Finnish furniture designer Eero Aarnio talks design and about being snubbed by Ikea

Aarnio's home-studio houses his works such as the Ball Chair (main picture, background); Swan lamps (top right); and Puppy chairs (right). Octogenarian Eero Aarnio (above) says the secret of his life is good food, sleep and exercise.
Aarnio’s home-studio houses his works such as the Ball Chair (above, background); Swan lamps; and Puppy chairs. PHOTOS: TAN SHZR EE
Aarnio's home-studio houses his works such as the Ball Chair (main picture, background); Swan lamps (top right); and Puppy chairs (right). Octogenarian Eero Aarnio (above) says the secret of his life is good food, sleep and exercise.
Aarnio’s home-studio houses his works such as the Ball Chair; Swan lamps (above); and Puppy chairs.
Aarnio's home-studio houses his works such as the Ball Chair (main picture, background); Swan lamps (top right); and Puppy chairs (right). Octogenarian Eero Aarnio (above) says the secret of his life is good food, sleep and exercise.
Octogenarian Eero Aarnio (above) says the secret of his life is good food, sleep and exercise.

Creator of the famed Ball Chair Eero Aarnio is proud of the fact that he has been a 'one-man show' for more than 50 years

A well-told story revolves around Finnish furniture iconoclast Eero Aarnio's famous Ball Chair - yes, that space age sliced-off fibreglass sphere ensnaring a cocoon of blue cushion that has played intimate host to many a celebrity's legs - Princess Grace of Monaco, Will Smith and Twiggy, among others.

But the man who created the famous object will give you the real origin myth.

"I had just resigned from my full- time job. I started going freelance - it turned out to be for the rest of my life. I had a huge debt. I had a wife and two very small children," says Aarnio, 83, recalling his dilemma of 1962 as if it were only yesterday.

"I just bought an empty house. So I made a bookshelf and then a huge door. And then I thought - we need a chair. And then I thought - okay, you can all sit in the same chair, the whole family. And then I started to draw the chair and realised that it wouldn't fit in the door."

Speaking in translation, in a mix of rapid-fire Finnish peppered with authoritative, snappy English exhortations - "Follow me!", "Okay! Okay!", "Sit here!" - Aarnio is not so much sprightly than a seasoned scout captain, crowd-controlling people about on an open day in his own home-studio in the suburbs of Espoo, 25km away from Helsinki in Finland.


Puppy chairs (above).

I'm an impatient man. I would have been an architect, but the whole process just takes so long, I don't want to wait for a building to make itself.

FINNISH DESIGNER EERO AARNIO

It is the eve of a special exhibition of his furniture at the Design Museum of Helsinki - Eerio Aarno At Design Museum, from now till Sept 25 - and a small gaggle of journalists has been invited to ogle his private quarters.

We arrange ourselves first in his living room, a light-flooded mezzanine floor with low-lying modular white sofas. Their blocky presence is punctuated by his colourful self- designed lamps, chairs and toys.

"I have to live by the water," the octogenarian says of the site, which is built right over the lip of the lake. "When it's warm, we swim in it. One of my grandchildren got bitten by a pike last summer. Big one. This lake yields 1,500kg of fish a year. Very good fishing.

"Good food, good sleep, good exercise," he adds. "That is the secret of my life, to staying alive so long."

Born in 1932, Aarnio grew up the son of a seamstress and a painter and first trained as a photographer, slipping into the design world when he could not help thinking he could make the subjects of his lens better and more beautiful objects.

His D-I-Y ethos, however, was already honed from an early age. This saw him impatient to fix, better and invent things as he came across them everywhere, anywhere - almost immediately.

"I'm an impatient man," the designer says. "I would have been an architect, but the whole process just takes so long, I don't want to wait for a building to make itself."

While he spent his first 10 years working for the Finnish design firm Asko, in 1962 Aarnio decided to "leave and become a soloist".

Today, he is proud of the fact that he is still very much a "one-man operation" - with the exception of assistance from his wife Pirkko of 60 years. The 86-year-old, he says, "literally is the centre of my life. And I show you how".

Rising to his feet in a swift motion, he beckons people to the studio section of his open-concept residence, hovering his tall, black-clad frame over a working desk. He unrolls a large sheet of paper and draws out a pencil. He prepares to re-tell the story of his Ball Chair and promises to weave in a crucial detail about Pirkko.

"No computers, but paper and pencil. People say my arcs have so much more life. Always - 1:1 scale, nothing less. And now, I show you how I drew my Ball Chair," he says with a flourish.

"Now, to make the circle: This is a compass, but the largest compass can be only a radius less wide than my desk. So what do I do?

"I get a string. On one end, a pencil. One the other end - Pirkko. She is the centre of the circle, the centre of everything. And now I draw the chair - it is even bigger than the table."

The chair story does not end there, however. Aarnio lifts the wall of paper to tack it to a sliding door back on the other side of his living room, against which he positions himself by sitting on a stool. This time, he gives the pencil end of the string to Pirkko, who marks a spot on the paper just above his head.

"And this is how I decided the height of the chair," he explains with a wide smile. "Not too low, not too high. Just right."

The Ball Chair, which caught the attention of Aarnio's former employer Asko, who saw a pine prototype in the reception area of his former house, debuted at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1966. Iconic of the space age and a superstar at its first show, the item would go on to sell more than several hundred thousand pieces worldwide.

But good design was not just about coming up with clever shapes and concepts. Aarnio had to make sure the shape could be feasibly constructed and manufactured at a reasonable cost on a mid-range scale.

After several experiments with different materials, he chanced on the idea of using fibreglass for the main body of his chair while visiting a relative's boat-making workshop. "It is light and you can make any shape out of it," he explains.

While the bulk of the chair is made from a mould, it has a steel-enforced primary frame for its opening, which would otherwise collapse.

The success of the Ball Chair transformed Aarnio's career, as new spin-off inventions came on the back of the same, simple idea. One day, when the Finnish designer sat in his own creation intending to read, he mourned the lack of light and thought at first to make a lamp to go with the chair.

But then - "Why not make it transparent?" Enter the Bubble chair.

Later, he thought about how movement and flexibility could improve the cocoon-like atmosphere: Enter the Ring chair.

"The drawing is so simple, it's so boring. But this is the Finnish way. Keep it basic," Aarnio says with a shrug, but still beaming with joy.

"Sometimes, I'm embarrassed to show the sketch to people. The original one is going to be in the exhibition. In fact, most of the things at the exhibition are pieces of furniture from my own home."

Chairs alone are not Aarnio's only claim to fame, however.

In 1972, he came up with his signature bubble-inspired pony, 20 years before American artist Jeff Koons debuted - and copyrighted - his strikingly similar balloon dog.

Aarnio's pony itself is undergoing a rebirth in a concrete version, to be creatively used by the Finnish transport authorities as a road divider.

Other creatures - echoing the Pop Art-style traits of the Aarnio pony - have also since been created. These include his pony-inspired Puppy toy-turned-chair, his Wuff toy - modelled after his real dog - his Tree room divider and his Swan lamps, among other objects.

Today, Aarnio products are so timeless and distinctive that they have been copied all over the world, not least in China, where a thriving industry of fakes exists.

On Alibaba.com, an imitation Ball Chair costs several hundred euros at wholesale price, a fraction of the original at over €7,000 (S$10,640).

However, Aarnio says the fakes are noticeably inferior.

Curators at his show point out that the mouth of the original item curves in slightly, requiring two separate moulds in the manufacturing process.

In China where only one mould is used, the design curves and planes are not as sophisticated and the chair is sliced into a hemisphere.

Aarnio himself is slightly phlegmatic about the issue. "It is a certain achievement to have your works deemed worthy of copy.

"But ultimately - it is theft," he mourns. "I don't own a manufacturing company. I get paid a small royalty for every piece that is sold. But what can I do about copies? Even the big furniture companies are struggling to control the fakes. I'm just a one-man show. I can't fight them."

Indeed. In the spirit of a true designer, battling others appears to be something Aarnio is less interested in than finding creative ways around problems.

In the course of his career, he openly tells all he was snubbed several times by Ikea, including being turned down for a job in his youth. That - and other rejections on account of his unusual style - led him to stick to his guns for furniture creation and to develop his own distinctive signature.

Luckily, in the absence of agents and managers, he could rope in the help of his indefatigable wife, Pirkko. Eventually, his two daughters - Rea, 55, and Marja-Leena, 57 - also joined the family business, becoming his assistants. "I am happy now. Ikea can do whatever it wants," he says with a laugh.

In 2005, he jokes, the pinnacle of his career was breached when his name was invoked as a crossword clue in the New York Times. "The height of my fame - and now everything goes downhill," he jokes.

The story of the chair is never over yet, of course - certainly not for the man who wakes up at 5am every day "in time to read the paper and then work".

Speaking at the exhibition launch of his show in Helsinki, Aarnio revealed his latest plans.

"I see so many babies in the audience coming to my launch. That should be the way. And now I have my latest inspiration and latest clients. I am going to make a chair for babies. There are far too many ugly baby chairs around. The world needs a better, brand-new chair."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Solo Aarnio having a Ball'. Print Edition | Subscribe