Ateljee Kukkapuro, which has been the home and workspace of Yrjö Kukkapuro and graphic artist Irmeli Kukkapuro for decades, is an international attraction. Design Stories had the pleasure of visiting the studio and hearing about Yrjö Kukkapuro’s life’s work and the importance of the space and collaboration for creativity.
ATELJEE KUKKAPURO IS HIDDEN from the gaze of passers-by in its private hazel grove in Kauniainen. Under the organically curved sail-like roof, designer Yrjö Kukkapuro and graphic artist Irmeli Kukkapuro have lived and worked side by side for decades, continuously inspiring each other. The studio, completed in 1969, is where Kukkapuro created many of his chairs, which combine inimitable design with ideal ergonomics.
The architecturally interesting building embodies the innovative ideals of the 1960s. At the same time, it is a fascinating reflection of Kukkapuro’s life’s work as a designer. Kukkapuro designed the studio during his intensive “fiberglass phase”. The chairs of that era, from Karuselli to Saturn, have a shell-like structure with a cast fiberglass frame, metal base and leather upholstery. Kukkapuro would have also wanted Ateljee Kukkapuro to have the same sculptural shell structure. In fact, the first scale models of the buildings were made of fiberglass. The ultra-modern and experimental studio building was created in collaboration with Eero Paloheimo and eventually covered with a cheaper concrete roof at his suggestion.
The gravity-defying roof, which rests on three points, gives the building its characteristic sculptural shape. The connection to nature is also one of the key characteristics of the building. The floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side overlook a natural sculpture garden, where thousands of wood anemones bloom in the spring alongside works by Kain Tapper, Kari Huhtamo and many other contemporary artists.
At the time of its completion in 1969, Ateljee Kukkapuro immediately generated international interest.
At the time of its completion, Ateljee Kukkapuro immediately generated international interest. Decades later, it is still an attraction that people around the world travel to see. To the Kukkapuros, the building is a place where they lead their everyday lives. Under the curved roof, they lived, worked and held parties for decades. Even though the Kukkapuros currently live next door, they still work in the studio – new chair models still join the classics and prototypes that have filled up the 200-square-meter space.
Yrjö Kukkapuro, could you tell us what kinds of aspirations and needs guided the design of Ateljee Kukkapuro?
“In the 1960s, many artists and architects in the US and continental Europe started to live and work in empty industrial buildings. Inspired by the phenomenon, we also initially hoped to find an old cowshed or industrial building with an arched roof for both living and working. When we couldn’t find a suitable building, Irmeli’s father suggested that we build a studio of our own on their plot in Kauniainen.
Irmeli and I calculated that 200 square meters would suffice for living and working. Originally, no intermediate walls were built in Ateljee Kukkapuro, and I think we even may have had Finland’s first open kitchen with an island. At some point, however, our daughter Isa wanted to have a room of her own, so we built one for her. Now those walls are long gone.
I designed the studio with my friend Eero Paloheimo, and it was a bit of a coincidence that it ended up looking like this. For the most part, I provided the ideas and Eero provided the technical expertise. I hoped for a sculptural building with the same shell-like structure as my fiberglass chairs. Inspired by my Karuselli chair, Eero came up with the idea of a roof that rests on three points. I would have wanted a three-centimeter-thick fiberglass roof, but Eero said that it would be so expensive that we couldn’t afford it. The roof was then made of concrete, which ended up costing only what two weeks of mold construction cost. The result is great, although I was a bit anxious at first about its durability. Now it’s been there over 50 years.”
You’ve worked as a designer for decades and still continue to do so. Where do you keep drawing inspiration from?
“I have to say that it’s this studio that keeps inspiring me. I’ve never had to force myself to design. When I come here, I immediately stop thinking about other things and start thinking about creative work. Surrounded by prototypes and finished products, I get new ideas all the time. I’m lucky, because the years haven’t affected my thinking. I still come here every day to work.”
“Once you internalize the basics of ergonomic design, the rest comes naturally. Ergonomics of sitting isn’t something we can compromise on, although aesthetics also plays a significant role in good design.”
You have been designing ergonomic chairs since the beginning of your career. What made you get interested in ergonomics in the first place?
“Ergonomics became my thing already during my studies at Ateneum, the Institute of Industrial Arts. When interior architect Olli Borg gave us a lecture on the back research conducted by the Swedish doctor Bengt Åkerblom, I ran out of the classroom and said that I had just realized how I should design. Furniture design requires arguments, beautiful shapes alone are not enough. Ergonomics has guided my work ever since. Once you internalize the basics of ergonomic design, the rest comes naturally. Ergonomics of sitting isn’t something we can compromise on, although aesthetics also plays a significant role in good design.”
So, ergonomics guides your design process and you have your own, recognizable style of designing, but what’s your relationship with trends?
“In retrospect, I must say I was actually really trendy. When fiberglass was the miracle material of the decade in the 1960s, I was also living my most intensive fiberglass phase. At the time, fiberglass was considered an ecological material, as it is durable and easy to repair.
When environmental awareness increased in the 1970s, I started designing chairs from Finnish plywood. In the postmodernist atmosphere of the next decade, I went on to design more decorative pieces in addition to ergonomic ones. This almost makes me think whether I’ve just been following trends all my career.”
Internationally, Karuselli is your best-known chair. Could you tell us how that chair came to be and how the attention it has received has affected you?
“I’d been dreaming of designing a lounge chair like Karuselli for years. The shape of Karuselli was the result of me pressing chicken wire against my body. For a year, I fine-tuned the shape of the chair using chicken wire and plaster until I had saved enough money to buy fiberglass.
The Karuselli chair was introduced at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1965, and it instantly made me an internationally recognized designer at the age of 28. The chair was featured in 30 trade journals around the world. I must say that it was exciting to see how embarrassed the Italians at the neighboring stand were to witness the popularity of my Karuselli. To be quite honest, I was a bit confused about all the attention, since I had not thought about appearance when designing Karuselli but sitting comfort and ergonomics.”
Could you tell us something about the background of the Ateljee products and the Remmi chair?
“I got the idea for the Ateljee collection when I was looking at this steel bed with a wire-mesh base and decided to design a sofa and an armchair with the same kind of structure. Then, one fine day in 1964, the model was born. Like the metal cot, the sofa and the chair have a tubular frame, but instead of springs, their base has belts with soft cushions on top. The Ateljee chair ended up becoming rather famous, due to which I was recognized as an international designer already before Karuselli became popular around the world. At that time, MoMA in New York acquired Ateljee for its collection.
Metal pipe has always been one of my go-to materials. The frame of the Remmi lounge chair, which I designed in the 1970s, is also made of metal pipe. When I started to design Remmi, I had shaped endless fiberglass models and instead of them, I wanted to create a simple tubular chair. I just found myself drawing a tubular frame with cushions made of sack on top. And that’s how the model started to take shape. I guess you could say that Remmi was created because I didn’t feel like designing fiberglass pieces anymore.”
You and your wife, Irmeli Kukkapuro, have been working under the same roof since the completion of the studio. What impact has this collaboration had on your work as a designer?
“I met Irmeli during my studies at Ateneum, where we were in the same class, and we’ve been working side by side ever since. She has an impeccable sense of color and form, and I must admit that the way I use colors comes from her. I have this very factual approach, and the aesthetics of my pieces is the result of functionality and ergonomics. Irmeli, on the other hand, relies on her imagination. It also livens up my designs to some extent when she comments that do I have to design in such a straightforward manner. Irmeli has had an invaluable impact on my work.”
Designs by Kukkapuro
Text: Selina Vienola Photos: Annabelle Antas