Design industry influencer Isa Kukkapuro-Enbom and researcher and architect Aija Staffans from Aalto University sit for a chat on a 1960s Ateljee sofa in Aija’s home. The discussion starts with the sofa itself, moves on to what makes for quality design and a good home, and finally to sustainable development and living in the way that best suits one’s own tastes and aspirations.
Selina Vienola: Hello, Aija and Isa! You are both sitting comfortably on an Ateljee sofa that changed hands between you – you, Isa, sold it to Aija. How did a sofa that was in the Kukkapuro family for so many years end up in its new place?
Aija Staffans: “Our children often joke that their mothers’ sofas are beautiful but uncomfortable. At our age we don’t buy new furniture anymore, but when we were renovating and refurnishing at the same time as a plumbing renovation was being carried out, we decided we wanted a sofa where we could sit comfortably and watch TV.
At first, I was thinking about taking the old Biedermeier sofa my parents had owned out of storage and putting it in the TV room. But that would have been just one more uncomfortable sofa. When I saw this Ateljee sofa on Franckly, I immediately fell in love with its aesthetics. The rosewood frame and corduroy velvet in a natural off-white shade blend beautifully together. And above all, it’s really comfortable. The Ateljee is the first comfortable sofa our family has had.”
“For my father, the designer Yrjö Kukkapuro, function is the most important principle of all, and he strives for maximum minimalism in his work.”
Isa Kukkapuro-Enbom: “The Ateljee is also ideal for my afternoon naps, and I have one in my study for that as well. For my father, the designer Yrjö Kukkapuro, function is the most important principle of all, and he strives for maximum minimalism in his work.
The Ateljee sofa is a wooden box structure with simple cushioned seat cushions, and is exactly what he had set out to design. He is an ascetic at heart, and although analyzing my own father isn’t easy I would say that the Ateljee, designed in 1963, is part of his early phase, when he still thought that there was room for a bit of comfort in life.”
Aija: “I find it very intriguing that the Ateljee belongs to such an early phase in his body of work. I was impressed when you brought the sofa to us in pieces but assembled it in no time. I had no idea that it was modular in design to such a large extent.”
Yrjö Kukkapuro was ahead of his time in this case too. Except for a break of a couple of years, the Ateljee sofa has been in continuous production since 1964, when it was exhibited at the Cologne Furniture Fair. Now it’s back in production.
Isa: “The structure of the Ateljee is indeed completely modular. You could extend it to make it as long as you like, really. It’s designed to last practically forever, as most of its parts are repairable, and parts such as the straps of the base can be replaced. And if you don’t want to use it all the time, it can be disassembled and stored in quite a small space.”
Aija: “One of the hallmarks of good furniture design is that the structure is clear and the materials are of high quality, so that the item is repairable, and recyclable if necessary.”
Isa: “Yrjö himself is an anti-interior designer, although he does of course appreciate other people’s expertise in this area. In his view, though, the reason why each generation rediscovers the Ateljee is that it is so versatile, so adaptable. From the start, two frame options were available – a painted frame and a wood-paneled frame – and everyone could make the Ateljee their own with their own choice of upholstery fabric.”
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Of course, adaptability is also important when a piece of furniture changes hands, either within the family or otherwise. What is your view on the recycling of furniture and other times, and how important is it?
Aija: “I’m thrilled to see how the circular economy is developing in Finland and further afield. This can be seen both in industry and at the individual level. When it comes to household objects, it’s great to see the same things being handed down within the family. But of course it’s also nice to know that some objects can have a new life elsewhere too, outside the family.”
Isa: “Everyone always has their own individual experience of objects in the home. There’s really no way of knowing whether the next generation will embrace objects and works of art that I own and want to pass on.”
“Everyone has their own individual experience of objects in the home. There’s really no way of knowing whether the next generation will embrace objects and works of art that I own and want to pass on.”
Aija: “From a sustainability point of view, good design also requires that the materials themselves are repairable and recyclable. Even if an object is no longer fit for a new home, its materials can be reused. The same applies to construction. Some years ago I was on a business trip to Japan, and in visiting demolition sites I was impressed by how all the materials were recovered for further processing. I think there were as many as 27 fractions of recyclable materials. This is something we could learn from here in Finland.”
Absolutely. Not everything can be held onto as it is, but fortunately as recycling technology develops almost everything can be reused. On the other hand, some things, such as quality furniture, can last for decades. Even this beautiful home is so strongly evocative of different eras that I have to ask: how important is layering to the feel of a home, and what do you think it is that gives a home its meaning?
Aija: “I get annoyed when I see ads by construction companies claiming that they build “homes.” They only build buildings – it’s the people who move into them that make them homes. For me, it’s important that a home has deep roots. A home carries with it personal significance of many sorts – memories from different stages of life, and often from previous generations.
It’s interesting to see from my parents’ photographs how their homes were lived in at different stages of their lives, and the interior design styles of the different eras. We have a lot of modern Scandinavian and French design, to which I have added a couple of inherited Biedermeier chairs, almost as a matter of principle.”
“A home carries with it personal significance of many sorts – memories from different stages of life, and often from previous generations.”
Isa: “Layered interior design is also a matter of sustainability. I’m always a little envious of people whose homes have such a long family history. The history of my own family is the history of my parents. I grew up in an ultra-modern studio home, and maybe that’s why I have a bit of a love affair with period furniture, for instance, even though I don’t really know how to combine it with anything in my own home.
For some reason though, I’m just not keen on the idea that every item of furniture needs to be carefully matched. Modernism has changed our way of life so radically that these flawless examples of different furniture designs are no longer compatible with our everyday lives.”
That’s true. I can’t think of a time when I had coffee with friends somewhere that was furnished with anything of that kind. Incidentally, my great-grandmother, who was an architect herself, used to remind me that architects do not have matching furniture in their own homes.
Aija: “That’s right, there are always wider shared cultural meanings associated with the home. In Finland, there are quite strong social norms that determine what kind of housing and interior design solutions are acceptable. But when it comes to the home this is pretty crazy, since it should be a place where there’s room for individual choice.”
Isa: “Definitely! Fortunately, there are also signs that homes are moving in a more personalized direction. I have thought a lot about how the culture of uniformity emerged in Finland. The old Kaunis Koti home decor magazines (published from 1948 to 1971) are wonderful reading in this respect too. They have a strong civic educational element.”
Aija: “That magazine gave really straightforward interior design advice. A fun example is the advice on how to combine an old dinner set with a landscape design with the Kilta dinner set designed by Kaj Franck, with the color scheme that came into fashion in the 1950s.”
Isa: “And that advice still applies, by the way. At an auction, we bought both an old blue dinner set with a landscape design and a blue Iittala Teema dinner set for our summer cottage.”
“The home lives and develops along with the people who make it and live in it, and something that doesn’t seem to fit right now may well seem a natural choice in ten years’ time.”
Aija: “And now that the kitchen has come into the living room in current home design, I’ve been thinking that it’s actually like an old farmhouse living room. But people now live in small homes in Finland, and we’ve started to make that into a virtue. It bothers me that in small apartments there are few furnishing options, and that storage spaces, for example, have actually come to be looked down upon. In terms of preserving a home with different layers and personal history, not having a place to store such things as furniture inherited from relatives is problematic.
After all, the home lives and develops along with the people who make it and live in it, and something that doesn’t seem to fit right now may well seem a natural choice in ten years’ time. For example, the curly birch-handled beds and closet my parents had have just been handed down to our thirtysomething children, although a few years ago they might not have been interested in them.”
What about good home living, and all that it entails?
Aija: “It’s all about having a pleasant environment, a holistic sense of place and locality that extends beyond the walls of the home. It’s as much about the services available in the local area as it is about landscape and architecture. Some years ago, I was part of the jury that selected Finland’s best area to live in from nominations sent in by members of the public. We chose the village of Sulva in Ostrobothnia, on the west coast of Finland, as its blend of local characteristics and community spirit make it unique.”
So far, our chat has raised a number of topics we could talk about practically forever. The Ateljee is clearly also a good sofa for chatting on. One more question, for Isa: how does it feel to see the sofa handed down within your family here in its new home?
Isa: “I’m really pleased with the wonderful place it’s in now. Its versatility and adaptability really come to the fore here, where it sits naturally alongside antique furniture, modern Italian design and Finnish contemporary art. For a moment I regretted selling it, but my family wouldn’t have had any use for it. Now I’m happy to know that it’s found a good home and is in use, as all home items should be.”
Text: Selina Vienola Images: Suvi Kesäläinen Video: Joni Tuominen Production: Design Stories