Ilmari Tapiovaara designed the Domus chair in 1946 as a reading chair for a student housing complex in Helsinki. The beautiful, ergonomic wooden chair has since become one of the most loved – and desired – icons of Finnish design.
WHAT WOULD BE the most comfortable and multipurpose chair for small student apartments? And how would it be made if cushions, upholstery fabric and even metal were not used?
Designer Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914–1990) began pondering these problems in the 1940s, when entering the interior design competition for the 750-apartment student accommodation complex, Domus Academica in Helsinki.
The construction project was begun at a time when Finland was just recovering from the Second World War, with severe shortages of pretty well everything. Only one material, wood, was for available for student apartment furniture.
Ilmari Tapiovaara already had strong experience of designing wooden furniture. He designed wooden furniture for Asko before the Winter War. During the war, he led the design of rudimentary wooden furniture for dugouts and canteens at the front. Tapiovaara was recruited as a designer by the firm, Keravan Puuteollisuus, as soon as the war ended.
Ilmari Tapiovaara exploited the full potential of wood when designing the Domus chair. For this chair made wholly of wood, he designed a sturdy frame with rounded angles, as well as a beautifully formed seat made of bent plywood. Tapiovaara designed the contours to fit the user's body as well as possible.
Ilmari Tapiovaara exploited the full potential of wood when designing the Domus chair.
A study of the chairs' ergonomics reveals that Tapiovaara resorted to unconventional means during his career. It is said that he once sat sauna guests on a lump of clay to identify just the right seat design. Whether or not this is true, in the case of the Domus he certainly created an extremely ergonomic chair. It was ideal for very small student apartments, since the same chair can be used for studying during the day, and as a dining and armchair during leisure time.
Keravan Puuteollisuus Oy began to mass produce the chair after the completion of the Domus Academica student accommodation complex. There was high demand for good, reasonably priced furniture after the war and the Domus became a popular multipurpose chair in households as well as schools, function halls and other public spaces. More than 700,000 of the chairs were made already in the 1950s.
Domus became a popular multipurpose chair in households as well as schools and other public spaces.
Domus chairs were also exported. Production was streamlined for the sake of efficiency and the chair could be shipped in parts, which reduced the space needed for the package. The Domus was easy to send to other continents. It was sold in European countries such as Sweden and England, and later in the United States via Knoll Inc, where it was marketed as the Finnchair.
Production also began of other furniture designed by Ilmari Tapiovaara and his wife, Annikki Tapiovaara, for student apartments. The most impressive of these was the Domus lounge chair designed for lobbies; this chair provides an even more striking demonstration of how plywood can be shaped into sculptural forms.
Production of the Domus chair was wound up after its successful years. Although it was produced as the Lepo chair in 1980, the Domus chair could only otherwise be bought from second-hand shops or flea markets. Interest in the design of past decades grew alongside the vintage boom in the 2000s. At that time, Aero revived production of the Domus chair and many other items of furniture by Tapiovaara. These became part of Artek's collection in the 2010s.
Domus has become one of the most beloved Finnish design classics and the story of this over 70-year-old chair continues. Pre-owned and vintage Domus chairs have also proved very popular. Little wonder, since the Domus retains all of the characteristics of a good chair: its soft, harmonious curves are a visual treat, and its ergonomics are as good as ever.
Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Riikka Kantinkoski and Artek