The rise and fall of Norrmark Handicraft

Richesse oblige – an expression Maire Gullichsen (1907-1990), the ‘errand girl of the arts’ (as she would call herself), used to explain why she used her vast means to support art, architecture and design projects she believed in. She reasoned that wealth should be used to bring joy to as many as possible. Enter the company Noormarkun Käsityöt / Norrmarks Slöjd / Norrmark Craft or Norrcraft for short (Finnish/Swedish/English). The year is 1961.
Together with the silver smith Bertel Gardberg (1916-2007), glass designer Nanny Still (1926-2009 and Birgitta Bergh (1911-1998), Maire Gullichsen set up shop in Noormarkku near Pori on the western coast of Finland, with the intention of revitalising the area and preserving the handicraft traditions. Modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation after World War II all contributed to the downfall of the area of Noormarkku, where the Gullichsen and Ahlström family had established themselves and their industries. Maire Gullichsen had famously recruited Alvar Aalto to plan her home in Noormarkku, Villa Mairea, in 1939. By recruiting well known designers, employing locals to produce the designs and finding new outlets, Gullichsen figured she could aid the community, help people earn a living and support Finnish design.

Maire Gullichsen’s home, Villa Mairea, in Noormarkku.

Off to a rocky start
They were to create a range of items such as bowls, candle holders, rugs and various other decorative items to be sold at Artek, the interior design manufacturer and shop she helped found together with Nils-Gustav Hahl and Aino and Alvar Aalto in 1935. There had been thought of creating a dedicated furniture factory together with Artek already back in the 1940s but it had not then materialised due to a lack of funds.
The item selection was planned by Gullichsen, an accomplished designer herself, Artek’s interior designer and rug designer Sinikka Killinen and Bertel Gardberg. Starting out, the company had no place of production and the four employed craftsmen or carpenters worked from home and even sought out the materials used for production themselves. As the production grew over the following years, Norrmark Craft leased buildings from the A. Ahlström Ltd company, which owned buildings in the area. With it, the craftsmen got machines and painting booths at their disposal.
Finding a space for production
Among other places, the items were produced in the Uoti medieval log houses in Finpyy, at the Noormarkku ironworks, dating back to the late 1700s up to the 1900s. One of the houses also served as the company’s shop. As Gardberg left for Ireland in 1966 to pursue other interests and Gullichsen spent more and more time abroad, the responsibility for the production was gradually and eventually fully transferred to Artek in 1974. From 1965 onwards this led to more furniture being produced in the later stage of the company. The furniture pieces were designed by Aino Aalto, Maija Heikinheimo, Ben af Schultén, Anna-Maija Jaatinen, Kristian Gullichsen and Lars Gestranius. Economically the production of the Vanikka chair series (1968) by Kristian Gullichsen proved to be the most lucrative but it was discontinued in 1970.
Taitokeskus Noormarkku – the Handicraft and industrial design society of Satakunta now resides in the buildings.

 

Initially, the production consisted of turned wood objects, but the factory later produced furniture (1965) and forged metal items (1967) and rugs (1969) too. The local smith Pentti Laine, who had worked for A. Ahlström Ltd, forged lamps, candle holders, lanterns and grilling tools, but the production only lasted for a few years and ended in the early 1970s. The rug production employed 4-5 weavers and a few other local people. Starting out the weavers worked in a building called Kymppi, where the company office was located but the office moved to the Uoti building when A. Ahlström Ltd had had it restored in 1967. The weavers moved there too in 1970. The rug production became quite successful, much due to Gullichsen’s connections to Artek as well as international department stores such as French Galeries Lafayette and American Bloomingdale’s.

 

Nanny Still (better known for her glass designs) designed wooden items for the company, as did Gardberg, who carried on designing in teak long after the factory closed in 1977. The wooden objects are usually marked with the Noormarkku / Norrmark N and with the name Finnmade as well as the designer’s name. Norrmark Craft used oak, curly birch, alder, teak, walnut, rosewood and rosewood. Pieces of furniture were made of pine and birch.

 

 

A naive and idealistic endeavour

Gullichsen’s endeavour was considered naive and idealistic by many in her inner circuit and the company never became profitable as can be seen in the graph below. The year 1971 seems to have been the best year with only a marginal loss compared to the turnover that year, but that was also the company’s financial peak.

The cause of the company’s troubles were many, but the lack of a commercial and operative management was perhaps the biggest challenge. Maire Gullichsen was driven by great ideas but lacked the skills needed for running a company on a daily basis. On top of that the production by hand was slow and expensive, and the production processes were never properly organised. There were too many items in production which reflected on the quality.

 

Norrmark Slöjd Handicraft Noormarkku Käsityöt Finances

Norrmark Craft had 23 employees by 1970 but the same year they had to lay off seven of them, scale down the amount of products and shift focus to products that could be produced more effectively. Management thought about closing shop that same year but they decided to continue. Another problem proved to be that the best craftsmen and carpenters left and set up their own shops which left Norrmark Craft with less skilled personnel. Finally in 1974, the furniture production was turned over to Artek Oy Ab Norrcraft under the supervision of carpenter Pekka Jalonen. Noormarkku Craft was finally closed down on 31.12.1976 and the production was sold or handed over to other regional manufacturers.

 

The legacy of Norrmark Craft lives on

Over the years A. Ahlström Ltd granted Noormarkku Craft loans and supplied the company with renovated workspaces as well as machinery and leftover raw material such as wood and fabrics from Ahlström’s factories. The Ahlström family and Ahlström Ltd became some of the biggest clients for Norrmark Craft over the years and Maire Gullichsen’s support proved crucial for the survival of the company for as long as 15 years.

Gullichsen’s vision of a strong regional design hub never really materialised but the legacy of Norrmark Craft lives on.

 

Sources:

Perheyhtiö ja paikallisuus A. Ahlström Osakeyhtiön historian perintö Noormarkussa. Link.

Vintti.yle.fi. Link

Bukowskis.com. Link.

Bertel Gardberg – 50 år av konsthantverk (951-95950-0-7)

Maire Gullichsen – Regnbågsfärger och mörka stänk (978-951-583-165-1)

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