In advance of his upcoming retrospective at the Design Museum this April, Crystal Bennes visits Eero Aarnio at his home and studio in Veikkola to talk about the importance of humour, the joy of new materials and the never-ending quest to problem solve.
This is some house you’ve got here!
I designed it in 1987, it was very simple to do because it was actually the second house I have designed and made. I found two very professional young men to do the building for me. They started in March and before summer they were nearly finished. There’s a metal frame and timber structure for the rest. As you can see, it’s just on one level, so it isn’t very complicated. Then, the studio annexe, I made about 10 years ago, and we just added another area on the other side. We just add as we need.
Looking around your office area, I notice that you haven’t got a computer anywhere.
No, I don’t have a computer. I don’t need it. The computer is here, in my head. All my drawings I do here at the drawing table, everything at 1:1 scale. It’s such a different thing to design at 1:1 scale. People say that they can see from my designs that I don’t use a computer because the line is more living, more organic.
I can do everything in three dimensions. For example, the Ball Chair – that was the first prototype I made to full size. Of course, it takes time, and you need space and the right tools. But nowadays they make it from the computer in the factory. I have very good drawings for it, such that a carpenter could make it from the drawings, but it’s just the way that things are done these days. Everything on the computer.
Your retrospective at the Design Museum is just about to open. Have you worked with the curators, or had much input?
For the most part, they’ve done it themselves. I haven’t had that much input, no. If I did my own exhibition, it would be much different.
Well, it would be funnier. Really! In 2003, I had an exhibition in Taidehalli that I did myself. Helsingin Sanomat said it was the best exhibition that summer in Helsinki! Afterwards, it travelled all over the world, even to Mexico City, where it was visited by over 50,000 people!
Why is humour so important to you?
I don’t know. Maybe it makes the design more interesting if it’s funny in some way. Or maybe it makes it easier for people to accept the design.
But is it also something about you or inside you?
Maybe. Maybe it’s something inside of me. I’m not pessimistic, I’m an optimist, and you can see that in my designs. I like to do these funny things. It’s much more difficult than furniture design, and that’s why it’s more interesting also.
I read a previous interview where you said you like designing chairs because it’s the most difficult thing to design, but I’m curious as to why you think so?
It’s definitely the most difficult thing to design, the chair. It’s been done so many times before, so it’s not easy to find something new to say. But today we are lucky to have new materials and new methods to make things, so it’s possible to do things in new and different ways.
So you didn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most difficult thing to design from a technical perspective, but because it’s so ubiquitous?
Yes, exactly. But we are not one-size-fits-all people. So there’s always something new that can be done.
This links with something else I wanted to ask you about, which is your extensive use of and interest in plastics. So much of Finnish design is about natural materials, especially wood, but you have a long-standing history with plastics.
Yes, I have worked with plastics for a very long time. But it’s funny you bring this up because I have started to go back to using wood now that we have new methods to work with – it’s become interesting to use wood again. For example, I have been playing with the form from my Tree space divider [produced by Martela], but now in Finnish birch and on a smaller scale. It’s made in two separate parts and the glued together. First, I made a 1:1 drawing, then we use the computer to form the shape with a CNC router. It wasn’t previously possible to make these kinds of shapes in wood before. I’m enjoying working more and more with these new methods.
So, it’s not that you didn’t like wood, but that you felt restricted by how you could use it?
Yes, exactly. I’ve always said that new ideas change the design. These new techniques and materials allow us to do so many new and wonderful things.
New materials still excite you, then?
Of course! But I don’t start the process by thinking that I want to use a new or special material. I start with fantasy and dreams, and now, because I’ve been working for a long time, I can usually realise my fantasies because I know something about many different kinds of materials and have links to many companies.
Do you feel that your work is connected to a Finnish aesthetic design tradition?
I think that the best design museum here in Finland is our national museum. Our ancestors, who went to the forest and made their own houses and tools, they made the best design objects. They had all the best ideas. As for my own work, I don’t place myself anywhere in any aesthetic tradition.
Are there any specific projects remaining which you hope to achieve in your career, or do you work more organically?
I lie on the sofa and read. After fifteen minutes, I’ve thought of about half-dozen things I’d like to do. But, no matter what, I can’t do everything I want to do. For example, we travel a lot and we’re usually so angry about hotel rooms. Everything is always the wrong way around, from the plastic key card to the arrangement of the lights. All the time, I see that I can do something better than what’s been done before. Everything starts from a problem. That’s design
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