Kaj Franck (1911-1989) one of Finland’s most popular designers, created a wide range of utilitarian objects that adorned post-war homes not just in his home country but around the world. The beautiful, simple and functional design soon became popular with a wide public. His life’s work unfolds in a span from one-offs to mass-production, from the artistic to the industrial as a wide-ranging theme with countless variations.
Kaj Franck studied furniture design in 1932 at the Central School of Industrial Design in Helsinki, Taideteollinen Korkeakoulu. In 1933-34, his first job was to illustrate catalogues for the Riihimäki glassworks in Southern Finland. In subsequent years he worked as an interior designer, decorator and textile designer. Kaj Franck’s career received a real boost in the 1950s by the growing prosperity enabled by the Nordic welfare societies. The prevailing design agenda at the time had a strong social component, and the dream was to create optimal objects for the home. The goal was pursued in a synthesis of utility and beauty. The point of departure was classic modernism and its functional approach to the design process, and the result to be democratic design.
Almost by accident Kaj Frank met Kurt Ekholm, at the time the artistic director of Arabia, the ceramic factory in Helsinki in 1945. Ekholm was looking for someone to take on the task of developing more functional products for Arabia who at the time was mostly known for ornamental ceramics. Ekholm joked with the fun loving Kaj Franck, suggesting that he might have some talent for working on a potters wheel as they had met rowing and Kaj Franck could not keep the boat in a straight line but kept turning in circles, circular motion is needed to create pottery.
Franck soon became fascinated by the production process of ceramics, having an admiration for Swedish Gustavsberg’s Wilhelm Kåge and for the French cubist, Georges Braque as main inspiration. When the former sales director Holger Carring became general manager, Kaj Franck got the opportunity to design “Kilta” the tableware he became best known for.
An important element in Franck’s production of this timeless service Kilta, developed 1948-52, later re launched as Teema in 1981, was the approach to basic shapes.
When Kaj Franck created the series, the design was to be based on the shapes of a circle, a square and a rectangle. He sowed the seeds for the modular approach that has since spread all over the world. The idea with this series was to choose different combinations which individually could be chosen by the customer and so make it more personal fitting for different households.
Kilta was shown first in 1953 in Copenhagen at a Nordic design exhibition. These stoneware products became the best known and best sold line of Arabia. In the first 20 years 25 million pieces were produced. The series was to break with the perception of what a conventional service range should look like. And as all things evolve, one of Kaj Franck’s last projects was to redesign the Kilta series for Arabia which was re launched in 1981, re named Teema.
Franck cut to the bone, with everything he created and also with Teema he created a solution that rests on a concept of simplicity. Easy to clean, stackable and perfect for the unpretentious kitchen-dining room of the modern home, where the food went directly from the kitchen to the table, and where pure and functional solutions were the ideal. Although the service was designed more than 60 years ago, it is still beautiful and highly modern in all its simplicity.
His career in glass included his work for Finland’s Nuutajärvi/Notsjö glassworks where he became design director in the early fifties. In 1952 he hired two Italian glass blowers from Murano, hence some of his glass from that period clearly shows Italian influences.
Between 1946 and 1958 he designed pressed glass wares for the glass works Iittala, including the practical water jugs and drinking glasses we know by the name Kartio, which still are one of the best sellers for the company.
He left Nuutajärvi glassworks in 1976 and started teaching but continued to design. Sarvis Oy’s plastic table and flatware are fine examples of that late period. Like many Scandinavian designers, his concern for democratic design accessible to all, was as important as was his commitment to innovative functionalism.
As chief designer at Finland’s leading ceramics factory, Arabia, and artistic director of the Arabia-owned glass works Nuutajärvi, Kaj Franck was a highly influential figure in modern Finnish design. Franck designed porcelain and glass objects for daily use; all of simple shapes, yet beautiful, timeless creation.
Kaj Franck drew his inspiration from many different sources, ranging from the Bauhaus School and industrial products to traditional Japanese design. In turn, he himself was a source of inspiration to many international designers, where his influence is evident in the work of Erik Magnussen, GreteMeyer and many, many more.
According to Franck, good design is simply defined by being easy on the eye. An object also has to be durable, robust, easy to clean, functional, do justice to the materials it made from, simply be indispensable. Decoration was not his melody.
The reduction to essential shapes reflects most clearly Kaj Franck’s conviction by his own words: “the only possibility for resolving the technical aspects of utilitarian wares consists in being both radical and socially committed”. Kaj Franck is described as the conscience of Finnish design. He removed everything excessive in his designs, leaving only the essentials.
For Nuutajärvi he created a long line of beautiful glassware, all collectors items today.
The Mint of Finland has release a collector coin in January 2011 with the theme, ‘Kaj Franck and Industrial Art’ .The year of release coincided with the one hundredth anniversary of his birth.
We will always cherish his legacy and his contribution to our everyday table ware.