Eero Aarnio: still designing after all these years

It’s been 50 years since the Finnish designer created the iconic 1960s Ball Chair

"Children should be allowed to play. That is how they get their creative ideas," says Finnish designer Eero Aarnio who is still designing in his eighth decade having begun, he says, at the age of one.

His nurtured child-side is evident in the way he moves, his hands dancing and his whole self seeming to hop about the multi-level house he designed and built – with his wife of 60 years, Pirkko – in the late 1980s beside a lake in Veikkola, west of Helsinki.

"He is so full of energy," says Suvi Saloniemi, the curator of an exhibition of his work at the Design Museum in Helsinki which charts his creations since the Ball Chair, first exhibited in 1966 and now celebrating its 50th year in production.

“I get things done,” concurs Aarnio who has always worked by himself – never employing anyone – in his family home. However, he does give credit to his kin’s input – not least that of his father-in-law who lent Aarnio his workshop at weekends in the early 1960s. Here Aarnio built a prototype of the Ball Chair – not believing any furniture company would take such a simple design seriously if he just showed a drawing. “I am responsible for my designs, nobody else,” says Aarnio.


Designing from the pram

His story is that he began designing the Ball Chair when he was a year old and, lying in his pram on the balcony of the family apartment in Helsinki, saw the blue sky above encapsulated in a circle. The colourful characters in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which he saw at the age of six in 1938, also left a deep impression.

The design evolved when he applied to art school and they required a picture of someone reading in a chair – he was not good at drawing figures and features so he put the person behind a huge newspaper with a red circle around them.

Aarnio’s mind and discussion is as inventive and darting as his movements: he delights in telling such stories (accompanied by a cheeky, knowing grin) and sometimes seems impatient when his flow is stopped by questions.

His exhibition at the Helsinki Design Museum is beautifully displayed, with a sparse backdrop and platforms that move exhibits around visitors just as visitors move around them.

"We did not want to go pop-like with the pop furniture," says Saloniemi. Yet in his home, just over half an hour from Helsinki, the animals Aarnio has created for Italian companies Magis, Alessi and Serralunga, animate all areas of the house, and include packs of puppies facing each other through a glass wall, while a Ring Chair hangs from the ceiling and coloured Swan lights line up on top of bookshelves – albeit all of them set against a calm, glassy and white backdrop.

Aarnio holds up his latest prototype – a small, simple car with a hoop at the front for when a child gets tired and a rope can be tied to it to pull them along – always seeing things from a young perspective.

At his drawing board he holds a roll of thin paper, sticks a pin in one end and demonstrates how he draws circles. “It’s hard to get these any more,” he says holding up the tack. “Everything is digital now.” He indicates the pens and pencils on his desk atop a white plan chest – and unfurls tracing paper. These are still his design tools.

In a country known for its designs in wood – and Aarnio’s first piece was a rattan stool known as “mushroom” – he made a bold move into colourful plastic pieces that caught the 1960s’ zeitgeist.

When his Ball Chair was exhibited in Cologne, in 1966, he received orders from over 30 countries. Bing Crosby and Princess Grace of Monaco were among those who used it in their homes.

It was followed by the Pastil, Bubble and Formula chairs – exciting a generation that had a new affluence, sense of freedom and a yen for new things. It didn’t hurt that they photographed so well clambered on, ridden and straddled by models; as well as with the designer himself and his family, his two daughters swinging in translucent Bubble chairs and the whole family pictured laughing within the Ball.

Puppy love

Aarnio had something of a later life career boost when Italian company Magis recognised the power of his child-like designs and commissioned the Puppy in 2005. This has been followed by quite a zoo: including the Swan Lamp (with Finnish company Martela Oy) in 2007, Pingy (a penguin) created in 2011, and Pulcino bird-shaped garden furniture (for Italian company Serralunga) in 2015.

"Thirty years after his big projects in the '60s and '70s, Eero made a triumphant comeback with his work for Magis: he's the designer who lived twice," says Eugenio Perazza, founder and president of Magis, who declares Aarnio's Happy Bird "pure magic".

Aarnio captured the 1960s but he also captured something timeless within many of us. His pieces are created with, and bring out a feeling of, endearment. “My designs come from here,” he says patting his heart. “But then they have to be worked out up here,” – his head. And then it travels between the two: “Design must be functional but also fascinating,” he says.

He may seem to have departed from the crafted natural materials that underpin design in Finland – a country that does its own thing rather than following world trends, but which is having a moment now that people are revisiting crafts (with bake-offs and upcycling to name but two that are raging) with a vengeance.

Yet even though he designs in bright colours, Aarnio is following tradition in terms of drawing inspiration from nature, just as Finnish stalwarts Marimekko have done with its distinctive bright poppies and Iittala with its simply luscious plump birds.

Aarnio lifts his arm: “Ahh,” he sings. “Diva.” He picks up the watering can he designed for Alessi, with its indent resembling a singing mouth, and an expressive spout depicting an outstretched arm. Delightful, witty and flowing: both the designer and designed object.

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in architecture, design and property