Sitting in a Ball Chair, it’s hard to imagine the design is nearing its 45th anniversary. Regardless of the fact that Eero Aarnio never intended the chair to be futuristic, the Ball Chair heralds utopian visions of tomorrow as strongly today as when it debuted in the 1960s. The iconic design—which has appeared on countless magazine covers, in numerous films and television shows (most notoriously in the opening credits of The Prisoner), and in almost every survey of modern furniture design—catapulted Aarnio to international fame; however, the designer’s consistent pursuit of simplicity and functionality has made him a timeless, and tireless, innovator.
Aarnio’s career began in the early ’60s, coinciding with an era of political progressivism, economic expansion, and rapid urbanization and industrialization in Finland. As Finns were getting their first taste of Western pop culture, the West proved equally interested in Finnish design. After working for two of the country’s top furniture designers, Ilmari Tapiovaara and Antti Nurmesniemi, Aarnio began his career with a simple rattan stool called Juttujakkara (translating loosely as “chatty stool” or “story stool”).
The design successfully fused the formal language of modernism with natural materials and craft techniques. Reminiscing, Aarnio describes the characteristics that drew him to those materials: “Rattan has great qualities—from simplicity, to enormous flexibility, to environmental sustainability. You can basically create anything out of it.” He adds, “I might actually return to the material in the near future.”
A visit to a friend’s boathouse would provide the catalyst for Aarnio’s career-defining breakthrough. It was here that he was introduced to laminates. “I immediately saw that a ball would be the best shape for using laminates. It would provide the greatest technical strength with the least amount of material.” The chance encounter would have a profound effect on the designer: “Ever since then I’ve been inspired by new materials, and how to find new vocabularies for their design, and new methods of production.”
To prove his point, Aarnio created the first Ball Chair painstakingly by hand. He first applied layers of wet paper on a plywood mold in order to create the shell, and then laminated the surface with fiberglass. Apparently the initial results were less than satisfactory—“It looked like a deformed potato,” Aarnio admits with a grin.
After smoothing the shell out with an electric sander and applying a stabilizing metal ring to the mouth of the ball, the design worked. Aarnio recalls the chair’s journey from conception to prototype: “I built the prototype in an old elementary school in the town of Salo, which is northwest of Helsinki. The school had an art room that was free in the evenings and offered us plenty of space to work. I made more than ten trips, literally traveling a thousand miles before it was finished. There were many times when I wanted to give up, but my wife, Pirkko, insisted I continue. She said, ‘If you don’t make it, someone else will.’”
The Ball Chair was debuted by the Finnish furniture manufacturer Asko at the International Furniture Fair in Cologne, Germany, in 1966 and was an overnight sensation—even appearing on the evening news. In one week it sold to more than 30 countries and launched Aarnio’s reputation as an icon of pop design. Aarnio himself finds this amusing. “I had no intention to create either ‘pop’ or ‘space-age’ design—as many people label my work. My intention was purely functional, to create the most practical form for this new material.” The tag, however, doesn’t seem all that far-fetched; Aarnio’s colorful and playful designs have indeed become icons, veritable Marilyn Monroes and Cambell’s soup cans of the design world.
In 1968, the Ball Chair was followed by another success, the Bubble Chair. Aarnio considers the transparent Bubble his most clever product, since no molds are required in the manufacturing process. He explains: “The process starts by heating the acrylic sheet in the oven. Once the sheet is softened, it’s laid out on a table. A metal ring is laid on top of the acrylic sheet and hot air is blown from underneath to create the bubble shape.
An electronic sensor determines when the correct size has been achieved and the chair is finished once the excess material is cut from around the ring. The production is extremely fast, simple, and functional.” Manu-facturing is an essential part of the process in all of Aarnio’s designs. He considers this final stage a test that challenges his passion to achieve the shapes and forms he originally envisioned.
Further exploration yielded further success with the Pastil, Polaris, Tomato, and Pony chairs; however, Aarnio’s triumph with plastics ended as quickly as it had started with the energy crisis of 1973, and it would be nearly three decades until the designer would reemerge on the world scene, after a host of challenges.
During the early 1990s Finland was hit hard with recession, and Aarnio felt the effects—in one year his income plummeted to a fraction of his previous earnings. The recession impacted the entire country’s furniture manufacturing industry. Aarnio’s long-time collaborator, Finnish furniture manufacturer Martela, chose not to produce any new designs in reaction to tough times. That decision brought Aarnio’s character into full force, and he was determined to create an office chair that used the most cost-effective manufacturing process possible. Consulting with the workers who were to bring his new design of bent plywood and metal tubes to life, Aarnio fine-tuned the design and manufacturing process to focus on maximizing efficiency. The result was the creation of the Savoy Chair, which sold an amazing 38,000 copies in one year—nearly double what Martela typically achieved for a successful product.
In a landscape littered with blobjects and with collectors snapping up mid-century furniture at record-high prices, it seems fitting that Aarnio is now at the height of his popularity. Over the past several years, the tireless designer has churned out an eclectic array of
new products—including the Parabel tables; the Formula, Tipi, and Focus chairs; and the Double Bubble Lamp light sculpture—and shows no signs of slowing down.
As of 2005, Artek, the venerable Finnish furniture company started by Alvar Aalto in 1935, finally added Aarnio to its stable of designers, a puzzling oversight given the intimate scale of the Finnish design world.
As Tom Dixon explains, “When I arrived as artistic director, it was clear that Artek had missed out on a huge burst of Nordic creativity in the ’60s and ’70s. I set about seeing if I could retrofit some of that history.” Aarnio seemed the obvious place to start. “Eero was one of the first people I contacted upon arrival in Finland,” Dixon confirms, “and I was immediately invited to discuss business in a wood-fired sauna, which was followed by ice-hole bathing, and we began our collaboration.”
Aarnio’s home and studio (and sauna, of course) are located in the small Finnish town of Veikkola, about 20 miles west of Helsinki. Combining home and office, as Aarnio has done since the early ’60s, has yielded designs that, while outwardly sculptural and playful, also have an ingrained sensibility for everyday use. In fact, from the Ball Chair (the original prototype is still in the foyer) to the Rocket stool (which the Aarnios put to use in their kitchen), his latest design for Artek, most of Aarnio’s designs have originated from the need for certain items around the home.
Recently Aarnio designed an addition that seamlessly extends the studio from the living room—furthering the notion that home life and design are fully integrated into a sort of laboratory for living. The office is dominated by oversized worktables scattered with sketches, archival flat files, models, colored pencils, markers, and drafting instruments. Wall-to-wall windows flood the white space with light and offer an idyllic view of the wooded Finnish countryside.
With the expansion of the studio complete, Aarnio has again turned his focus to new undertakings, such as a collection of colorful plastic office furniture for Martela. “I am living in a very exciting stage at the moment,” Aarnio enthuses. “There are several projects in preparation, ranging from a man’s wristwatch for Sarpaneva to new designs in glass and porcelain.” As he approaches his 75th birthday, rather than slowing down, Aarnio seems to be gaining forward momentum.
“He’s managed to retain an enthusiasm and an energy which is that of a 20-year-old,” Dixon raves. “He still looks at the world with fresh eyes.”
To see more images of Aarnio's home, and more images of his creations, please visit the slideshow.