Promoting Change. The A.M. Luther Company 1920-40Estonian Institute
Jüri Kermik
Kombinatsioon An English businessman visiting Tallinn in the summer of 1922, wrote in his travel report:

I was glad to see that nearly all sections of the people had united in their determination to construct a solid basis for building up the future of their country, and the progress which has been made was demonstrated in the excellent exhibition, that was held in the town, of the produce of the Estonian factories.[i]

The writer was Henry Rutherford Jnr, managing director of Venesta (veneer+Estonia), the partner company of the A.M. Luther Woodworking Company (Luterma), founded in England in 1897. The exhibition which elicited Rutherford's good opinion was one of the first joint undertakings of independent Estonia's industrial enterprises. After the Russian markets closed in the early 1920s, the guarantee for future success for many companies that had been active in Estonia already in Tsarist times, required rapid re-orientation towards the local Estonian market and changing the list of items produced. One company that was prepared for such changes was Luterma, the internationally recognised manufacturer of plywood furniture. Luterma, with its Baltic-German credentials and well established international marketing network, was a rare phenomenon in Estonia, but its continuing success in the interwar period and its active participation in promoting Estonian everyday culture and design also reflect more general tendencies in regional developments.

The most important task the company's management faced after the First World War and the establishment of Estonia's independence was to restart regular production and to increase it to a level appropriate to the capacity and technical possibilities of the company's Furniture Department, which had been built up in 1912 and was one of the biggest in the Baltic countries and Scandinavia. Apart from the local demand for domestic and office furniture, the furniture factory had been producing mainly folding chairs and tables for the English market, and the firm could not expect any significant increase in production until new markets had been found. [ii] There were also great hopes that the Russian market would open again one day with its almost 'unlimited demand'.

However, Luterma's plans could not have been realised without a corresponding marketing policy, which implied updating the existing furniture range and introducing new products. [iii] Changes in the social structure of Estonia had created a new, steadily growing consumer-group - with low wages - which Luterma had identified as the main future buyers of standardised, inexpensive furniture. The rapid industrialisation of Tallinn, the westernmost port of Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century, resulted in a dynamic increase in the size of the working class. The population of Tallinn was approaching 160,000 in 1920, having tripled since 1897. New housing for workers, introduced by factory owners and property developers, was based on a requirement to meet economically minimal needs. The search for optimal architectural solutions was reflected in the design of these inexpensive workers' houses as well as in the floor-plans of the apartment blocks of the city. Neither the design nor the size of traditional furniture suites were suitable for furnishing these new type 'minimal flats'. While the furniture could be made more cheaply by standardising components and increasing production volume, the potential of the relationship between furniture design and rational space planning was still largely unexplored by the large-scale furniture industry. Luterma's development programme of the 1920s, therefore, included a demand to curtail the production of suites consisting of individual pieces and to concentrate on the design of a flexible new product range that would suit the requirements of a changing society [iv].

Luterma had already declared its intentions in 1919 by announcing a design competition "for inexpensive furniture in good taste and for solutions for the design of furniture for the living rooms of small flats [v]". Members of the jury included the well-known Estonian architects Eugen Habermann and Erich Jacoby and artist Paul Raud. During the following twenty years Luterma concentrated mainly on the issues raised by the brief of this design competition. Standardisation was the key-word in Luterma's development programme and it was closely related to the concept of unit or type furniture. European developments in the small-scale production of typenmöbel were associated with the names of Karl Schmidt, Richard Riemerschmid and Bruno Paul of Hellerau Workshops in Germany in the late 1890s [vi]. But it was not until the 1920s, that several American and European firms began to market unit-based 'combination furniture'. These international developments were based on the commercial availability of various types of plywood-based boards in the early years of the century. Luterma started to make and use joiners' boards at the same time as German and American companies were doing so, and the entries in the company's Photo Albums from the early years of the century clearly demonstrate the search for new forms and construction.

To coincide with the new projects and developments in their Furniture Department, Luther decided to refurbish their furniture warehouse in the medieval centre of Tallinn and to turn it into a modern furniture showroom with a permanent display demonstrating Luterma's new approach to improving the living - as well as the working - environment. The refurbished showroom (architect Erich Jacoby) became one of the first modernist projects in the historic centre of Tallinn [vii]. May 1935 saw the opening of an extended display of Luterma's furniture in the reconstructed showroom [viii], with furniture being exhibited according to typology on all five floors of the building.



Table, chairs - the dining room Further promotional events were planned during the following years. In April 1936 an exhibition of Luterma furniture, Mööbel kõigi jaoks (Furniture for Everyone) opened in the Tallinn Stock Exchange Hall [ix]. This time, the exhibition, which was supported by the Ministry of Economy, had an extra promotional dimension. Its aims were to introduce and promote contemporary furnishing principles and to attract different groups of Estonian society. The government's involvement in the project could be explained by its wider development programme for improving the 'Estonian home and its neighbourhood', launched in the mid-1930s. Luterma contributed to this programme by providing models and possible solutions for modern habitation. Furniture for Everyone was a change of direction, as it mainly introduced inexpensive standard furniture for the masses. The three essential aspects of modern life the exhibition concentrated on were function, practical use of space and individual needs of the user [x]. Universality and quality, it was claimed, were achievable through modern design and industrial production methods. The Combination Furniture range, with its unit-based structure, was introduced as a dignified replacement for the old-fashioned suites and its truly modern design was emphasised with the selection of the material: native birch was used instead of the foreign and exotic veneers [xi]. The range included twenty basic models, called 'Luterma tüüp' (Luterma type). Their design was based on interchangeable components, modular sizes and a limited number of fittings [xii]. The availability of additional components, such as underframes, sockets, and different types of doors, as well as optional finishes, enabled users to create combinations with an individual character. Different approaches to standardisation, including the organisation of the production stages, resulted not only in a small number of constituent parts but also in the speed and ease of assembly, economy in storing and transportation, and most importantly, in considerable cuts in production costs. In addition to the few successful export articles, such as folding chairs and tables, Luterma was now able to offer a growing range of domestic furniture for the home market: solid wood and soft furnishings were provided to complement plywood chairs and Combination Furniture. Parallel to changes in domestic furniture, Luterma was also paying attention to the office range. A number of new products, such as modular bookcases and adjustable tables and chairs, were introduced, some of which were based on the same components as the Combination Furniture. The perfection of this range was topical because of Luterma's previous experience with standardisation, and logical, because it related to Modern Movement philosophies. Hans Irschick wrote in the foreword of the catalogue of Combination Furniture:
A rhythmic harmony now dominates the living room. This is achieved by the relation of form to material. At the same time it also provides a neutral frame for the purchaser to create a personal environment. Thus, the idea of Combination Furniture has a social as well as ethical value: we no longer 'purchase' a home with payment by instalments. We now obtain essential furniture in a mature way, taking our time and doing it according to our needs and contemporary material possibilities [xiii].



Chair - the living room Irschick admitted that Luterma's furniture production was a result of standardising and typifying, the two main characteristics of the notion of combination furniture. He also related ethical principles to aesthetics: It is obvious and depends on the essence of an object in itself, that the type furniture is simple, without ornament and its shape has been reduced to basic forms. It is a genuine industrial object. It does not try to reflect historical forms. Neither does it strive for primitivity in the cubistic sense. The task is functional.

Furniture for Everyone was a reflection of wider international developments. The changes and the social problems faced by interwar industrial society were reflected in investigations and development programmes for housing and construction throughout Europe. Many of these programmes were government initiated and related to standardisation processes in different industries. The concept of the 'minimum-existence dwelling' was promoted by the Modern Movement during the late 1920s and '30s. Exhibitions with almost identical programmes and manifestos were organised in many countries. In 1930, for example, the Minimum Apartment Exhibition had been staged in Helsinki. Alvar Aalto, the initiator of the exhibition, had imported the idea from Germany, where an exhibition Die Wohnung für Des Existenzminimum, based on the similar principles, had been staged in Munich and Frankfurt in 1928 [xiv]. Venesta, Luterma's representative in England, had been involved in Isokon's 'Minimum Flat' project, which was exhibited in 1933 in London. [xv]

In terms of the development of plywood technology, Luterma itself had been at the centre of international attention for decades. Through projects and marketing events with Venesta during the 1930s the company came into contact with leading Modernist architects and designers such as Wells Coates, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. A series of interested projects and design competitions were connected with the stands introducing the Venesta plywood at trade shows in England. In 1930, Venesta commissioned Le Corbusier's practice to design the Venesta stand at the Building Trades Exhibition in London. The project was undertaken by Charlotte Perriand whose design proposal incorporated a central birch trunk and revolving stands with samples of available plywood grades and finishes [xvi]. Plywood's essential quality, its suitability for bending, was demonstrated in the vertical column and the banner which floated above the stand, the banner carrying a text 'Plywood & Venesta'. Most of the products on display were produced by Luterma.

In the following year Venesta organised a competition for the design of their stand at the British Empire Building Trades Exhibition in Manchester. The competition attracted 175 entries and a fair amount of publicity. Entrants included C.F.A. Voysey, Serge Chermayeff and Maxwell Fry, but the competition was won by Wells Coates [xvii]. The stand designs formed a significant part in the Venesta marketing strategy in promoting plywood and finding new areas of usage for it. Largely thanks to the interest of Modernist architects in that novel, man-made material, plywood products spread fast in the field of construction and furniture design.



Venesta stand Encouraged by the success of their Furniture for Everyone in Estonia, Luterma started to prepare for their next exhibition. In February 1939, Luterma showed its production in the Stock Exchange Hall in Tallinn. Besides the growing range of domestic furniture, advanced processes and technologies at the company's disposal together with an impressive selection of plywood-based building and interior products were introduced. Once again, the focus was on Combination Furniture, which this time was supported by the Standard Furniture for offices. In addition to modern functional furniture for small flats, Luterma now offered a small range of products specially designed for country homes. 'Furniture in the Estonian style', which was designed in relation to the vernacular tradition, included massive chairs with woven seats, cupboards and a chest featuring carved rustic ornaments [xviii].

The series of events promoting Estonian design, which involved most areas of the nation's industry, was unfortunately cut short in 1940 with the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union. However, with regard to the development and the continuity of Estonian design, these years (which on the one hand were influenced by the impact of the ideologies of Modern Movement, and, on the other, by the vision of an independent nation towards social reform and harmonious society) were extremely important and deserve further investigation. Especially important is the experience of these decades of history in the light of today's changing technologies and national aspirations.

[i] The Luther Archive, H. Rutherford, Notes on a Journey to Reval and Finland, 1922.
[ii] The figures from the summer of 1922 show the actual power and production capacity in the Furniture Factory: the output of folding chairs (1074) had grown to 3000 a day, folding stools (1812) to 1000 per month. The Luther Archive, G.L. Reid, Notes on a visit to Reval, May and June 1922.
[iii] Luterma introduced its first postwar furniture catalogue in 1920. Eesti Mehaanilise Puutööstuse Aktsia-selts A.M. Luther, Tallinn 1920. Because most of the pre-war models were now out of date, the catalogue included only a selection of fifty-two surviving models.
[iv] Vaba Maa, No 88, 13 April 1930, p. 6.
[v] Tallinna Teataja, No 5, 8 January 1919, p.3.
[vi] Pevsner, N., The first plywood furniture, The Architectural Review August 1938, pp 75-76.
[vii] Vaba Maa, No 88, 13 April 1930, p. 6.
[viii] The building (Vana-Posti 9) was destroyed in the Second World War.
[ix] Uus Eesti, 17 August 1935.
[x] Uus Eesti 17 April 1936, No 103, p. 7.
[xi] Vaba Maa, 16 April 1936, No 85, p. 5.
[xii] Luterma's new product lines not only offered inexpensive and modem furniture. The company's work in the field of new materials and alternative uses of plywood resulted in the wide selection of finishing materials for interiors. In connection with the exhibition, plywood parquet and panelling systems were introduced to the Estonian public as a novelty. Plywood flooring boards had been marketed successfully in England.
[xiii] Combination Furniture, Catalogue. Foreword by H. Irschick, Tallinn: Luterma, circa 1933.
[xiv] Combination Furniture, Catalogue. Foreword by H. Irschick, (translation by Jüri Kermik), Tallinn: Luterma, circa 1933. Hans Irschick, the adopted son of M. Luther, studied architecture in Munich. He and his brother Wolf Irschick became responsible for design and development in Luterma in the mid 1930s.
[xv] Schildt, G., The Decisive Years in Alvar Aalto Furniture, Helsinki, 1984, pp 72-74. Aalto was also the exhibition architect. Other exhibitors included E. Bryggman, P.E. Blomstedt and W. West.
[xvi] The Pritchard Papers, University of East Anglia. In 1935, encouraged by promising developments in modem architecture, Venesta helped Jack Pritchard (Venesta's employee between 1925-35) to set up the Isokon Furniture Company. Walter Gropius (appointed as the Controller of Design of Isokon) and Marcel Breuer became involved in Isokon design projects during their stay in England (1935-37). Wells Coates's design for the flat incorporated plywood based book-units, produced for Isokon by Venesta, were also based on the principle of modular construction.
[xvii] Pritchard, J., View from a Long Chair, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984, p. 60.
[xviii] Commended designs by S. Chermayeff, E. Wamsely Lewis, R. Parkinson and E. Maxwell Fry were published in the: Architect and Building News, March 13, 1931, pp 375-379.


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