19 February 2017


Eero Aarnio, Ball Chair, 1963.

I wanted to stop the world and tell everybody that a new design and designer was born by doing exceptional design sizes, forms and colours. I did it and the Ball Chair was born.

– Eero Aarnio

I just want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening?


In 1963, Eero Aarnio (b 1932), a self-employed graduate from the Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki, originated an exceptional piece of furniture. It was Pop Art and it is what Aarnio always intended it to be: a courageous nucleus in fibreglass that showed the world where you could go with forms with plastic technology and a pliable way of thinking.

“From this new awareness of ourselves as a planet afloat in the cosmos arose the single most characteristic shape of the 1960s: the sphere. The sphere was to the 1960s what the streamline was to the 1930s and the boomerang was to the 1950s – an orb for the age of orbit,” writes Cara Greenberg in Op to Pop: Furniture in the 1960s. “The Finns didn’t send a man into space, but Eero Aarnio gave us the emblematic Ball Chair – a personal space capsule, outfitted with stereo speakers, in which to take solitary flight.”

His greatest triumphs before the first oil shock in the autumn of 1973 are synthetic, otherworldly and anachronistically ageless, the cream of plastic designs. Aarnio was without exception a designer then with a touching cognisance of the spirit of the material and how to merge his forms with human life (children very much included) and our bodies. Only once in this quixotic Space Age time zone was he calling occupants of interplanetary craft: “The Flying Saucer” was the working title for an early prototype of a legless chair, with totally different dimensions than the finished product, before – out of necessity to make up for the sphere’s bothersome transport costs – the Ball Chair became pregnant with the gorgeous Pastille in 1967.

“I really love his career and the fact that he is the most well-known Finnish designer alive in the world. And it is very fun to work with him. He is so amazingly creative,” says Chief Curator Suvi Saloniemi from Design Museum in Helsinki in a tone that sings with attachment and respect for Aarnio. “Our aim was to create an exhibition that gives a deeper understanding of Eero Aarnio’s work. There is so much more than the Ball Chair or the Pastille or the Bubble in Eero’s work, and this we wanted to bring alongside the iconic works. We have a sculpture garden which hosts works all the way from 1960 – Eero’s first commercial design products called Juttu Stools, piled one on another – till the latest product for Alessi, and everything in between.”

Here, on the fourth floor at the misbegotten Kulturhuset in Stockholm, where the homeless Nationalmuseum runs its rewarding space for design until 2018, is a conversant selection of Aarnio’s sculptural and candy-coloured designs on “futuristic yet neutral” round Styrofoam islands. These podiums carry the pieces beautifully. They also very nicely and quietly nullify any possible sense of mêlée, given the lively nature of the objects.

And nowhere do they look as congenially perfect as in Eero Aarnio’s dream home in Veikkola, thirty kilometres west of Helsinki. Aarnio has originated almost everything here, from the house, all white, to the black savusauna (smoke sauna) by the lake. Eero Aarnio at Nationalmuseum Design is a propitious showroom for the rest of us. At the far corner of the exhibition is a play area with Aarnio’s diurnal animals Pony (1973), Happy Bird (2001) and Puppy (2005): “Florencia [Colombo] and Ville [Kokkonen] wanted to design the exhibition as playful as Eero’s works are, so they suggested the robotic movements. And you can go next to the robots and they start reacting to your movements. They stop when you come too close and they might start following you,” laughs Saloniemi.

With Aarnio, eighty-five this summer and visibly astir with a want to move and move on, one encounters the Nordic Noir of language barriers. He doesn’t speak much English. Suvi Saloniemi explains the white-gridded cage in the show as “a glimpse of Eero’s mind”: “His mind is about playfulness, curiosity and speed – he gets bored quite easily, I have noticed, so he wants everything to happen quite fast,” she adds while directing the eyes around this construction. “In this other section we have items related to the domestic world and the office, and on this side we have preproduction objects and some unrealised projects.”

The theme with the grids continues in the timeline section and in a number of wall elements carrying a good deal of his accurate drawings (some of them originals) and some freer works: “There is a drawing from 1954. It depicts a person sitting in a red chair, and it is actually the admission work for the Institute of Industrial Arts when Eero applied to get in. Eero wasn’t so comfortable with drawing a person, so he draw him behind a huge newspaper so you can only see his legs and arms. You can see some hints of the Ball Chair at that time.”

The world begins anew in The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016) when the nation’s promise in featherweight boxing finds his love for one woman and with that for all women and perhaps for mankind during a few days in Helsinki in August 1962. Not during the title match against the American champion Davey Moore, but in a room at an old-fashioned funfair with a poster of Eero Saarinen’s eternal Tulip Chair.

Aarnio started to make his first chairs in the summer of 1954 – which became the Juttu Stool (a fibreglass version of this stool is called Mushroom) – when he learned basketry in the hometown of the woman he was to marry. Another admission work for the Institute of Industrial Arts that year was an elaborate large-size drawing of a Finnish markka coin, which caught the attention of one of the teachers there, Ilmari Tapiovaara. (Another important mentor in design was Antti Nurmesniemi.) Aarnio was of great help half a decade later when Tapiovaara produced the interior design for Finnair’s new fleet of the beautiful jetliner with the triangular windows, Caravelle.

In his book Design as Art from 1966, Bruno Munari tried to give us a hint of why there are so many different kinds of chairs around (but so relatively few that are absolutely amazing): “A very thorough market research campaign on people’s taste in chairs has established that they must answer the following requirements: they must be comfortable, luxurious, rustic, fanciful, strictly technical and functional, broad, narrow, high, low, hard, soft, flexible, elegant, rigid, compact, large and impressive, cheap, good value, obviously expensive and socially impressive, made of one single material, made of a variety of materials; while the favoured materials are rare and rough, as well as refined and crude.”

Aarnio’s chairs are much of that, but never crude and heaven knows they aren’t cheap. And they are built by hand and so well made that any knockoff invariably looks like a moulded disgrace. “For me, an object’s emotional qualities are as important as its function and ergonomics. It is also helpful if a product can live up to a user’s mood,” he told the daily Svenska Dagbladet last year (May 10). Aarnio’s new experience with fibreglass at a Turku boatyard in the late 1950s gave impetus to his breakthrough design with the digable planet.

“Nowadays we can imagine chairs of whichever shapes. But in the 60s, chairs in the shape of a ball was quite crazy,” says Saloniemi. “Getting an assignment wasn’t that easy, so Eero decided that he needed to come up with an object that would be remembered by everyone, and that is how the Ball Chair was invented. We have a print of the original drawing from 1963. He tried to make a prototype of it and sell it to different manufacturers but it was really hard, no one believed in such a weird object. So what was needed was a brave new marketing director of Asko to believe in him and take the chair to the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1966. It became an instant hit. The Italians were the first ones to purchase the Ball Chair.”

”Regardless of the fact that Eero Aarnio never intended the chair to be futuristic, the Ball Chair heralds utopian visions of tomorrow as strongly as when it debuted in the 1960s,” argues Asko Ahokas in Dwell magazine (summer 2007). According to Aarnio, the first crack at this orb of tomorrow “looked like a deformed potato”: “After smoothing the shell out with an electric sander and applying a stabilising metal ring to the mouth of the ball, the design worked,” he told Ahokas. “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 travelling 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.’”

Despite the chair’s issue with narrow (normal) doorframes, it was sold to twenty-seven countries at the Cologne fair. (Asko manufactured the Ball Chair 1966–79 and 1984–87, and today it is produced by Adelta in Germany.) The exhibition cage displays a row with early pictures of Aarnio’s rash attempt to get the Ball Chair out on the market by painting a huge Coca-Cola logo over the red surface. One thinks of the two weeks in April 1996 when Air France Concorde F-BTSD flew around the world in debasing Pepsi-Cola colours. This dream about tomorrow’s world ended the year it was imagined to begin, when Concorde went down on July 25, 2000.

However, according to British designer Tom Dixon, who brought in Aarnio during his five years as Artistic Director at Artek (Alvar Aalto’s company founded in 1935), that sense of tomorrow still lives on with Aarnio: “Eero Aarnio’s clear hanging Bubble Chair is genius 60s design. He brought a Space Age mentality to Finnish design, and it is in that canon of revolutionary provocative designers who try to change the way we live with a sense of joy and colour and futurism.”

The transparent Bubble Chair in acrylic resin, designed in 1968, lets the light in and is more inviting to human communication than the Ball Chair. Aarnio couldn’t find a way to make a beautiful clear pedestal so instead he made it hanging from the ceiling. To Belle magazine (February/March 2002), he claimed it was his smartest design: “No mould is needed because it is made exactly as you would make a soap bubble. You blow it up. You heat the material, it becomes very flexible and you can place the steel in and press it into the acrylic. You place it on a table covered with material with a hole in the middle and you blow through the hole. It’s a very simple process, but all the windows and doors of the factory must be closed because the material is so pliable when it is hot that any wind will cause it to reshape. You could easily end up with a parabola or something else.”

The idea with the Bubble Chair hangs on with his easy chair Ring (2011) with its little “planet” attached to the circular frame – a sphere that appeared on Keinu that debuted at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2002, a rocking chair made famous by a video of a watchman who used to sleep in it. Another item in the exhibition is the classic red Tomato Chair (1971), which looks like a sculpture by Jean Arp. The Cognac Chair (1966) prospers in an unholy union of Pop with the Chanterelle Table (1966) that has a soft “whirlpool” in the middle like the Italian table lamp Nesso from the mid 60s. Two more “normal” chairs are Polaris (1967), a great, generic bowling alley chair, and Upo-023 (1972) that was inspired by Joe Colombo’s stackable Universale Chair (1965) and inspired Carlo Bartoli’s masterpiece Kartell 4875 (1974) with the removable tubular legs. (There are also things in here, like the Screw Table [1991], and things not in here, like the Formula Chair [1998], that are not worth much further consideration.)

Cara Greenberg explains that, “Back in the 1960s, designers were not the heroes they are now. People hardly realised that furniture was designed. Decorating books and even sales brochures often did not attach names to pieces, even while they depicted the creations of such giants as Joe Colombo and Eero Aarnio.”

Suvi Saloniemi leads me to her favourite work in the show, “a drawing he made in 1982 when he was working in Germany. Obviously it was never realised. It is a little like the Tomato Chair – upholstered with fur. The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘What is that, how can someone even imagine a thing like that?’” We start to talk about Barbarella, the 1968 film about an astronaut from the 41st century and her furry capsule in space.

Here in Aarnio space we should have talked about last year’s Toni Erdmann, the guy who makes the most of this life, the guy who lives forever.

Eero Aarnio, Pastille, 1967.

Eero Aarnio at Nationalmuseum Design, Kulturhuset in Stockholm through April 23, 2017.