Over the productive career spanning more than six decades, Eero Aarnio has been interviewed by numerous journalists from Finland and from all over the world. This year to celebrate his 90th birthday Eero Aarnio’s family has gathered questions about his childhood, aspirations, creativity and other aspects of his career.  

Have you always been interested in drawing?

In grade school my teacher noticed that my drawing style was somewhat unusual and asked if I draw a lot at home. I said I do, and she asked me to bring some of my drawings to school. She really liked one of them and wanted to buy it. I remember asking five marks for it which was a lot at the time when a movie ticket for adults cost three marks. I cannot remember what the drawing was about, but it turned out to be the first business venture in my life.

Did you draw a lot at home?

I was drawing something all the time. But when I got older my favorite toy was Mekano (model construction kit) which was a very fascinating toy because you could build almost anything with it. It consisted of metal parts with holes, screws, nuts, bolts, wheels and gears. No wonder a boy could create something with it.

Once I also made a 25 cm high penguin out of some kind of modeling material and my mother really took a liking to it. She told everyone in the house not to break it and placed it high on top of the heating stove, and there it stood for years. I can’t remember if I painted it white, but there was no black on it. It was just a shape, clearly a penguin. Pretty well done for a little boy.

When there were no toys around, the cheapest toy was a pencil and packaging paper from the store. When you were careful unwrapping a package, you got free drawing paper. There was no money for buying things like toys at the time. 

Did any of your friends draw or do any type of crafts?

Eero working on a model airplane at home in the 40s.

Ever since I was a little boy, when I got permission at home to use a saw, an ax, a knife and a chisel, I created a variety of objects which had a special interest to me. During the war years I was about ten years old and our home and all the homes of my friends in Helsinki were heated with wood, so naturally birch fire logs were the starting material for all boys to carve miniature models of war planes. We modeled them after the ones we had seen on a window display at a hobby store on Korkeavuorenkatu. We also learned a lot from each other. I think that I learned the most from a friend who was quite a bit older than us. We thought that he made the most amazing and perfect miniature planes which were painted and even equipped with store bought national labels.

After the war, the enthusiasm of creating miniature war planes and battle ships faded, and for the first time the automobile, a Swedish Saab, entered the picture. To me the sleek profile of the Saab represented the future of car design and inspired me to carve a miniature model of it out of a birch log again and paint it shiny blue. Since then I have not drawn or made any more models of cars, only looked at the designs very critically. In addition to the practical aspects of the design of a car, minimizing air resistance should always be taken into account, as is done in sailboat and airplane design. Cars should look like they are always in motion, even when parked.

Did your brothers draw? They were quite a bit older than you.

Eero drew a face in the air with a flashlight, while his brother Jalmari took the photo, in the 40s.

Jali (Jalmari Aarnio) who was ten years older than me, was my role model for a long time. There was once a picture of him on the cover of a school paper and that picture was on our wall for years. My parents were very proud of it. Jali was always drawing something. He was also a very good watercolorist. Later he worked at the Söderström (WSOY) publishing house for a while as a graphic designer. He also worked at a land surveying company and painted very beautiful water color paintings of Ahvenanmaa (Åland archipelago) while working there. We had one of these large water color paintings on the wall at home. The age difference between me and my eldest brother Risto was twenty years. He worked as a cartographer. Back then maps were drawn by hand. It was very precise work and they used aerial photographs and special green and red glasses which helped to see the elevations in the aerial photographs. All the brothers have made their living with the use of a pen in some ways.

Did the creative side come from your mother or father?

Most likely from my mother, she was more interested in art than my father. Our home life was just normal. My mother worked with a cobbler, she would sew the tops for the shoes at home, and the cobbler made the soles. There wasn’t anything creative about it, it was just my mother’s job, to make a living. Perhaps the high point of my mother’s work was when she was working on the shoes for Aino Ackté, who was one of the most famous opera singers in Finland.

My father was a house painter, he painted the interiors of buildings and hung wallpaper. When the Olympic Village was being built in Helsinki for the 1952 Olympic Games, my father was hanging wallpaper at a very fast pace on all of the apartments, and there were so many of them! I also remember when my mother sent me to deliver warm coffee to him in a bottle wrapped inside a wool sock to keep it warm, but I could not resist the temptation to go by the velodrome where I could see professional athletes from other countries close up. It was a very special time to a young man then, I was 20 years old at the time.

Does the idea for a new design emerge before you start drawing or at the drafting table?

If the new product is interesting, the idea might come to me whenever and wherever. It is not dependent on a place or time of the day. I need my drafting table for carrying out the vision in 1:1 scale. The drawing shows the side, top and front views of the design, so that it can be made into an actual object. In a 1:1 scale drawing it is easy to see the actual masses of the product and the relationship between them, and the difficult details can be depicted very precisely.

Pony model taking shape in the 70s.
A prototype of a chair made in modeling clay, in the 70s.

On my 1:1 scale drawings, I strive to always draw a small perspective image on the side, so that it would be easier to understand how the product will look. These days I also have small 3D models made out of some of my designs, and they are the best to help convey the final product. But in the earlier days, for example when I designed the Pastil and the Pony, I made 1:1 scale models out of styrofoam and modeling clay, and worked them until the form was complete. An actual model is always better than a two-dimensional drawing.

You are working in an open space in your house surrounded by family members and occasionally other people. Does that affect your concentration? 

I started my freelance career 74 years ago, doing “remote work” as you would say these days, always working at home in all our 17 homes over the years. If the idea is good, it draws you in and it doesn’t matter if your family or friends are milling about around you. On the contrary, it can be beneficial spending the evening with friends and family after a full day’s work, as our conversations about work can serve as a first response from a “consumer”.  This way, I get to hear both the positive and negative comments in the early phase of the work.

How does color and form relate to one another? Do you feel that certain form has a specific color? 

Color and form are either friends or enemies. In some cases, the easiest way to manage this is to accept the natural color of the material. Wood products are a good example of this. However, when I design plastic furniture, such as lamps and children’s products, they already have a certain color in my mind. You could almost say that it is their birth color.

Many of your products are shiny, others have a matte surface. How does the surface texture relate to form?

I design products with their original texture in mind. For example, I prefer that textile and wood products retain their natural texture and sheen, and that metal products should always express the feel, look, hardness, and utility of metal. It would not be very pleasant to slice a loaf of bread with a knife the texture of sandpaper.

Your furniture is often quite demanding of its surroundings. It can take up significant space and is not suitable for many locations. Do you see it like this?

As I have gotten older, I have noticed that there is a small artist living inside me who loves to design large, showy pieces which naturally require a lot of space around them. Therefore, the buyer understands the space requirements when purchasing a piece. You cannot change the product and the idea behind it based on their future surroundings, but you can always design a new product for a new setting.