with the design studio Claesson Koivisto Rune
Text – Adam Štěch
We arrived in Stockholm to visit
the Claesson Koivisto Rune architecture
and design studio, where we talked about their new 822 seating collection for TON. We discussed not only the evolution
of this exciting partnership, but also
the importance of friendship in the creative industry and the phenomenon
of Scandinavian design among other things!
How did you start working together?
And how has your practice changed over the years?
Do you have a recipe for sticking together for so long for other architects?
Mårten Claesson: The recipe is the same as for any marriage. It’s easy – we try to remain friends. We founded the studio because we were friends. We met by chance, we were
at the same university, and our friendship evolved into a very strong bond. So, after we graduated, it was a natural step to open
an office together.
How difficult was it to start working
for global companies?
Ola Rune: First of all, we designed products for Scandinavian brands, of course.
Then the products were exhibited at Salone del Mobile in Milan, where they attracted international attention. And then, one day, some guy called us and said he’d like
to come and meet us in our studio
in Stockholm. That guy was actually Giulio Cappellini. He said he’d drop by in 30 minutes. We were quite surprised and said, sure, please come. He arrived at the studio maybe an hour later, so we had a bit of time to clear up! He came with Piero Lissoni
and that’s how it all began. Then we started working for Italian companies like Boffi, Living Divani, and so on. It was really great for us.
Eero Koivisto: It’s always other people who call us. We’ve never pitched our designs
to any companies.
That shows your natural talent and ability to work hard. Then the clients just came,
Ola Rune: I think it was an advantage
that there were three of us. We were braver
and had more of a will to succeed. We weren’t scared to jump at opportunities. Having three of us is good. It gave us more strength.
Mårten Claesson: It’s great, because we all critique each other’s work immediately
– in a good way. It’s much better to work like this in a team, because we can always stop the process and discuss the idea if it is going in the wrong direction. Our processes are always under control.
Eero Koivisto: If you look at the history
of architecture, there are a lot of teams
who were very successful. Of course people always want to turn the spotlight onto
a single person. It’s easier to understand that way. But if you look at the Bouroullec Brothers, or Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, there are many teams like that who have made their mark on history.
Maybe this phenomenon is seen more often today than it used to be.
Ola Rune: I think you’re right. It’s not because of us that people work together. But if they aren’t friends, they will go their separate ways sooner or later anyway. If it’s just me and I draw a sketch, it’s definitive. But if I can show it to Eero and Mårten, it’s always an opportunity to think more about it and to develop the idea in a better way.
Your practice is often considered one
of the best examples of contemporary Scandinavian design.
What is typical for Scandinavian design?
Do you feel like Scandinavian designers?
Eero Koivisto: First of all, if you look outside Scandinavia, there’s always some talk about Scandinavian design. And of course there’s some truth in it. It comes from this part
of the world. I think design looks a little bit different in every society; it always reflects what the society looks like and what
the society’s values are. In Scandinavia,
we had democracy quite early on, we always wanted to improve people’s rights, we wanted people to be equal. Scandinavian design does not shout so much and respects this vision. It isn’t so flashy, it’s understated.
If you look at the classics, like Arne Jacobsen’s work, you get that kind of feeling from his work. And we are trying to be ourselves,
as authentic as possible.
Mårten Claesson: I think we are creating Scandinavian design simply because we are Scandinavians. But of course, that does not mean that all Scandinavian design is good.
Does it have something in common
with nature, which is pretty present
Mårten Claesson: It is very hard to judge
if you are working here and looking at it
from the inside. I live in the city and I design products that fit my city lifestyle.
But of course, there is something in that.
We have a lot of forests, so the dominant material here is obviously wood.
You have also collaborated with many Japanese brands. Is the Japanese influence also important for you?
Eero Koivisto: I think all Nordic design has
a great deal in common with the Japanese approach. They share many things. We were always very interested in Japanese architecture, art and design. All three of us had a scholarship in Japan during our studies. So we explored Japanese culture up close. When we started our studio,
we already had a foot in the door in Japan.
We travelled there a lot, we organised exhibitions there. Actually, one of our first commissions was to design a house
of culture in Kyoto. We did that, and we also designed some furniture for the space. It got a lot of attention and pictures were published in many magazines. After that,
we suddenly won several commissions
in Japan. I think we and the Japanese share
the same values. It is about understatement, trying not to shout too much, doing things which are low-key, which should last a long time, which should work and be useful.
The Japanese do not like to produce things which do not work from the functional point of view. And I personally think that Japanese people are very nice and this is also important for working well together.
You also work as architects. How is your work influenced by different dimensions and scales in architecture and design?
Do you have a kind of manifesto you follow in your work?
Eero Koivisto: Of course, we take different approaches to different kinds of projects. But generally, it is all about the built environment in which we live. For us it is natural to think about all the details.
When you design a building, you have to think about all the small details. And it is
the same when you design a chair – there are also a lot of small details to be solved. The difference isn’t so great. Of course, you always have to apply different approaches
to designing a building or a toothbrush.
But they are both based on solving some problems.
Mårten Claesson: The difference is that
the design is never attached to a certain place, unlike architecture
Your approach to the complex building environment is very similar to what Josef Hoffmann was doing more than 100 years ago.
Eero Koivisto: Yes, of course. And not just Hoffmann, we can also mention Alvar Aalto or many other different architects.
Mårten Claesson: We are definitely influenced by architects from the beginning of the modernist era. It was the time when industrial production became an integral part of architects’ work. It is interesting that, when you look at the chairs that Hoffmann designed at that time, you clearly understand his decisions, how he approached the design. And then we can closely follow the modernist approach.
Ola Rune: The product for TON that we are talking about today was created for
a specific interior. In our practice, we very often start to design some product intended for some specific environment, whether it is an interior or bigger scale architecture.
We create the design through the process.
Let’s talk about chairs now. When did you design your very first chair and why is the typology of chairs so important for designers? What does a chair as typology mean to you?
Ola Rune: I think that, of all designs,
the chair is primary, because it is not only functional, but it is also very much connected to architecture. That’s why architects always want to design chairs.
The first chair we were involved in
was a project for an office in 1996.
We wanted to design a chair all in wood.
We had an idea and contacted our friend,
a furniture maker. We told him that we would like to design a chair which would be like a chair co-designed by Alvar Aalto and Bruno Mathsson. It was an easy chair all in wood and it was later produced by David Design. It was actually one of the projects that kick-started our careers.
Eero Koivisto: Why is a chair such a big challenge for a designer?
Every measurement must relate to human scale and proper function.
All the restrictions on how chairs should be made are very tough. And that is why a chair is so simple but very difficult at the same time.
Mårten Claesson: A chair has to have long-lasting qualities. And all these parameters mentioned by my colleagues make the chair one of the most difficult objects to design.
Let’s now talk about your new collaboration with the Czech furniture company TON, which produces your new 822 seating collection. How did this collaboration actually start?
Eero Koivisto: We’d used TON chairs
for many of our projects before, including restaurants, hotels and other interiors,
and we were always very happy
with the quality of TON products. And some time ago we started work on a very nice project, a restaurant inside the former Norwegian stock exchange building.
We wanted some chairs for this project,
and we had some ideas to design them, actually. So we started to talk to TON
in order to develop the new design.
And their response was very positive
and even more so later, during the process. The big change in the project came for us when we went to the TON factory to view the prototypes. During this nice visit
we found out that the company was very happy with the chair and that they would
like to include it in the TON collection
and mass-produce it.
These days you don’t so often
get a chance to design bespoke furniture for interiors like that, do you?
Eero Koivisto: We do it all the time. Not just chairs, but also carpets, lamps, tables,
or even cutlery and glasses. All for specific interiors.
Ola Rune: Yes, for us it is not unusual.
We are always trying to find the best designs for our projects that don’t repeat existing forms all the time. So when we cannot find any suitable designs, we always design them ourselves. And for this particular space we needed something iconic, something that captured the specific spirit.
Mårten Claesson: I think you are right too.
It is not so common nowadays to design specific chairs for specific interior projects, because our profession is much more divided between architects and designers than before. But we reject this division.
And for us, it is the most natural thing
to design our own furniture for our projects. Since we have long experience of designing chairs for many companies, creating a new form is no problem for us. And if this chair is good enough for the restaurant in Norway,
it will probably be good for other restaurants too. So it makes sense to produce it in larger numbers.
Eero Koivisto: It regularly works like this. We are always looking for something
and then we realise that it does not exist. So we connect with someone who will produce that specific design for us. But sometimes it is problematic to find a company who would like to produce just a few dozen or hundred pieces, because it is very difficult to prepare the whole production process for it without breaking the bank.
Ola Rune: Also, for a company like TON
to start producing a new chair is a very problematic and complex process. You need to develop new forms and processes
and of course it is a big investment.
But if they see that the project is good enough, they invest money and can make it as a serial production, as they did in our case.
I think you are very lucky designers
to have this opportunity to develop bespoke designs for your projects.
In most contemporary interiors I see always the same mass-produced chairs. The idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”,
or a total work of art in architecture,
is something quite unusual today.
Mårten Claesson: Yes, we are always trying to work as comprehensively as possible.
We feel that it is a big mistake to separate architecture and design. It is what architects always used to do.
Eero Koivisto: Many iconic designs from history were actually initially produced for some specific architecture project. I think it is actually much better to design a product for some specific project, because you think about it differently. Everything must work
for the specific situation and the design
is also influenced by the particular circumstances. In the case of the 822 chair, there is no difference. We designed it to last generations, because the client in Norway
is a family who has been running hotels for four generations. These chairs will probably still be in this restaurant in 40, even 60 years’ time. This context also influenced our approach, because we cannot design something only according to some current trends and fashion.
Mårten Claesson: We have to also admit that the bentwood technology proved itself the best for seating furniture in restaurants and cafés. It is durable, it is naturally strong and flexible. We had been looking for this technology for many years. Not many companies are able to do it. And TON is one of the best manufacturers using this technology. For us, it was a secret dream
to work with bentwood. We worked with so many technologies, but it is our very first time working with bent wood. We felt under great pressure because we wanted to make the best out of it. The advantage is that bentwood chair design is closely connected to the technology and limitations
of bending. And we like these limitations.
Both furniture made of bent wood and the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk” that we were talking about are connected to the work of Josef Hoffmann. He was also the designer of the A811 chair, which was the starting point for the 811 chair. This idea to take the 811 chair and re-design it, when was it born?
Eero Koivisto: We’ve used the original 811 chair for many projects previously. We really like it and were thinking about improving it, with all respect to Josef Hoffmann and his original A811 chair, and indeed the 811 chair that was developed later, based on his design. We wanted to renew it in the same way that other designers did it previously,
for example Vico Magistretti. Our idea was
to keep the spirit of the design of the 811 and bring to it a more contemporary, Nordic character. We used holes in the seat to make it lightweight and graphic. What we really liked about this particular project was
the idea of the backrest. In most cases, you see the chair from behind. So when someone in colourful clothes sits on this chair, it will give the chair a new dimension through the holes, which will become colourful. Hoffmann used these same holes in his first A811 chair for Thonet-Mundus during the 1930s. The other thing was
to simplify the design in terms
of construction. Contemporary technologies allowed us to construct the chair efficiently and precisely. We straightened all
the rounded bent parts to make them more geometric. The edge of the chair is bit thicker and the whole composition
is proportioned differently.
Mårten Claesson: The original designs
of the A811 and 811 are great examples
of the early modernist movement.
But it clearly shows the heritage of 19th century romanticism. And we decided
to remove this feeling, because we are now living two hundred years later.
It is a completely different time now
and the 822 collection matches our time.
How difficult is it to approach such
an iconic design?
How did you think about the design
and translating it to contemporary form? Have you worked on similar projects before?
Mårten Claesson: I think refreshing
an iconic design is a difficult job.
As a designer you should already have some experience. It is no work for a young designer.
Eero Koivisto: It is quite natural to work
on something from the past and update it
to our time. If you look at cutlery for example – it is basically always the same form, which is just evolving. And, as architects, we work on many projects where we have to deal with renovating old buildings
and implementing the original architecture in a new way and this is quite a similar task. In this case, bentwood technology has proven itself so well that it always influences the way the chair is designed. You cannot translate a bentwood chair into a plastic
or metal chair, or vice versa. So most of the discussions with TON were about small details – how to improve the appearance and functionality of the original 811 chair.
Are you prepared for criticism that you just ripped off Josef Hoffmann’s chair?
Ola Rune: You can never not be prepared
for criticism. We can be angry about it,
but we can laugh at it as well. But it is important to us that TON is happy about this project and that it matters. When you see people working in the factory, it is like
a ballet. It is one of the strongest moments in furniture design that you can see.
And if they did not like their job, they would never do this project.
What do you think about the original 811 chair? It is not actually as iconic as some other chairs which made design history.
Mårten Claesson: If we were forced
to choose one chair from the TON catalogue, it would be the 811.
Eero Koivisto: We have been visiting London Design Festival each year for many years now. Our favourite restaurant in London is in South Kensington and they have 811 chairs and we love them. I think there are about 10 great chairs in the history of design, and I think this is one of them.
Ola Rune: Yes, it is true that is not
as famous as other chairs, but architects know it very well, because they understand it is understated. The design doesn’t shout. It has everything you need and it is very comfortable.
Can you describe the process behind
the development of the 822?
How is working with a company
which is quite far away from Sweden?
Mårten Claesson: First of all, this collaboration happened during
the pandemic. So at this point we had
to limit meetings with anybody, whether it was here in Stockholm or with any other company. So everything had to be digital and there were not so many differences between this and other collaborations. First, we visited the TON production facilities, which was a huge inspiration for us.
And from the start we had very good communication with TON. We went straight to the essential problems and started solving them. It felt like we had been working with them for many years.
The language of design is universal, so we did not have any problems communicating.
I also have to mention that the company’s art director Alexander Gufler, who is actually from Vienna, put in great effort.
Eero Koivisto: It was a very nice collaboration. The people from TON were very straightforward. We have worked with many companies. And I have to say that TON was very professional. Although their work is hand-crafted, the whole process was digital and it went very well. We discussed all the small adjustments online and it went very smoothly. What made it easy was
the fact that TON really knows bentwood chair history as well. That is very important.
Ola Rune: Every process when we do some design, we always have to find a way
of communicating with the company.
And with TON it was very easy and we understood what they wanted
from the beginning. It was a very smooth process.
We are talking a lot about bentwood technology, but actually the most striking feature of your seating collection
is the perforated plywood on the seat
and backrest. How difficult is it to make holes like that?
Ola Rune: This was a very hands-on process. We started with Josef Hoffmann’s chair, made a paper model and tried some options; the rest was done on the computer. We were also thinking about how to position the holes to create the effect of light going through to make a nice interplay of shadows on the floor.
Eero Koivisto: From the beginning, we did not know how many holes there should be, or how large. And we spent a lot of time creating a perfect composition – hundreds of hours just making these holes. We also had to deal with the dimensions of the holes. The original Hoffmann chair has larger holes because it was not possible to make them smaller at that time. But now we have technology that makes it easy. I like that we extended traditional bentwood technology, which has not changed for 160 years,
to the future, using these contemporary possibilities.
Mårten Claesson: We had to adjust the dot pattern to the construction of the chair,
to avoid some construction elements which are placed under the seat. This was one
of the most time-consuming processes
in the whole design. The history of bent wood is evolution, not revolution, and we are continuing this story. And that is why we call the chair 822, because we are in 2022.
Your 822 collection is not just one chair, but it is a whole family of seating products. How did the process
of designing all of them proceed?
Eero Koivisto: It was very simple. First we did a chair and an armchair. But then we realised that we also need some bar stools for the restaurant. So we made a bar stool and just shortened the legs to make a low stool.
Mårten Claesson: The important thing
is that we were focused on a chair
and an armchair. They are the mum and dad of the whole family. And if you have those, you can easily add other seating variations. We focused basically on the key pieces
of the collection, but I am sure that this family could grow in time with other products. It is similar to the process of car design. When you design a coupé
and a convertible car, you have to focus
on each design with the same amount
of time. It is not just about adjusting
the existing design to the new function.
Ola Rune: The most unusual design in this family is the easy chair. TON does not have so many easy chairs. It is not so easy
to create an easy chair out of a normal chair, also in the context of production processes.
How did you decide on the colours of the collection?
Eero Koivisto: Different designers have different views on the use of colour. Certain cultures like certain colours. I think good design should be universal and be able
to use any colour.
Mårten Claesson: The colour become secondary to this design, because the dot pattern is the most important thing here.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Mårten Claesson: I think we have discussed everything. We are just very happy
about this collaboration.