Despite Finland’s many forests, its furniture designers are struggling to source enough wood for their products. We visit three firms adapting to meet the challenge.
With 75 per cent of its landmass covered by forests, timber is Finland’s most abundant natural resource. It’s big business too – the most recent valuation of the country’s forest industry was €20bn. This situation might seem to paint a rosy picture for the country’s wooden- furniture makers but the reality is that they are Finnish timber’s underdogs. The industry has coalesced into three large conglomerates that mainly produce pulp for cardboard and paper, limiting access to wood for furniture production. Which begs the question: how do the nation’s design brands secure timber for their future? We find out how an established maker, an innovator and a new industry shaker are tackling the problem.
The established maker
On an October evening in 1935, four Finns gathered for dinner at König, the cultural crowd’s haunt in central Helsinki at the time, to draw up plans for a new design company. The name would be a fusion of art and technology – Artek – and it had an odd manifesto, typewritten on an A4 sheet in red ink. At the top of the page was written “industry and interior design”, and next to it a second pillar: “propaganda”. Through publications, exhibitions and mass production of bentwood furniture, the firm’s four founders – Alvar and Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl – wanted to propagate new ideas and ways of living. Nearly 90 years later, it is safe to say that Artek has lived up to expectations. Today the company is facing an issue that the four founders hardly anticipated: in a country famous for being not much else but forest, a manufacturer of wooden furniture risks running out of raw material.
“We don’t know whether, in 30 years, we’ll have enough quality wood,” says Marianne Goebl, Artek’s managing director. “How do we make sure that the next generation of Artek still has birch?” Goebl has just pulled up with monocle to a low-slung 1960s building that looks inconspicuous except for an outdoor area with Barber Osgerby-designed chairs. Inside, we are greeted with a handshake and a business card that is a thin slice of wood veneer stamped “a-factory”. Here, on the outskirts of Turku in southwestern Finland, is where Artek’s wooden three-legged Stool 60s, linoleum-topped tables and curved timber Paimio armchairs are produced.
“Our aesthetic perception has been trained over the years to think that a wooden product should look uniform. That is not what the forest produces”
Artek furniture is almost exclusively made from birch, a common leafy tree recognisable for its white bark. The logs arrive from a sawmill in central Finland, are then cut into planks and left to dry outside. For a long time, any piece of timber with a small visible flaw – a knot, a dark spot, a piece of bark – would either be painted or burned to power the factory. In effect, just one tenth of the felled birch would end up as Artek’s signature natural wooden furniture, with much of it discarded based on its looks. Goebl points to a new sorting pile of pieces that all display some small imperfection. They would not formerly have made the cut but are now being used to produce Villi, a new model of the Stool 60 released in mid-2023 for the brand’s 90th anniversary. The plan is to roll out this new timber standard across a wider range of Artek products.
Villi is designed by Formafantasma and is one of the first outcomes of the Italian studio’s long-term collaboration with Artek. In 2019 the company, formed by Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi, was presenting Cambio, an exhibition on forestry at London’s Serpentine Pavilion. Goebl wondered whether Artek wanted to apply Formafantasma’s research on an industrial scale. “We opened up the entire supply chain and said: go in and have a look,” says Goebl. The voluntary audit involved archival research, factory visits and a wide set of interviews. It resulted in a list of 29 points for improvement – including a rethink of the wood selection standards. “They were minor flaws, to the point that we couldn’t even see them,” says Farresin. “Now, from one tree they can use much more.”
The new standard represents one of Artek’s biggest shifts in its manufacturing practices and is also a reset. Vintage Artek furniture shows much more tolerance for natural variations and patterns in the wood. Only in the 1990s were criteria tightened to require an almost plastic-perfect surface. “Somehow our aesthetic perception has been trained over the years to think that a wooden product should look uniform,” says Goebl. “That is not what the forest produces.”
The frugality might be stylish but it is also existentially motivated. Much of the a-factory floor is dedicated to the L-leg, Artek’s signature way of bending a solid piece of wood by 90 degrees. The 30-step process of veneering and glueing has changed little since it was invented by Alvar Aalto and carpenter Otto Korhonen. The L-leg technique is so specific, and so dependent on high-quality Finnish birch, that moving production overseas has never been an option for Artek, even if it had wanted to. “I wasn’t aware that this company was so closely linked to this one material,” says Goebl, who stepped in to lead Artek in 2014, soon after it was acquired by Swiss firm Vitra. “It is literally rooted here.”
Despite Artek’s outsized role in the world of Finnish design, the company is a small fry when it comes to Finnish forestry. The demand for paper and cardboard far outstrips the furniture industry’s needs, meaning that more of Finland is being planted with species such as pine and spruce to feed the boilers of the pulp mills. Only one remaining sawmill still supplies the A-grade birch that Artek covets, from trees left to grow in mixed forests for 50 to 80 years.
Behind the factory, at the bottom of the stacks of timber laid out to dry, are a dozen extra-large planks of octogenarian birch. Trees of this diameter are essential for making the Paimio armchair, which is shaped from a single piece of wood. The logs will only keep coming if trees are not cut down too early, or don’t all end up in a pulp machine. Formafantasma’s recommendations include eco-activist measures such as giving every employee a piece of forest.
It is time for such action: the forest industry has been high on the national agenda ever since a routine emissions report sent shockwaves through the country in 2022. Finland has based its goal of net-zero emissions by 2035 on the assumption that its forests sequester carbon but the report flipped that on its head. Forests are being felled at such a fast clip that the industry has changed from a net carbon sink into a net carbon emitter. Using the country’s “green gold” to make valuable, longer-lasting products would go a long way towards reversing that problem and, as Artek shows, it’s good business too. Maybe all it takes is a bit of propaganda, in the Artek founders’ sense of the word, for prioritising the making of bentwood chairs over pulp that becomes cardboard in China. “Artek is so small but in the cultural understanding of people it is so huge,” says Farresin. “Design brands have the power to change the culture.”
At bathroom manufacturer Woodio’s factory in northern Helsinki, Reijo Rautakoski scoops a handful of wood chips from a container and inspects them with a keen eye. “These are Finnish birch and we get them from a cellulose factory in eastern Finland,” he says, walking monocle through the firm’s production process. These wood chips are a side stream of cellulose production and would be burned as waste were it not for Woodio, which launched in 2016 and uses the would-be byproduct to manufacture fixtures such as basins, bathtubs and toilet seats. “The real innovation here is that we are able to combine wood and resin-based adhesives to make a 100 per cent waterproof wood composite,” says Rautakoski, who oversees technical development and heads the company’s innovation arm, WoodioLab. The carbon footprint of wood-based bathroom products, says Rautakoski, is up to 80 per cent smaller than that of traditional ceramic products, while sharing otherwise similar characteristics and having an even better shock resistance.
The sleek, state-of-the-art factory is teeming with activity when monocle visits for a tour led by Rautakoski and Woodio’s ceo, Terja Koskenoja. Some craftsmen are polishing the products while others inspect them further along the production line. Wood chips, of which the company uses more than 25 tonnes every year, are blended with resin and poured into moulds. They are then taken into a heated room – affectionately nicknamed “the sauna” – where they solidify. Outside the factory, snow is falling and temperatures have dropped to below zero, so the heated space provides a nice refuge in which to talk about Woodio’s mission. “It’s funny that we should talk in this ‘sauna’ because it’s part of what makes us a sustainable alternative,” says Koskenoja. “Ceramic-based products require such high temperatures that we wouldn’t be able to stay in this room. Lower heat means less energy consumption.”
Woodio’s design language is distinctly Scandinavian: elegant yet minimalist, with form following function according to the timeless modernist creed. The wood chips are dyed in various colours ranging from polar white to charcoal black and a vibrant moss green reminiscent of Finland’s boreal forests. The chips give every product a distinct colour and a sense of materiality absent from traditional ceramic alternatives. “We want people to see the wood in these products,” says Koskenoja.
This production and material innovation at the heart of Woodio lends itself to many uses. The company’s goal is to branch out beyond bathroom fixtures. In mid-2023, Woodio launched a product called Solid, which is a multipurpose sheet material that can be used for tabletops. “Our material would also work on walls and ceilings, or for furniture,” says Koskenoja, before going on to explain that the bathroom was the natural starting point. “It was best for impact, to show to people that we can make things such as toilet seats using wood.”
It is, of course, wood – a fully renewable material – that makes Woodio sustainable. And it is at the heart of everything that the business does. Alongside the company name, every item is shipped in boxes printed with the words, “Yes, it’s wood.” It was therefore an obvious choice to keep the manufacturing base in Finland. “We want to be close to where our raw materials – Finnish birch and Estonian aspen – come from,” says Koskenoja. In the future, Woodio is planning to push its environmental ambition even further by becoming a carbon-negative company and, as monocle goes to press, it’s set to launch a project that would enable it to fully recycle its products at the end of their working life. “The built environment is responsible for up to 40 per cent of all carbon-dioxide emissions,” says Koskenoja. “Our goal is to reduce that number by pushing the boundaries of what we can do with wood.”
The new industry shaker
“In Finland, we say we’re the land of uncompromising extremes,” says Miklu Silvanto, co-founder of Vaarnii. “It’s a place where difficult winter seasons are followed by days of endless sun. So, naturally, the brutal can meet with the sophisticated here.” Silvanto’s assessment of his country is also an appropriate description for the work of his firm. Vaarnii, launched in 2021, is an emerging furniture brand designing pieces that blend the raw aesthetics of mid-century brutalism with sleek contemporary design.
Both Silvanto, who previously worked in industrial design at Apple and was chief design officer at Denmark’s Bang & Olufsen, and his co-founder Antti Hirvonen – an alumnus of Tom Dixon and Artek – were keen to redefine contemporary Finnish design. “We both left Finland for other ventures and gained other design inspiration, so our collective experiences have pushed us to look further into what Finnish design means today,” says Silvanto.
The result is a company that has a unique business model: Vaarnii creates bespoke collections of furniture and lighting using only Finnish pine. “It’s all over Finland – 44 per cent of our forests are pine – so it’s part of our cultural identity, in a way,” says Hirvonen, explaining that the tree’s fast growth properties make it the most sustainable option in the Nordics for making new chairs, tables and light fixtures. “Despite this, a very tiny fraction of it is going into making furniture today.”
Once the most popular timber for furniture-making in Finland, the softwood has, over time, been misrepresented as a material of lesser quality, gaining a reputation as a poor alternative to birch or aspen. Yet Vaarnii is hoping to rise to the challenge and shift the narrative around the wood. “We feel that pine’s potential has been dismissed for far too long,” says Hirvonen. “We are on a mission to change that.”
Key to the success of the brand – and to increasing the use of pine in the furniture industry more broadly – is changing the visual perception of the wood by showing that its knotty, yellow and shiny appearance can be used to make striking objects. “Pine is substantial, long-lasting and full of character,” says Silvanto. “It has patterns and eccentricities that only get better with age. It is often understood as a cheaper option, which has been another challenge for us to tackle because we want to make pine gallery-worthy.” To do so, the brand sources timber from across Finland and partners with regional makers, such as the Puulon factory in Padasjoki in the south of the country, to realise designs by international studios, including Stockholm-based Fredrik Paulsen. Vaarnii has also dipped into the archives of designers such as mid-century Swedish icon Hans-Agne Jakobsson to revive famous forms.
“Pine’s potential has been dismissed. We’re on a mission to change that”
Partnering with Finnish manufacturers and only using Finnish pine has allowed Silvanto and Hirvonen to create an authentic brand identity and drastically reduce lead times, minimum order quantities and logistics costs. “This is our contribution to Finnish design culture and to future generations,” says Silvanto. “Focusing on one material offers an easily digestible narrative in regard to sustainability and a wide-ranging manufacturing advantage. It’s also a template by which we can introduce more products and categories in the future.” All of this, Silvanto concludes, is living up to Vaarnii’s aim of making striking but simple objects that will withstand the test of time, while also instigating a new era of Finnish furniture-making.
The wood from the trees
To understand what wood means to the Finns, let’s start with the fact that three quarters of Finland’s total land area is covered by trees. “We live and work in forests; they are our homes and places where Finns of all ages go to relax,” says Matti Mikkola, managing director of the Federation of Finnish Woodworking Industries. Forests are key to Finland’s economy too. “It’s one of the biggest businesses in the country,” says Mikkola. It is also among the ways in which Finland is entirely self-sufficient.
The industry has been successful in adapting to change. Paper is still a key product but Finnish timber companies produce everything from packaging and furniture to building materials and houses. More than 70 per cent of Finnish timber is now used in buildings. And the furniture industry generates more than €1bn of revenue a year.
With consumers demanding more environmentally friendly items, the timber-furniture makers are well placed: wood is both a carbon sink and a renewable material. “Every time you buy a wooden product you make an ecologically sound choice,” says Mikkola. “Finnish law obligates us to plant trees to replace those chopped down and these younger trees absorb more carbon dioxide than the existing ones.” Mikkola says that those calling for Finland to protect its forests don’t always see the big picture. “Our timber industries live off forests – if they disappear, livelihoods disappear.”
That doesn’t mean that the industry is resting on its laurels. “We are innovating,” says Mikkola. “We can utilise the side streams of the timber industry to make all kinds of things, even clothes. We are also working with waste-management firms to find new uses for leftover wood.” Mikkola sees a bright future for the wooden-furniture makers. He says that we are already witnessing the renaissance of wooden furniture around the world, with Finnish companies leading the way.