Among the static furniture displays of the 22nd annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair, which opened at New York's Javits Center this morning, the venerable Finnish brand Artek invited a veteran upholsterer from their Helsinki manufacturing facility to put the finishing touch on a series of Alvar Aalto's Armchair 400s. The display was part of Artek's Dress The Chair campaign, an effort in which textile manufacturers at specific design destinations are asked to put new clothes on Aalto's classic. So far these have included Fanny Aronsen in Stockholm, Ilse Crawford in London, and most recently Missoni in Milan. "We've looked to collaborate with companies that have a unique identity and history in each country," says Artek executive vice president Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann.
Here in New York the duties of reinterpretation fell on Maharam, the Philadelphia based fabric maker. "I love what Michael Maharam has done," Vingerhoets-Ziesmann adds, " because he's really absorbed the identity of the chair, and come up with something unique." Based on a digital scan of Aalto's favored Zebra skin upholstery, Maharam devised a topographic brushed felt fabric that mimics the design of the original, but in solid black. Another of the chairs features Claudy Jongstra's Drenth Heath, a hand felted wool in black brown that was created specifically for this application. Another of the chairs features a classic linen painter's canvas embroidered with tyrolean motifs by Sabine Steimair. The last is a neutral composition of Maharam's merino felt and a horsehair bolster.
Aki Lehtonen, looking like he may have just stepped out from a Aki Kurismaki film, has worked for Artek for 28 years. Ville Kokkonen, Artek's design director, asked how many chairs he thinks he's upholstered over the years, to which Lehtonen replied 52 a year (for a total of 1456). He says upholstering the Armchair 400 is relatively easy, but cutting the fabric to fit perfectly is not. "He could do it blindfolded now though," Kokkonen quips.
Later this year, Dress The Chair will continue in Sydney and Tokyo before concluding in Helsinki. "Our collection is big," says Kokkonen, "so it's a good way to bring out one of the old pieces and show that it's still got some life. A lot of people didn't know that they could have an Artek chair with their own fabric, so its good to show that we can be decorative too."