With the news that the German furniture company Vitra is acquiring Finnish firm Artek, Sophie Lovell asks: is this just a friendly fusion of two modernist design giants, or a further sign of the continued downturn?
In the same week that Microsoft acquired struggling mobile phone giant Nokia – and in a year that has seen Finland’s economy going into recession – comes the news that another Finnish design giant, Artek, is changing hands. In the inevitably upbeat press statements from the company about the takeover it seems, that this is merely a logical further step in their quest for international expansion, but with: “synergies between different operations” being “explored” relating to “manufacturing, distribution, logistics” also mentioned, other economic factors may also be playing their part.
In the ongoing climate of belt-tightening and shifting markets, that is affecting almost all furniture manufacturers, these companies need to be nimble and adaptable to opportunity and change if they are to survive. Even more so with the rise and rise of heavily leveraged online “design stores” turning their hand to self-production like so many mini Ikeas. As a strategy, Artek has had its sights set on international expansion for some time. Despite sale offices in New York, Berlin, Stockholm and Tokyo, the local domestic market still accounts for some 60% of turnover according to their own figures. Late last year the company set up a new European HQ in Berlin and engaged itself increasingly with the German design scene. It also acquired the rights to Ilmari Tapiovaara’s furniture collection, little known outside Finland: the take-over should help change that too. The firm’s CEO Mirkku Kullberg explains: “The international dimension, which was a clear goal already in Artek’s founding manifesto of 1935, needed to be revitalised. That arena is where we want to be, and alliances or ownership arrangements are one way of building the future… This is a great opportunity for the Finnish design industry and a major move for Artek, lifting the company to the next stage.” Let’s hope so.
Artek was founded in 1935 by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, his wife Aino, art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl and art promoter Marie Gullichsen as a practical expression of the synthesis of the arts – complete with its own manifesto. Since then the company has grown to offer a select product range of functional furniture and lighting designs from the likes of Eero Aarnio, Shigeru Ban, Naoto Fukasawa, Enzo Mari and Tobias Rehberger. The firm’s products are particularly famous for their use of Finnish birch wood as a material, finished to perfection and occasionally highlighted with a palette of classic modernist colours.
Vitra, based in Weil-am-Rhein on the German Swiss border, was founded in the 1950s by another husband and wife duo Willi and Erika Fehlbaum. On a trip to the USA in 1953, they were captivated by the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson. This quickly led to a lucrative licence agreement with the US manufacturer Hermann Miller. To this day the Eames furniture forms the backbone to the Vitra product range to which they have added commissioned works by a whole range of highly respected designers including Antonio Citterio, Mario Bellini, Jasper Morrison, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Hella Jongerius and Konstantin Grcic.