Ilmari Tapiovaara – life, oblivion and rediscovery

For Ilmari Tapiovaara, work was his whole life, and at times, his family was also left in its shadow. The Finnish designer died an almost forgotten great, but then the retro boom began.

Ilmari Tapiovaara
Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914–1999)

WAR HAD BROKEN OUT again, just when the 26-year-old Ilmari Tapiovaara had got settled down. Tapiovaara had obtained a significant job as the artistic and commercial director of Keravan Puuteollisuus since the small wood factory that manufactured doors and windows wanted to expand its production into furniture. He had moved, with his wife Annikki, into a spacious company apartment next to the factory. The Continuation War started at the end of June 1941, only a week before his son Timo was born. Once Tapiovaara got to come home from the front, after some months, the son had learned to speak.

“When Ilmari came back on leave, I greeted him by saying 'konna' (‘crook’). I’d learned the word because I had a porcelain turtle (‘kilpikonna’) as a toy,” Timo Tapiovaara reminisces.

In the midst of the war, Ilmari Tapiovaara regularly posted fairytales to his son, which were illustrated with watercolor drawings.

“There were princes, castles, and tournaments with horses in the stories. He had come up with the story himself and illustrated it,” says Timo Tapiovaara.

Ilmari Tapiovaara Crinolette
Tapiovaara designed the beautiful Crinolette armchair in 1962. The chair is now part of the range of Artek.

In fact, it was no surprise that Ilmari Tapiovaara gravitated towards a creative field. He was born in 1914 into the family of a forester, where culture was appreciated, and many of the children displayed artistic gifts. His brother Tapio became a visual artist, and Nyrki became a film director. Ilmari wasn’t successful at school, but he was skillful at drawing ever since he was a child. After entering the Central School of Arts and Crafts as a twenty-year-old, he felt he had found his place.

In the 1930s, Finnish design and architecture were going through a revolutionary period. Tapiovaara admired the modernism of Alvar Aalto, and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, he was impressed by Werner West, who spoke out in favor of the serial production of furniture.

In the 1930s, Finnish design and architecture were going through a revolutionary period.

“Tapiovaara already adopted the idea in his school years that industrial serial production and good design made first-rate environments possible for all classes of society. High-quality and reasonably-priced objects belonged to everyone,” says the design professor Pekka Korvenmaa at Aalto University, who has studied Tapiovaara.

Tapiovaara’s older brothers were openly left-wing, but Ilmari’s view of society filtered into his output. Before the Winter War, Tapiovaara had managed to start work at the Asko-Avonius furniture factory, for which he had designed a light set of furniture. However, the furniture never got into production and the warehouse of completed pieces was destroyed in bombings.

The Domus chair by Ilmari Tapiovaara
Miniatures of the Domus chair.

Even though the war interrupted his career, Tapiovaara also gained experience as an interior designer since during the trench warfare period he acted as the head of the production office of the 5th division in the forests of East Karelia. The office produced building and interior solutions for the army. Under Tapiovaara’s guidance, dugouts, mess halls, cattle sheds, utensils and pieces of furniture were created. The work was done with limited tools and the wood was taken from the surrounding forest. Tapiovaara learned how a tool shapes a product and vice versa. “I had been in a good school, evidently the best college of my life,” he reminisced later on.

After the war, there was a clean slate waiting for Ilmari Tapiovaara. Even though the state was rationing materials, furniture was needed for not only homes but also schools and day care centers. His son Timo Tapiovaara learned that for his father an ordinary working day never seemed to be enough. While Timo was playing at cowboys and Indians in the yard of the factory, Ilmari was at his work desk. Helping Tapiovaara was his wife, the interior designer Annikki Tapiovaara, who had previously worked in the drawing office of Asko-Avonius. Annikki generated ideas for designs together with her husband and helped in drawing them up – and took care of Timo and his little sister Eva.

The Tapiovaaras got the breakthrough they were after when they won the competition for the furnishing of the Domus Academica student halls of residence.

The Tapiovaaras got the breakthrough they were after when they won the competition for the furnishing of the rooms and common areas of the Domus Academica student halls of residence after the war. That also meant success for Keravan Puuteollisuus, where it had already been noticed how diverse a designer Tapiovaara was: he had a mastery of the whole production chain from the design to advertising graphics and packaging. The Domus chair became a hit product and Tapiovaara got an international reputation.

The Domus chair
Ilmari Tapiovaara designed the Domus chair in 1946 as a reading chair for the student halls of residence.

Even though Tapiovaara created many different kinds of things during his career, in his thinking the chair was the key to the design of all interior decoration.

“He designed chairs again and again. He remade chairs and formed whole product families through them, with shelving and tables. He was well informed about technological innovations and made use of them in his work,” says Pekka Korvenmaa.

An appreciation of peasant culture and handicraft tradition can be seen in the furniture of Tapiovaara.

For Tapiovaara, the material closest to his heart was wood. His grandfather had already been a skilled carpenter and managed a carpentry workshop in Tampere that made coffins and furniture. An appreciation of peasant culture and handicraft tradition can be seen in the furniture of Tapiovaara. Pekka Korvenmaa reminds us that, for example, the renowned Fanett, Pelimanni and Mademoiselle chairs are all variations of the English spindle back chair, which had already been in Finnish farmhouses for centuries.

The Mademoiselle rocking chair
The timeless Mademoiselle chairs are produced by Artek.

Tapiovaara set up a design agency with his wife at the beginning of the 1950s, which was one of the first in its class in Finland. It was on the side of the Helsinki Railway Square in Helsinki and, later on, alongside the family home in Tapiola, Espoo. In the agency, not only furniture was designed but also entire interiors, such as for shops, offices, banks, restaurants and hotels. More people were taken on for the agency and Annikki Tapiovaara moved over in the mid-1950s to take care of the agency and its correspondence.

“Although, she did later miss being able to get to draw lines,” says Timo Tapiovaara.

Some of the employees have later spoken in a bitter manner about Tapiovaara using their ideas as his own.

“He kept up the appearance of being the nicest man in the world, but us workers did have to go through all kinds of things,” says the interior designer Jaakko Halko, who worked in the agency in the late 1960s. “On the other hand, many independent artists aren’t actually easy people either. It’s often a problem to do with the profession.”

Ilmari Tapiovaara
Tapiovaara also worked as a teacher of interior design at the Helsinki University of Technology.

Timo Tapiovaara began working at the agency in 1967, alongside his studies. He studied to be an interior designer after studying photography. He admits that Ilmari could be obstinate as a boss.

“He did take the opinion of the employees into account but stuck pretty strongly to his point of view. Even though things were talked about, the voice of the boss was the decisive one.”

Tapiovaara Kiki
The straight-lined Kiki range is from 1960.

When Timo was designing the interior of the banquet hall of the Intercontinental hotel with his father, a disagreement arose. Even though a contract price had been agreed on beforehand for the work, Ilmari Tapiovaara also wanted to design the carpets of the banquet hall himself instead of selecting them from the range offered by a carpet factory.

“He wasn’t always a person who thought about how to get to the end result in the most direct way. It took weeks with the carpets, which was expensive for the agency,” relates Timo Tapiovaara.

“He wasn’t always a person who thought about how to get to the end result in the most direct way.”

The large detached house in the Itäranta area of Tapiola was a nerve center where domestic life and work merged. After the building was completed in 1962, Ilmari Tapiovaara was in the habit of shuffling early in the morning to the office side with his cup of coffee and staying there until late at night.

“Some family life was also sacrificed for the work,” says Timo Tapiovaara.

Ilmari Tapiovaara was a person who loved performing and speaking. He was involved in positions of responsibility in the field, through which he became a kind of spiritual ambassador for Finnish design. Therefore it hit him all the harder when he began to be criticized towards the end of the 1960s. Angry young men and left-wing designers entered the field of design at that time, accusing Aalto, Tapiovaara and other well-known designers of elitism.

“The criticism from the younger generation focused on the position and cult of celebrity of the designer. In the opinion of the critics, a designer was entitled to put their name to unique products, but they should not attach their name to serial products because they were industrial products,” says Pekka Korvenmaa.

Tapiovaara Pirkka table
Pirkka, one of the most-loved Finnish furniture ranges. Old, used designs are also sought-after. Artek still manufactures Pirkka.

Through his work, Ilmari Tapiovaara had managed to make himself into a brand, which made him a target for negative attention. Nevertheless, the accusation of elitism was absurd: Tapiovaara had already at the beginning of his career adopted the view that he would make high-quality but affordable furniture. Coincidence or not, work at the agency ended at the same time for a while. Tapiovaara had many wealthy companies as clients, but for some reason, no-one seemed to need his services anymore.

“It felt like there was no longer any place for him in this whole, which certainly depressed him,” tells Timo Tapiovaara.

Ilmari Tapiovaara also stumbled in his private life, and at times the employees of the agency had to listen to arguments from the other side of the wall. Tapiovaara was an unfaithful husband, and partly for that reason, Annikki started using a significant amount of alcohol. She died in 1972. After that, Ilmari had two long relationships and various other relationships. Ilmari Tapiovaara didn’t really speak about his emotions, hiding them inside instead. His work was his life.

The Domus chair upholstered with leather
The Domus chair with leather upholstery.

First, his father’s hand began to shake, and Timo Tapiovaara noticed the symptoms in 1982. Ilmari Tapiovaara had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Soon, he wasn’t able to draw anymore and decided to close the agency in 1984. It seemed to be a time to settle the accounts because the same year his output was celebrated in an exhibition at the Design Museum. As his illness worsened in the following years, his career was forgotten.

The illness affected Tapiovaara’s mobility and also changed his personality, making it unpredictable. The home in Itäranta had to be sold in 1988 when Tapiovaara could no longer look after it. He moved into an apartment in Lauttasaari, where he was also helped by his daughter Laura Tapiovaara, who had been born from a common-law marriage with Anneli Turkka. In the last years, there was a carer in the apartment.

As part of the vintage boom, Tapiovaara's furniture began selling well again.

For a few decades, Tapiovaara was a forgotten master in Finland, but there was plenty of interest around the world. The Spanish design company Santa & Cole wanted to publish a book about Tapiovaara in the mid-nineties and got in Pekka Korvenmaa to write it. The ambitious work was completed three years later, and at the same time, the company started producing the Maija Mehiläinen light again.

Tapiovaara Maija table light
The Spanish Santa & Cole produces Tapiovaara’s Maija lights.

When the book was completed, Ilmari Tapiovaara was already in poor condition.

“I took the book to him, but I’m not sure if he understood what it was about,” says Timo Tapiovaara.

Ilmari Tapiovaara died in January 1999. He didn’t get to see how online shopping became more widespread and, as a part of the vintage boom, how Tapiovaara’s furniture began selling well again. However, something is still different from the 1950s: the price tag on the chairs.

Discover Ilmari Tapiovaara's designs >

Text: Antti Järvi Images: Johanna Kinnari, Zara Pfeifer, Schaepman & Habets, Artek, Santa & Cole

This article was originally published in Avotakka.

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