Why I Still Sit in an Alvar Aalto Chair

I’m writing this sitting in an Alvar Aalto chair, at a round Aalto table. Beside me stands a lamp designed by the same master of modern architecture. Most of these pieces were originally designed in the 1930s and 40s. How many IKEA models will be around in 2080?

Alvar Aalto was an architect but also a furniture designer. He and his wife, Aino Aalto, designed glassware, lamps, carpets, fabrics, and so on. Aalto wanted to offer an immersive experience to those who were living and using the built environments that his office designed.

Many of Aalto’s colleagues had the same kind of ideas, but he went a step further. He and Aino were the founding members of a company that started producing and selling Aalto products. They, together with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl, founded Artek in 1935. The business idea of the company was “to sell furniture and to promote a modern culture of habitation by exhibitions and other educational means.”

Artek is still in business with three stores in Finland, albeit its owner is a Swedish investor. They also sell through retailers worldwide. Why am I happy that they are still around? Not just because they sell great design.

If I ever want to augment our furniture with matching pieces I can find them at Artek. Not only do their Aalto series go together perfectly, I can also find the exact same chair or table that I bought 20 years ago. When I wanted to expand an IKEA bookshelf at our office, it was already out of production only two years after its purchase.

Another difference between Aalto classics and IKEA products is that Aalto’s chairs, tables, and shelves are very solid and practically unbreakable. They last for years and stay in good condition. Furthermore, you can actually repair and renew them, if necessary. Even spare parts are available. That’s something that’s unheard of with most modern products. I’d say that Aalto’s furniture is sustainable in a very practical way.

What is the price of owning modern classics? An Aalto birch chair number 66  costs 295 euros (around $390) in Finland in summer 2013. At the same time a birch plywood chair “Sigurd” at IKEA costs 49.95 euros (around $65). So, you can provide your dining table with five Sigurds for the price of one Aalto and still have money to spare.

Does it make sense to compare the products of IKEA and Artek? As far as I know they both originally shared the same ideology of bringing affordable modern furniture to every home. They both have a Nordic attitude towards design: practicality, simplicity, and lightness.  IKEA’s business acumen turned it into a great company whereas Artek is a niche player. Maybe relying on classic 1930s models cannot offer great opportunities for growth. Will Artek still be here in twenty years’ time, as their products certainly will? As a keen customer I hope so.

Visit Artsy’s Alvar Aalto page.