Veljekset / Bröderna Backman – a company carved in wood

I’m passionate about what you would call hardwood, teak and rosewood being some of the most known ones. Back in the 50’s and 60’s they were easy to find because of deforestation in Southeast Asia which in turn partly was due to the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Essentially the Americans and French were selling off the wood that they cut down to make room for landing strips and other infrastructure needed for the war. Anyhow, manufacturers in the Nordic countries and the US bought much of the raw wood and turned it into beautiful pieces of furniture and household items. I’ve written more about teak earlier on my site.

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There aren’t many known teak item manufacturers in Finland but one of the largest one at its time was Veljekset Backman Bröderna Ky (Full name: Kommandiittiyhtiö Veljekset Backman Bröderna Kommanditbolag). The company was founded on in April of 1954 and by the 1960’s it had a fairly large production manufacturing bowls, trays and other small items using solid teak wood. Much of its production was conceived as ideas by the production team but some of the pieces were apparently designed by known designers such as Greta Lisa Jäderholm-Snellman, who also worked for Arabia. I have a few two level serving tray in teak marked G-L-J which seems to confirm it. I also have a large side table made by Backman and I believe it to be quite rare.

Leo Backman, the former CEO of Veljekset Backman Bröderna Ky.

Leo Backman (1924-2015), the former CEO of Veljekset Backman Bröderna Ky.

Founded by three brothers

Veljekset Backman Oy was founded by three brothers – Paul, Jarl and Leo Backman in 1954 but before that the company name was called Helsingin Puuteos, founded sometime after the war (there are mentions of champion wins in skiing mentioned in the late 1940s but more on that later.)

Helsingin Puuteos was located in a basement/garage (in Helsinki city’s potato cellar apparently) by  the Munkkiniemi avenue and there might be a small connection to the teak figures by Richard Müller I wrote about in a different post. Helsingin Puuteos made wooden toys like the company Brio but larger, handles for tools and fishing lures.

Bigger premises in Konala

The Backman company was founded in the same year that they moved to bigger premises in Konala, Helsinki (Hankasuontie 9) in 1954. Leo Backman’s son Jan Backman joined the company at that time (and he has been instrumental in providing the details of this story to me).

The move allowed the company to invest in wood pressing machines to make trays and they also started making household items such as bowls at this time. Their largest purchasers were the department store Stockmann and the Ahlström company and later on Valtion Hankintakeskus, that needed trays for new state schools and hospitals. The products were popular and Backman was not able to produce bowls and other items quick enough with Stockmann buying everything they made. The company had 10-15 employees at this time.

Reino Kekälinen – Backman’s master wood turner

The bowls were turned out of large blocks of teak and the largest ones could take years to make as they had to dry in between the different stages. The bowls were created in different sizes both with semi-automatic machines and by hand. When teak was easily acquired, the items could be made from entire blocks but over time as the material costs grew and it was harder to come by, they started gluing wooden blocks together or other cheaper wood materials that were sometimes treated to get a darker surface. Backman’s master woodturner was Reino Kekälinen who joined the company in the mid 1950s and instrumental in the creation of Backman’s beautiful line of wooden bowls.

Hundreds of thousands of trays 

Backman was not allowed to expand the factory in Konala but found an old military barracks in Kirkkonummi (Upinniementie 550) and moved there in 1962. In Kirkkonummi they were able to dig out the floor to make room for the machines, some of which had already been acquired back in Konala. The machines came from Bürkle GmbH in Germany and from Sennerhov in Denmark. The trays had to be able to be machine washed and in the early 1970s, Backman started using glass fiber pressing to make them water resistant.

A lot of the trays were exported with a company called Mermaid, purchasing and reselling a lot of it abroad. The Portuguese airline company TAP bought a lot of trays for their flights and a lot of the trays also went to Austria. Jonelle, an import company in the United Kingdom, was a large purchaser and you can see trays labelled with that name.

Cooperations with Marimekko, Artek, Metsovaara and Svenskt Tenn started in the 1950s and they are laminated with the designs of Marjatta Metsovaara, Josef Frank and Alvar Aalto.

Expansion to Pieksämäki

Backman found it increasingly difficult to acquire the veneer needed to make their trays and decided to start their own production in the early 1970s. They managed to find the machines for cutting and drying the wood at a bargain and in 1974, they got a new machine hall in Pieksämäki.

You can also find trays and other items in blue, green and red painted pine and some of these were special orders by restaurants.

Approximately 80 people worked at Backman at its height

Sports were central to the family

When you google Backman, a lot of the results are from indexed skiing and orientation championship wins from the 1950-1970s and it turns out that the brothers but Leo Backman in particular, were excellent sportsmen. Their cooperation with Silva was a result of travelling in Sweden and it is possible that other cooperation came about the management’s keen interest in sports.

Backman even started importing sports products in the early 1970s and made hockey sticks but it proved to not be a profitable line of business.

The decline

A few things stopped Backman in the late 1960s and the early 1970s – the taste in wood turned to lighter materials such as pine, the sourcing of teak dried up, Reino Kekälinen fell ill and could no longer handle the turning and there was an influx of inexpensive locally made teak items from places like Thailand.

The Backman family sold the company in 1978.

The 1980s onwards

From the 1990’s onwards Backman seems to have been a supplier of pressed wood products for furniture manufacturers. Later designers at Suomen Viilutuote include Sami Huuskonen, Nadja Travina, Kristiina Suominen, Katri Pitkänen and Kati Lehtoranta. There’s also a prototype side table by Petri Vainio manufactured by Backman.

The machines used at Backman are now used at Formpress located on Öland, Sweden.

The company Veljekset Backman bröderna Ky declared bankruptcy in June 2012. Their former web site is now defunct.

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Backman worked with both the Swedish company Silva in the 1960s and also Suomen Viilutuotteet in Lahti from 1982. The Silva/Backman trays are marked SILVA Patented in several countries Made in Finland Veljet Backman Helsinki Helsingfors. 

Silva logo 2

One blogger visited the old factory in Kirkkonummi back in 2010 and took photos. The building has since burned down, once partially in 1996 and completely in 2013.

One interesting story I found involves famous furniture designer Yrjö Kukkapuro. He says that when he first wanted to start working with bent wood he found that there was a company in Kirkkonummi that made wooden trays and he wondered whether it would be possible to press a entire chair with the same method. Although Leo Backman found Kukkapuro to slightly eccentric in his appearance, Leo was intrigued by the designer’s idea and suggested they use an old machine from the 1930’s but it wasn’t suitable for serial production. Their cooperation continued with Haimi, the main manufacturer of Kukkapuro’s designs, on Plaano chairs for a number of years. Although it proved difficult to get the back of the chairs to stay straight, Backman managed to develop techniques with which they managed to produce up to 40 chair backs per day. One of the techniques Backman developed was using microwaves to heat the glue when pressing the wooden back rests together.

Collectors and Collections exhibition

I participated in the Collectors and Collections exhibition at the Finnish Design Museum 25 Oct 2019 – 15 March 2020 with a large assortment of items by Backman. It was to my knowledge the first time Veljekset Backman’s production has been exhibited. I’m hoping to get their items displayed somewhere permanently.

One thing that became apparent while writing this piece is how much this was a labour of love for the Backman family and how important it was that the people at the company were taken care of. Once when there was a need for temporary layoffs, it was decided that everyone would take time off and to compensate everyone worked intensively to build up a storage of trays so that they could hit the ground running when everyone came back.

A big thank you to the Backman family and especially to Jan Backman, with whom I spoke for close to four hours on a rainy Saturday in February 2020. Also thank you to Yrjö Kukkapuro for information on the cooperation with Backman.

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