Artek was founded in Helsinki in 1935 by four young idealists: Alvar and Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen, and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Their goal was “to sell furniture and to promote a modern culture of living by exhibitions and other educational means.”
In keeping with the radical spirit of its founders, Artek today remains an innovative player in the world of modern design, developing new products at the intersection of design, architecture, and art.
The Artek collection consists of furniture, lighting, and accessories designed by Finnish masters and leading international designers. It stands for clarity, functionality, and poetic simplicity.
The name Artek is a synthesis of "art" and ‘technology’ – concepts central to the international modernist movement that came to prominence in the 1920s. It was Walter Gropius, a key proponent of modernism, who coined the motto ‘art and technology – a new unity.’ Technology was understood to include science and industrial production methods, while the conception of art extended beyond the fine arts to encompass architecture and design.
Modernism aimed to achieve a fruitful union of these two spheres. This same aspiration guided the founders of Artek in their naming of the company.
ARTEK MANIFEST, 1935
The Artek Manifest lays out the vision of the company’s four founders. Though the immediate impetus was to professionalise the international distribution of the Aaltos’ designs, the Manifest ties Artek to a cultural mission far beyond the purely commercial.
With headlines like Modern Art, Industry and Interior Design, Propaganda, the Manifest makes Artek’s aims clear: to achieve a synthesis of the arts, improve everyday living, and bring modernism to Finland – while transporting Alvar Aalto’s Nordic interpretation of these principles out into the world.
The First Store
To bring to life the vision laid out in the Artek Manifest, a centre was needed where the public could be introduced to new ideas. From its opening in 1936, the first Artek Store was quick to bring international cultural developments to Finland and display inspirational objects by likeminded companies.
It existed as an outlet for the Aaltos’ groundbreaking designs and contextualised them within the wider modernist movement. Establishing itself as an institution of this new culture of living, the store remains a destination with international stature.
From the beginning, Artek’s mission was to bring about a grand synthesis of the arts, eroding the demarcations between fine art, architecture, and design. To this end, a connected gallery space was established adjoining the first Artek Store. Here, pioneering artists were introduced to the public side by side with Artek furniture, lighting, and accessories.
Until the 1990s, numerous exhibitions of Finnish and international artists – such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, and Joan Miró – were presented. At the same time, exhibitions of Finnish art were organised abroad, continuing the cultural dialogue.
DESIGNERS OF ARTEK
In 1935, four young idealists established a dynamic company with grand ambitions. Not least of these was to market and sell the Aaltos’ furniture, lighting, and textiles, particularly on international markets. Alvar Aalto’s pioneering work, in the spirit of the great architects of the 20th century, was a significant factor in the worldwide proliferation of Nordic design, inspiration to generations of designers, and a core element of Artek’s success.
Today, Alvar Aalto is still central to Artek, both in the timeless designs that form a major part of the collection and in the enduring influence of his design legacy.
The architect and designer Aino Aalto played an important part in establishing and shaping Artek. In addition to her own independent projects and the collaborations she undertook with her husband, Aalto also served as the company’s first Design Director and, from 1941, its Managing Director.
A formidable colleague, her leadership of the company’s interior design division, called the Drawing Office, was decisive in determining the company’s aesthetic direction. Overall, Aalto’s contribution was crucial to the realisation of the goals laid out in the Artek Manifest.
An artist in her own right, Maire Gullichsen studied painting in Paris and Helsinki. Part of a group of young intellectuals and artists in early 1930s Helsinki, Gullichsen was an early believer in Aalto’s talent and a firm defender of modernism. She rapidly assimilated the new ideas and began actively promoting modernist art, design, and architecture.
Under Gullichsen’s direction, Artek organised many exhibitions by world famous artists such as Picasso, Léger, and Calder, establishing Artek as a gateway for international culture in Finland. In 1950, Gullichsen founded the Artek Gallery.
Nils Gustav Hahl
An art historian, critic, and writer, Nils-Gustav Hahl played a critical role in the history of Artek. It was Hahl who first brought Maire Gullichsen and the Aaltos together, leading to the founding of the company. A polyglot cosmopolitan with an extensive international network, Hahl was active in art circles and fascinated by new trends in art, technology, and society.
Hahl became the first Managing Director of Artek, a position he held until his death in 1941 – at the front during Finland’s Continuation War against the Soviet Union, where he had volunteered as a medical orderly.