Interview with Finnish designer Yrjö Kukkapuro
Dense rows of fir trees punctuated by frozen lakes and oxblood-red cabins; children in snow boots navigating icy sidewalks; crystal-tipped grass that crunches underfoot. The journey to Yrjö Kukkapuro’s studio on the outskirts of Helsinki is fittingly Finnish.
But once inside, all the Nordic clichés come to an end. Rows of chairs with colorful legs and graffiti-splattered backs are stacked in seemingly random groups; books, brushes, sketches and models occupy all the surfaces; the sunny walls are filled with pictures and cutouts, and in the middle of it all is Kukkapuro in his canary-yellow cap.
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 catalog of design that sums up the art movements and global economic changes of the last century, it’s Kukkapuro. He graduated as an industrial designer in the 1950s, the golden age of Finnish design thanks to Alvar Aalto, Kaj Franck and others; he witnessed the plastics revolution of the 1960s, the postmodern rebellion of the 1980s, and the rise of CNC cutting technology in the 1990s – and embraced them all. In the 1990s, he saw his production move to China and became known there from the 2000s, taking advantage of the digital revolution and the advent of globalization. Each new decade serves to strengthen his reputation and cement his legacy as one of the great masters of modern design.
“Creating a bestseller is the dream” — Yrjö Kukkapuro
Almost every school, doctor’s office, museum and airport in Finland at one time or another has featured Kukkapuro’s chairs. Some still do. The Helsinki Oodi Central Library, completed by ALA architects in 2018, has its “CNC” chairs and “A500” rocking chairs in its second-floor reading lounge; his “Karuselli” and “Moderno” chairs fill the city’s Kaisa library. That these survive decades after their initial design is a source of great pride for Kukkapuro. “Creating a bestseller is the dream,” he says.
His daughter Isa sits next to him and guides us through the interview. His only child, she is tasked with documenting all of her father’s work and gathering his archives – currently a stack of papers overflowing with files behind his desk. His wife Irmeli, a graphic designer, works on her moodboard on the other side of the studio, too sick to paint. Its decline has been devastating. After an hour of talking, the color has faded from his face and Kukkapuro apologizes. He needs rest. He waves to Irmeli and they go, hand in hand, to the neighboring house where they now live. “It’s a very difficult moment,” says Isa.
Left, “A500” armchair prototype, 1985. Right, “Color Experiment” armchair prototype, 2016
Yrjö and Irmeli met when they were both students at the Ateneum art school in Helsinki and married in 1956. Kukkapuro was studying furniture design and was the only one in the course who knew how to make prototypes. That was thanks to growing up in eastern Finland, building boats and bikes with her father (a builder and painter) and sewing with her mother (a tailor). At the end of his studies, he set up a workshop, called Moderno, and created range after range of sofas, beds and sofas with a typically Nordic look. A commission from an architect to create a chair and footstool for a new shoe store in Helsinki led to the Moderno series. Over the years this grew to six pieces and became Kukkapuro’s groundbreaking collection. It is still produced today by Lepo Product in Finland and Avarte in China.
“Sitting on a Kukkapuro chair is like therapy,” says Juhani Lemmetti, Kukkapuro collector and founder of the Lemmetti Gallery in Helsinki. “He designs with the lower back in mind.” Kukkapuro remembers that it was a conference on ergonomics that influenced his approach. “It made me see that making furniture had a physiological and scientific dimension and it’s been part of everything I’ve done since.” This obsession with posture, comfort and body means a chair can take years to perfect.
While searching for his “Karuselli” chair, Kukkapuro wrapped himself in chicken wire, made a plaster cast of his body in a reclining posture, sculpted around it until he was happy with its shape, then builds a fiberglass prototype. The fruit of four years of experimentation, the ‘Karuselli’ chair went into production in 1964 and was an immediate success. Terence Conran hailed it as the most comfortable chair he’s ever sat in, and it’s still in production with Finnish manufacturer Artek.
Featuring a curved concrete roof, Yrjö Kukkapuro’s studio on the outskirts of Helsinki was built by the designer and his wife Irmeli in 1968
Irmeli, too, has always been “a good test model. She’s smaller than me, so we can compare the feel of a chair,” says Kukkapuro.
“But it’s always been important to me to be close to her, to see colors the way she does.” The duo built the studio, with its corrugated concrete roof, in 1968 on land donated by Irmeli’s father, and have worked together, side by side, for 52 years.
Nowhere was Irmeli’s contribution more valuable than with the 1980s Experiment collection, a series of birch plywood and steel chairs, tables and sofas with brightly colored armrests and legs. Kukkapuro saw it as an exploration of “decorative functionalism” and welcomed postmodernism as a joyous break from the functional workspace trends of the 1970s.
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 amassed over 40 prototype, experimental and production pieces. ‘Yrjö thinks of everything – form, function, ergonomics, colour. It is imaginative, but also practical. For me, he is one of the most important designers in the world,” he says. A fourth “Color Experiment” chair will be launched this spring at the gallery, and with such a wealth of 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 is the result of a chaotic visit in 1972 by Pino Milas, a graphic designer friend, in lack of rest, commissioned by Kukkapuro to decorate it. Life in the studio was unconventional. Friends, assistants and collaborators came and went frequently. Isa’s bedroom was a small annex to the small kitchen; Kukkapuro and Irmeli slept in a separate bed behind a bookcase, and the bathrooms were two fiberglass cubicles with showerheads. Kukkapuro won many awards, and trips abroad for conferences and exhibitions were also common; the three of them once piled into their Mini Clubman, stowed a tent in the trunk and hit the road for four months.
A prototype called the ‘Simple’ chair is set up (we are the first public of it). 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 suitably simple. Kukkapuro circles around, shaking his head. It’s a bit too tall, and, he thinks, the steel arms might look better in ash. It will return to Avarte, which has been producing its pieces for 20 years, to be refined.
Kukkapuro first visited China in 1997, at the invitation of architect and scholar Fang Hai, to lecture on contemporary design at 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 with lacquered bamboo and Chinese carpentry. These, along with historic pieces made by Avarte, flooded the Chinese market and Kukkapuro’s fortunes were transformed.
An original model of Kukkapuro’s ‘Fysio’ office chair, 1976, in pressed birch plywood and fabric
Detail of the ‘Color Composition’ chair, 1993
At the same time, Finland was recovering from the recession of the late 1980s and national attention had shifted to eco-design. Kukkapuro has created a solid wood collection in an unpopular and overlooked elderberry. He bombed. When he brought it to a fair in Berlin, a visitor praised him for having such a strong Finnish style. ‘I was crushed. I was there thinking I was an international designer!
So when the Helsinki Design Museum invited him to create a series of “visually exciting” chairs in 1993, Kukkapuro called on a friend, the late Finnish graphic designer Tapani Aartomaa, and together they created “Tattooed”. , a collection of plywood chairs decorated with bold slogans and eye-catching designs of trees, dragons and tigers.
Color also made its mark on his “CNC” chairs, designed in 2008 for his retrospective at the museum, to celebrate the potential of computer-controlled machines. “The idea was to show how effectively technology can be used on materials.” How many chairs did Kukkapuro make in his lifetime? “I don’t know,” he said. ‘About 100? One day I will have to count them. §
‘Colour Composition’ Chair, 1993