Merivaara – a pioneer in iron, steel and design

Juho Merivaara (his last name was Sjöstedt up until 1906), was born in 1878 to parents Matti Sjöstedt and Maria Sundberg and married to Augusta Salmela from 1899. He was a Finnish industrialist and founder of the company Merivaara, a pioneer in the design and manufacturing of functionalist furniture and medical equipment.

Beds out of iron

Merivaara started out in the beginning of the 20th century manufacturing beds made out of iron for private homes and hospitals together with the blacksmith Rikhard Polsa (1869 – 1944) in a shed located on the Josafat cliffs in Alppila in Helsinki. Merivaara had conducted study trips to Sweden and around Europe as well as the US and used what he had learned when he returned. In 1901 they founded the company Helsingin Uusi Rautasänkytehdas (The New Helsinki Iron Bed Factory) Polsa & Sjöstedt of which Merivaara became the sole owner in 1908. They started manufacturing hospital fittings in 1910 when they delivered their first operating tables. Helsingin Uusi Rautasänkytehdas is not to be confused with Heteka (Helsingin Teräshuonekalutehdas Ltd) that was founded in 1932 and has a similar profile.

Ups, downs and safes

In 1914 Merivaara founded Helsingin Kassakappitehdas (The Helsinki Safe Factory) and in 1923 (after a slight legal battle with Mr Polsa) he founded  J. Merivaara Ltd. Helsingin Uusi Rautasänkytehdas resided on Kaikukatu 2 between 1903–1917 in the building of a former match factory. In 1916 the new factory was built on Pääskylänkatu (now Satamaradankatu) in Vallila where a syrup factory used to be. In 1928 Merivaara had to sell his factory due to money trouble and the factory moved to the city of Lahti. Sisu-Auto Ltd occupied the old factory after that from 1928 to 1985.

In 1913 Merivaara bought the newly defaulted Turun Rautasänkytehdas (Turku Iron Bed Factory) and turned it into the The Aura Iron Bed Factory, that made beds as well as sleds and refrigerators.  This company worked under the name Auran Rautateollisuus (Aura Iron Industry) from 1921 making farming equipment and starting in the 1960s other heavy machinery too. When Juho Merivaara passed away in 1938 medical equipment manufacturer Instrumentarium bought a majority stake of Merivaara and all of the stock ten years later, holding the company for over 50 years.

A furniture factory

Although Merivaara focused on medical furniture, machinery and other industrial equipment, the company also designed and manufactured chairs, desks, stools and trolleys that would go on to become classics. One of the earliest examples is their collaboration with the architect Pauli E. Blomstedt (1900-1935) that started with Blomstedt’s hotel room interior exhibit at the Exhibition of Small Houses in 1930. From then on, until his death in 1935, Blomstedt extensively used the new functionalist furniture in the buildings he drew, such as in the short-lived Hotel Pohjanhovi in Lapland.

The chairs and tables had a café vibe to them but there were also lounge chairs and bar carts that were more fitting for a home milieu. What they all had in common was bent steel and often bent wood as well.

Well known designers

As the interest grew for Finnish design in the 1950s (much due to the Triennale awards) Merivaara branched out and started cooperating with architects and designers such as Aarne Ervi, Esko Pajamies, Ilmari Tapiovaara, Toivo Korhonen, Antti Nurmesniemi and Olavi Kettunen, often referred to as Olof or Ola. Designs that were not by a specific were simply attributed ‘Merivaara Design’. Most designs were produced in the 1950-1960s and during this time the abbreviated name ‘Merva’ was used in catalogues, ads and labels.

Merva Factory 1960s
Merva Factory 1960s

Esko Pajamies, Toivo Korhonen and Aarne Ervi made several different designs for Merivaara while the others only made one offs or variations on the same design. The designer who has since received most attention is Olavi Kettunen and his stools and chairs out of bent pipe and wood. He has to my knowledge not created any other designs.

J. Merivaara OY was closed down in 1967, when it was fusioned with Instrumentarium and later sold in 2002.

Variations of Merivaara’s logo

Merivaara changed its name or marked its furniture in different ways over the years. Helsingin Uusi Rautasänkytehdas, Merivaara, Instrumentarium, Merva, O. Kettunen and Made in Finland have all been used.

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