Yrjö Kukkapuro, designer


December 2023

Photo by:

Studio Kukkapuro

I have always strived for simplification, it is a very natural way of thinking for me.

The most significant turn of events in my design career was ending up – through various coincidences – studying interior design at Helsinki’s Ateneum crafts and design school. I was listening to a lecture by Olli Borg on the Swedish physician Bengt Åkerblom’s physiology studies. Ergonomics was not yet a democratic topic as it is today, but this line of thinking was at the core of the said lecture. Borg explained, among other things, the characteristics of the back, such as the need for lumbar support. I felt I’d found, then and there, the scientific foundation and motivation for my work. I understood that furniture pieces are based on physiology and they need to work together with the human body. So great was this realisation that I jumped up and left in the middle of class. I sculpted my Karuselli lounge chair out of plaster and burlap for years, its ergonomic qualities are extremely polished. The said chair became my trademark for the rest of my life.

I understood that furniture pieces are based on physiology and they need to work together with the human body.

I have always strived for simplification, it is a very natural way of thinking for me. Industrially made products need to be extremely straightforward to produce. I have deliberately made a habit of decorating chairs with images that are laminated on the chair surface. This way, the end result is artistic, even if the structure of the chair remains simple.

My graphic artist wife, Irmeli, has had an enormous impact on my career. We met during our studies at the Ateneum. She brought an artistic side to my work, and assumed the role of my in-house studio critic. Irmeli had an enormous influence on my wilder and more free-flowing forms and colours from the 1980s, for instance, such as the Experiment series and certain light fixtures, as well as the Tattooed chairs from the 1990s.

We built our studio together in Kauniainen, near Helsinki, in the late 1960s. I had made chairs with a fibreglass shell, and the house featured a similar formal language. It was a perfect fit with the pop art aesthetic of the time. The engineer Eero Paloheimo stylised the form and made the calculations using the first computer in Finland, at the technical university campus in Otaniemi. The house is all one big space, cohabited by life and work.

The 1970s oil crisis sobered me up in terms of materials. Until then, I had designed furniture with a tubular structure, as well as some creative forms using fibreglass and plastic. I understood that the shift from plastic to renewable materials was inevitable. I have always been allergic to hardwood, the large and long-lived wood types. Birch, however, is a wood that grows quickly, I call it the bamboo of the north. Plywood is a particularly fine material, one birch yields a great quantity of laminate – it’s very economical, plywood is sturdy, and the chairs it is used in are very durable.

Photo: Annabelle Antas

I have always sketched my models on big pieces of paper, in a scale of 1:100. This way I get a realistic presentation of the form, and all the joinery and other details. Then I can make a prototype, and many times I have been the one to produce them myself. If, or rather when, something in the prototype had to be fixed, we would just make new versions until we reached one that was finessed enough for production. If I made the prototype myself, then a drawing at a smaller scale may have sufficed. But the prototype masters would always get a precise drawing from me.

I have always remained within the limits of my profession, textile design is something I never stepped into, for instance. Except for the one time that I made a gown for Irmeli for the design association Ornamo’s 50th anniversary! My mother was a masterful dressmaker, I suppose I inherited a little bit of that as well. But I have definitely been involved in all aspects of interiors. I have designed furniture, lights, complete interiors, architectural plans, and even several houses. I have taken part in projects where I took every step, from the design of a house down to the last light fixture. In this sense, I have considered myself a sort of old school creative, in the Jugendstil era designers would consider everything as a whole. Perhaps I have kept some of this tradition alive.

Yrjö Kukkapuro / photo: Innolux

I have made many kinds of small chairs, but my design process comes through in the best way in my simplified lounge chairs. The first one was of course the Moderno series, which has been in constant production for the past 60 years and is still doing well. Moderno is a metal-framed upholstered chair, very simple and anonymous. Later on, I reduced the idea of the chair even further, and attempted to make light-structured chairs that are both delicate and sturdy. And I seem to have succeeded in this, as an immense number of my chairs have been sold for use in public spaces in both Finland and internationally.

Office chairs made of bent plywood, such as the Fysio, have turned out well. They have a terrific plastic form. The chairs are created from elements that are attached together with visible screws. I have designed many joints and screws myself, I’m a geek for details like that. The structure is durable, but if a certain part gets damaged, it is easy to replace, and the whole chair can also be re-upholstered.  

I have now been meddling with furniture for 70 years. The core of my work remains the same. A great shift took place in the field just before the start of my career when Alvar Aalto started making plywood furniture. I have continued on that path. Even now, there is another model in the works, albeit with a metal frame. It is hard to say what will be required of future designers. The function of seating will not change, but spaces and needs might diversify. New materials will surely be developed. The field needs to meet ecological requirements. I find it important to also consider ergonomic solutions. I find it important to fine-tune prototypes for a long time, and to get well acquainted with production methods and materials.

The function of seating will not change, but spaces and needs might diversify.

I have worked a lot in China, as well as taught and given lectures around the world. My bamboo collection is an interesting case study. Traditional Chinese furniture is decorative. I wanted to find a different use for bamboo rods. I designed a chair that can be packed into a flat case, with a very simplified yet strong feel. Architects really picked up on it. Now it’s been made into a birch version, made of aircraft plywood. The bamboo of the north!

Yrjö Kukkapuro is one of our most internationally renowned and award-winning furniture designers and one of the most significant modernists in Finnish furniture design. The design work of Kukkapuro is based on both aesthetic and functional innovation, user experience and ergonomics.

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