Eero Aarnio has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in design that dates back to the 1950s. His big break came in the early 1960s when, as a freshly minted freelance designer, he came up with an idea for a ball-shaped fibreglass chair that would go on to challenge the world’s perception of what furniture could look like. The design was first put into production by Finnish furniture company Osko in 1966, who cautiously made a small run of 100 for the brand’s stand at the Cologne Furniture Fair. ‘The technical director said "if we sell even one of these, I’ll eat my hat",’ remembers Aarnio, ‘but in the first week they sold to over 30 countries.’

A hit with everyone from movie stars to presidents, the 'Ball' chair sold in its thousands across the globe, quickly becoming an internationally recognised symbol of 1960s style, not to mention the cover star of countless magazines from Business Digest to Playboy; most of which are now collaged across a wall in Aarnio’s lake-side home in Veikkola, just outside of Helsinki.

Remarkably full of energy at 83 years of age and still producing designs for companies such as Magis, Alessi, and Artek, Aarnio attributes his enduring success to ‘good sleep, good food and good exercise’.

‘In retirement you have a lot of time for work,’ he continues, ‘I can work anywhere. The computer’s in my head, the printer’s in my hand and my pencil is my mouse’. 

Busy as ever, Aarnio’s 2016 has got off to a particularly eventful start with the opening of his first retrospective at Finland’s Design Museum Helsinki. Curated by Suvi Saloniemi, chief curator at Design Museum, and designed by Ville Kokkonen and Florencia Colombo, the show occupies the museum’s first floor, mapping out Aarnio’s life in design across an open plan central gallery space and four smaller adjoining galleries, which focus on the themes of mind, timeline, production and process. 

Upon arrival, at the top of the stairwell, visitors are greeted by Aarnio’s giant plastic animals that appear to be roaming free across the gallery thanks to a set of robotic podiums that allow them to glide independently around the space. Developed especially for the show by Finnish studio GIM, the robots provide a 360 degree view of Aarnio’s designs while reflecting the designer’s love of the unconventional. ‘We wanted to give a degree of freedom to the objects,’ says Colombo. ‘Eero has never respected furniture archetypes and we wanted the show to embody his playful personality and state of mind.’

Beyond the roaming plastic animals, Aarnio’s many furniture and product designs are assembled in rows to form a bright landscape of curvaceous plastic and wooden forms. Here his 'Ball' chair takes centre stage – a reminder of where it all began over 50 years ago.