio, with its wave-like concrete roof, in 1968, on a plot of land given to them by Eremily’s father, and they worked together side by side for 52 years.

Irmeli’s entries have never been more valuable than the ’80s Experiment collection, a series of birch plywood, steel chairs, tables and sofas with armrests and legs in bold colours. Kukkapuro saw this as an exploration of “decorative function” and welcomed postmodernism as a delightful break from the functionalist trends of the 1970s workspace.

Kukkapuro sitting on the “Karuselli” lounge chair

Since 2015, Kukkapuro has collaborated with Lemmetti to create limited editions of two chairs and a table for the new “Color Experiment” series. Lemmetti has been collecting Kukkapuro chairs for 30 years and has collected over 40 prototypes, experimental and production pieces. Yrjö thinks of everything – form, function, ergonomics and colour. It’s creative, but it’s also practical. For me, he is one of the most important designers in the world. A fourth “Color Experiment” chair will launch this spring at the show, and with so many prototypes in stock, it’s not hard to imagine future collaborations.

In the middle of the studio is a unique three-seater sofa, painted with a mountain scene. It’s the result of a chaotic visit in 1972 from Pino Milas, a friend of graphic design, in need of some research and development, which Kukkapuro commissioned to decorate. Life in the workshop was unconventional. Friends, helpers, and collaborators came and went frequently. Issa’s bedroom was a small extension off the small kitchen; Kukkapuro and Irmeli sleep in a split bed behind a bookcase and the bathrooms are a fiberglass closet with shower heads. Kukkapuro has won many awards, and trips abroad for lectures and exhibitions were also popular; The three once piled into a Mini Clubman, pitched a tent in the trunk, and hit the road for four months.

‘Sculpture Lamp Blue Shade’, 2019 (a one-of-a-kind piece made by Kukkapuro for an exhibition in Estonia, and Nelonen Profile Chair, 1990s

A prototype called the “simple” chair (we are its first audience) is animated. It was shipped from China and is the first version of what Kukkapuro hopes will be the “world’s simplest chair”. It has a black leather seat, black plywood back and steel frame and looks appropriately straight. Kukkapuro walks around, shaking his head. It’s a bit high, and I think the steel arms might be nicer in the ash. He will return to Avarte, who has produced his pieces for 20 years, to be modified.

Kukkapuro first went to China in 1997, at the invitation of architect and researcher Fang Hai, to give lectures on contemporary design in universities. It was the start of a new chapter. There, he worked with master carpenter Yin Hongqian to create the “East West Collection,” a series of chairs that combine clean lines, polished bamboo, and Chinese carpentry. These, along with historical pieces made by Avarte, flooded the Chinese market and transformed Kukkapuro’s fortunes.

An original model of the Kukkapuro ‘Fysio’ office chair, 1976, in pressed birch plywood and fabric

Details of the ‘Color Composition’ chair, 1993

At the same time, Finland was recovering from the recession of the late 1980s and the focus at home shifted to environmental design. Kukkapuro created a set of hardwoods in an unloved and unwanted elder. bombed. When he took it to an exhibition in Berlin, a visitor congratulated him on this strong Finnish style. I have crushed. There I was, thinking I was a world class designer! “

Thus, when the Museum of Design in Helsinki invited him to create a series of “visually exciting” chairs in 1993, Kukkapuro contacted a friend, the late Finnish graphic designer Tapani Aartomaa, and together they created “Tattooed,” a set of plywood chairs emblazoned with bold logos and motifs. Eye-catching trees, dragons and tigers.

Color also put on his “CNC” chairs, designed in 2008 for his retrospective at the museum, to celebrate the possibilities of computer-controlled machines. The idea was to show how efficiently technology can be used in materials. How many chairs did Kukkapuro make in his lifetime? He says, “I don’t know.” about 100? One day I will have to count them. §

Chair “Color Composition”, 1993

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