Case study: Why design business needs a healthy dose of idealism?

Ville Blåfield

Artek’s classic chairs are still manufactured at Korhonen furniture factory.

Finnish design house Artek now continues its life as part of Swiss company Vitra. Mirkku Kullberg, Artek’s former CEO and current Chairman of the Board, talks to journalist Ville Blåfield about the way cultural heritage can be turned into business. 

On 19 October 1935,

a group of people meets up at König, a public house favored by artists. They had an idea. 

The location is somewhat surprising, as the set tended to meet at the town’s more upmarket establishments. König had a dubious reputation in the early 1900s, and was certainly no place for an upper class lady. Allegedly, Jean Sibelius’ wife Aino waited outside on the street, as composer friend Robert Kajanus went in to fetch her husband home to work on an unfinished violin concerto finale.  

But the town and times were changing, and on this occasion two women took part in the meeting at König: Maire Gullichsen, who subsequently became a renowned art collector and patron, and Aino Aalto, wife of designer and architect Alvar Aalto.  

In addition to Maire and Aino, the group of 30-somethings gathered around the table included Alvar Aalto, and art historian, critic, and multi-talent Nils-Gustav Hahl. 

The foursome had turned their idea of a furniture company into reality just four days before. 

The company was called Artek, merging the words art and technology to manifest the ideals of the Bauhaus movement. 

However, in light of the idea nurtured by Hahl, Gullichsen, and Aalto, calling Artek merely a furniture company would be a serious understatement. The company they were establishing would be much more than that. Albeit Artek signified furniture designed by Alvar Aalto and soon also a furniture store in the center of Helsinki, it was also about international relations, modern art, a new way of life – and propaganda.  

A manifesto, as people at Artek call it, still exists as a reminder of the König meeting. Typed in slightly crooked rows, it came to define all that Artek could become.  

The word Artek was typed on the top row, and functions listed below: Modern Art; Industry; Interiors; Propaganda.  

On 27 July 2015,

Mirkku Kullberg is sitting in the basement floor of Artek’s modest-sized headquarters in Helsinki, glancing at a copy of the 1935 manifesto on her desk.  

”For me this is the finest business plan ever written”, Kullberg says. “The manifesto still serves as the guiding light for Artek. For instance, I used to state that whenever we do PR, it has to matter. Rather than talk about what’s obvious, it’s a desire to really make a difference.” 

Examples of Artek propaganda during Kullberg’s era include the resale of second-hand Artek furniture branded as “2nd Cycle”, and advertising campaigns encouraging consumers to buy the last chair of their lives: ”Last chair I ever bought, One chair is enough!” Not your average marketing blurb.  

Kullberg has now examined the manifesto and philosophy of Artek’s founders for more or less a decade. In 2005, Kullberg was appointed as Artek’s CEO. When Artek was acquired by Swiss company Vitra in 2013, Kullberg became Head of Home Department of Vitra AG.   

Marianne Goebl is now the Managing Director of Artek dividing her time in Helsinki and Berlin. Kullberg, who usually works from Berlin, still serves as Chairman of Artek’s Board.  

”Marianne’s efforts in doing everything in her power to defend Artek’s independence are invaluable”, says Kullberg. “Personally, I felt it would be good to transfer to Vitra and see the big picture from that angle. I felt also that I could be more useful in bridging Artek and Vitra while working inside the company.” 

The merge between the big Swiss and small Finnish design house continues, and the quirky Artek is trying to find its feet as part of Vitra.  

In a sense, Artek is bigger than its actual size. Along with Alvar Aalto’s classic chairs and other pieces, Artek has had a huge impact on Finland’s design history. Similarly to Marimekko and Arabia, design companies that conquered the world in the 1900s had more cultural-historical significance compared to their turnover, and their products became Finnish icons.  

This Artek that in Kullberg’s words is worth “doing everything in one’s power to defend” is strongly rooted in its history and founders’ legacy. For a company like Artek, its unique cultural history is an inherent part of present value.  

”This bunch, including Tapio Wirkkala and Armi Ratia in addition to Artek’s founders, had a mission: to build a national identity for a country that was still young. Artek was born during an era of movement, marked by various artist collectives and a desire to prove oneself to the world. Looking at Artek’s history has sometimes left me thinking how important it is to have an optimal combination of ambitions and passion”, says Mirkku Kullberg.  

 “Today, we cannot live in a mediocrity and consensus. We need heroes willing to go the extra mile and cross their own boundaries?” 

In spring 1936,

Artek opened its first store – the futuristic neon sign also an Alvar Aalto design – and published its first adverts. Nils-Gustav Hahl described Artek’s goals in Arkkitehti magazine: 

”To make propaganda in defense of sensible living and interiors. Artek was financially independent, but had close ties with a circle of international stores that shared a similar philosophy.” 

Internationality was a crucial part of Artek’s ethos from word go. Already during its first years of operation at the end of the 1930s, Artek was supplying furniture to retailers in New York, Stockholm, London, Lyon, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Although history has made Artek a predominantly Finnish company, its founders had their sights set abroad right from the beginning”, Mirkku Kullberg reminds.  

“Artek has never been a Finnish company”, she says. “It happened to be born in Finland, as the brainchild of a group of intelligent individuals. But Alvar Aalto’s designs and the group’s philosophy have always been universal. They were cosmopolitans of their time.” 

And so it turns out that that Artek is now a Swiss company.  

Vitra has its headquarters in Birsfelden. The family-run company has factories in Germany, Japan, China, Hungary, and the U.S, as well as twenty or so sales companies in different parts of the world. Vitra was founded in 1950 by Villi and Erika Fehlbaum, and the company continues in the hands of the same family up to this day. 

Artek became part of Vitra’s furniture company in fall 2013, when Artek’s former owner, Swedish investment company Proventus, began to look around for a new owner for Artek. The deal was preceded by a visionary work commissioned from former CEO Kullberg. 

”I was contacted by the management of Proventus in spring 2012, who asked me to carry out an investigation: What was Artek like when I joined the firm in 2005; What had we achieved in seven years; and how I saw Artek’s future. I was on fire during the summer months going through all the acquisition possibilities and Artek’s potential international visions inside my head”, reminisces Kullberg.  

She was invited to present her vision in Stockholm in the fall.  

”It was the first time I’d met the board of Proventus in seven years. As I pressed the enter button after the last slide, I knew what question would be coming my way”, Kullberg recounts.  

And there it was: “How much would this vision cost?” 

Kullberg had an answer prepared. According to her vision, Artek needed continued investment to ensure business growth and to accelerate internationalization. “Artek was in a situation that needed the courage to make the next big move, so that all the work carried out so far wouldn’t go to waste.” 

The board of Proventus thanked for the presentation, promising to get back with their answer after thinking the proposal through.  

The answer came in the fall: Proventus asked Kullberg to begin searching for a new owner.  

Under ownership by Proventus since 1992,

Artek’s turnover doubled, while Kullberg and her enthusiastic and committed team managed to double the turnover from EUR 10 million to EUR 20 million during the last seven years. Yet people still imagined Artek to be significantly bigger.  

”Everyone was mesmerized by Artek’s strong brand. It had clearly become an opinion institute around the world – not just because of history or Aalto’s classic designs, but also because of what we’d been doing recently. At the Milan Furniture Fair, we displayed 350 used Aalto stools that we’d scoured from the cellars of friends and second-hand markets. Top Japanese architect Shigeru Ban designed our pavilion, which then went up for auction. We took part in the Venice Biennale, and so on.” 

Kullberg wanted to find a new owner with an understanding of Artek’s DNA: someone who knew it was a question of more than furniture. 

”Idealism does have its place in business. I had, and continue to have, a desire to believe in a certain significance when it comes to Artek. Rolf Fehlbaum said to me: “I love the garage culture you have created at Artek with your team”. That felt good: he saw what we’d been aiming for.” 

”Often acquisitions are based on simply looking at figures and making fantastic due diligence processes, disregarding psychological scenarios. Passion, growth potential, mutual relationships of companies - the integration process should be built with an understanding all of these elements, not only the financial opportunities”, Kullberg reflects.  

The deal between Proventus and Vitra was sealed in early fall 2013, Artek’s price tag remaining a secret. In public, it was seen as a natural progression, the press even noting how the original logos of Vitra and Artek had used the same font.  

”Mirkku Kullberg has put in excellent work”, noted Nora Fehlbaum, who is a member of Vitra’s board and niece of Vitra’s head and long-term chairman Rolf Fehlbaum at the press event following the acquisition. “We know how Finns think of Artek as their own company. We will maintain Artek’s independence. Time will show what type of logistical, administrative and marketing support we will be able to provide.” 

Under Vitra’s wings, Rolf Fehlbaum promised to give Artek the international flair Kullberg was after. 

”We’ll first head to the European markets that are riper for Artek’s design, such as Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and Britain. Then it’s time for the U.S., China, and Japan.”   

According to Mirkku Kullberg,

there are differences in the two companies. 

”Vitra is is an authors house. The brand is connected to an amazing product portfolio. At Artek, ideology comes first. When I learned to know Artek better I always thought it to be more like a movement. Since the very beginning, it has also had an educational mission in the cultural field.” 

Artek pieces could be conveniently included in Vitra’s product catalogue, but an element of Artek’s identity would be lost at the same time.  

Although Artek has become almost synonymous with Alvar Aalto’s classic pieces, it was obvious that the range needed to be expanded.  

”A model of in-house designers would whave worked best for Artek. In 2005 when we started revamping the design development was based in London, Tom Dixon being the creative director. It would be great o find designers ready to commit to the company and given enough ties with the production process.” 

Kullberg has noticed that her thoughts resound more closely with the younger generation of designers. There are more and more designers who are interested in meaningful projects, transparent  
process, and sustainable partners.  

”I visited a fair in New York recently, where I met young designers who a decade earlier would have jumped for joy at meeting someone from an established design company. Now they were a little reserved, saying they didn’t want to become swallowed up by a big company.  They want to build sustainable products – and when you reply: “Okay, but I guess you’ll need someone to make those products”, they come back with: “Thank you, but we already have our own production process”. 

This is something young designers share in common with Alvar Aalto: he and Artek kept manufacturing in their own hands or in close quarters. Throughout history, Artek furniture has been manufactured under license at Korhonen Factory in southwestern Finland.  

Now known as A-Factory, Artek finally acquired Korhonen factory in 2014.  

The next integration steps between Vitra and Artek may of course affect the manufacturing process; product lines at Vitra factories could just boost Artek’s efficiency.  

Despite taking a few steps away from Artek,

sitting here in the basement floor of Artek’s headquarters in Helsinki, Mirkku Kullberg has a deep interest in the company’s future. 

”We need to take care of this company with a very special mission.” 

“We”, is a recurring word for Kullberg.  

It was also a decisive word in Nils-Gustav Hahl’s letter to Maire Gullichsen before the 1935 König meeting and the founding of Artek. Hahl came up with the idea, wanting to inspire Gullichsen, too: 

”Why give up on this unexpectedly offered, vital stage for cultural propaganda? And why let this opportunity slip from our hands to, publically and with determination, make the development of Finnish art and design known to Finns, which until now has been fully valued only abroad? From experience I know that foreigners are much better aware of that which can be perfected in our country: Finland is valued as a modern country of art, design, and architecture, yet lacks a visible center where this is demonstrated(…) This may sound pompous and overly romantic to you, but I assure you that someone has to carry this out, so I proceed by asking: why couldn’t that someone be we?” 

The article also refers to Pekka Suhonen’s publication Artek – Alku, tausta, kehitys (1985). 

Photographs by Touko Hujanen. 

Read this article in Finnish. »

 

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