The Story of the Ball Chair
After starting his career as a freelancer in the beginning of the 1960s, Eero Aarnio was still an unknown designer dreaming of creating a furniture piece that people would remember. He had always been fascinated by sailing boats and had familiarized himself with the new material, fiberglass. He wondered if one could exploit this material outside of the boat industry. Could he design furniture out of fiberglass?
Eero knew that the best form for malleable plastic is curve. A closed ball could endure almost anything. He had found the most practical form for the new material he was working with. The Aarnios also needed a chair that would be large enough for all four of the family, him and his wife Pirkko, and their two daughters, to sit in together at home. Even though functionality was always his first aim, Eero Aarnio is no ordinary designer. He said to his wife: “I will make a chair that when it is put in a shop window, no one will just walk past it.” He had always loved to provoke, to cause a stir.
Looking at the original sketch of the Ball Chair, it was created on the 11th of January in 1963. Eero immediately knew that it would have to be prototyped first. Pirkko’s father was a school teacher in Salo, where Eero spent evenings and weekends with Pirkko’s brother in the crafts class room developing the first ever shell to the Ball Chair. Taking of the molds for the first time, the outer surface turned out beautifully, but the inside was uneven and rugged. It needed to be reinforced. First, they thought of adding more fiberglass layers. The shell did in fact get stronger, but Eero realized that the weight and costs would also rise accordingly. Facing the problem, a lightbulb came on over his head. Right behind the opening of the shell, he could install a round pipe ring, and laminate it with fiberglass. The shell became as hard as stone, and it was ready to be upholstered by a talented upholsterer Kataja in Haaga. Completed in their home stood the first prototype of the Ball Chair, the very same one still present in the Aarnio family’s current home in Veikkola.
The first potential customer for the Ball Chair was a furniture shop Sopenkorpi in Lahti. Eero showed them the drawings at the factory and told about the prototype he had made. The Ball Chair was delivered to the Helsinki, where it stood on the shop floor in Kasarmitori. The business representative came to see the chair but, in the end, they were not interested.
Eero Aarnio didn’t lose his drive to success that easily. In 1964 he had a great idea for marketing the Coca-Cola brand. He painted the whole shell of the Ball Chair red and enlarged and glued the Coca-Cola logo to the back. He emptied their whole bedroom, bought a huge white board, and placed the Ball Chair in the center of it. He asked Pirkko to dress all black and sit in the chair and drink Coca-Cola with a straw. Eero shot a short image series, and afterwards he called the representative of Coca-Cola Finland to see if they would be interested in collaboration. When the representative saw the idea of Coca-Cola chairs he was overwhelmed by enthusiasm and wanted to send it to their company headquarters. Eero was excited, his freelancer career was about to kick off. Only it was not yet written in the stars. After a few months wait he received a fairly rude letter from the headquarters, stating that they had other plans for marketing.
Eero still strongly believed in the Ball Chair. He had also sketched a pine shelving system, that instantly reminded him of his old employer Asko. Reaching out to Asko Eero had an ulterior motive, to pitch the idea of the Ball Chair to Asko’s representative in the fall 1965. The representative showed up with the new marketing lead, Tapani Riekkinen, both of them immediately excited by the Ball Chair. They wanted to take the new innovative piece to the Cologne Furniture Fair. Other executives were not as enthusiastic about the success of this odd shape, but due to the efforts of the marketing lead and Eero Aarnio, they managed to produce six pieces for the fair. All photography was carried out by Eero himself. Behind the six Ball Chairs was laid a huge text “Great things are coming from Asko”, and the department attracted immediate attention.
The Ball Chair made its debut at the Cologne Furniture Fair of 1966, and the first visitors to the department were two Italians who placed orders for six Ball Chairs on the spot. During the fair the new it-product was sold to 30 countries within the week. The first piece in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat stated 25.11.1966: “The most exciting chair in the world is on show at the Cologne International Furniture Fair. This egg-shaped chair hides its user almost completely from view and it is also sound-proofed.” Eero wrote in his own hand in the margins of his press clip: It all began from this! Soon after, the Ball Chair was mentioned in the New York Times, followed by other media. Within a few years the Ball Chair achieved the status of an international celebrity, and decades later it can be found in the collections of design museums around the world, starring in several movies, music videos and magazine covers.
Although, Eero Aarnio has been praised for his space-aged design and aesthetics, futurism had never been his intention when designing the Ball Chair. It was pure coincidence that the Ball Chair was created around the same time when Juri Gagarin had been the first man in space. Reflections of the cultural preoccupations of the time still remain irrelevant for the designer. To this day his favorite Ball Chair is one with a white shell and black upholstering. He fosters the feeling of seams drowning in color, like a magical substance spreading out in the chair. Sitting inside lies one’s own inner world and thoughts, a cocoon’s nest shielding from the outside noise. Futuristic? Maybe. Iconic? Most definitely.