Arabia’s first factory buildings, for the manufacture of porcelain, earthenware and other types of pottery, were erected in 1874 on a plot of land carrying the same name on the northern outskirts of Helsinki. The buildings were commissioned by the Swedish ceramics factory, Rörstrand, which had been given permission by the Senate to establish a subsidiary in Finland on 25 November 1873. Production started in the Arabia porcelain factory in October 1874. Ceramics production in Finland was still in its infancy at the time, but demand was growing at a fast rate thanks to the booming economy. The Swedish company was really more interested in the Russian markets, but access through Finland via the Arabia factory was easier due partly to the lower import duties. Skilled workers were brought over from Sweden, supplemented by craftsmen recruited from other Finnish potteries. At the beginning of 1875, Arabia already employed 110 people. Within just a couple of years, the value of the output from the factory accounted for half of the total annual ceramics production in the whole country.
In 1885 the Arabia factory became a limited company, Arabia Aktiefabrik, with 90% of the shares being retained by Rörstrand. The rapid ”boom and bust” cycle of the late 1880s did not stop the factory from growing and developing. In 1881, Gustav Herlitz from Rörstrand was appointed technical director of the factory, and he became Arabia’s managing director in 1893. Arabia published its first illustrated catalogue in 1883. There was a constant stream of new dinner services with new decorations. The Helsingfors tableware set, which was introduced in 1882, was the first one with a decorative motif that had been named after a location in Finland. Other decorations of the time included Flora, Fuxia, Svea, Landskap, Victoria and Feston.
In the 1890s Gustav Herlitz expanded Arabia’s production capacity quite considerably. Two new glazed-tile casting plants, new kilns and a decorating workshop were constructed. New body mixtures were introduced in order to improve product quality. The Swedish artist Thure Öberg and the Finnish architect Jac Ahrenberg were employed to improve the range of models produced at Arabia. By 1895, the factory employed 300 workers, half of whom were women. A third of the output was still being exported to Russia in the 1890s. Domestic sales were hindered by fierce competition, particularly from German ceramics imports. In order to boost marketing, a salesman was employed to travel round the country with samples of Arabia wares. Arabia also co-operated to a significant degree with G.F. Stockmann, founder of the Stockmann department store, and opened a sales exhibition in 1896. Success in exhibitions and fairs in Finland and abroad also promoted the products. The Arabia range was supplemented with new decorated dinner sets, such as Speranza (1893-1912), Pomona (1893-1909) and Sing-Fo (1893-1909). In 1893 Arabia produced its first catalogue in Finnish.
Arabia’s collection was awarded a gold medal at the Paris World Fair in 1900. A product range exclusive to Arabia was slowly taking shape, with some of the articles designed by various architects. Arabia started the production of its own models of tiled stoves, vases and sets of tableware. The company introduced new decorating methods to its products, such as multi-colored transfers in domestic ware and luster marbling in decorative objects. Efforts were made to counter the severe depression of the early 1900s by increasing exports to both the east and the west. The higher excise duties in Russia, however, made Arabia’s products too dear for the Russian markets, and successful exports to the North American markets were cut short when the American agent went bankrupt. Once again, Arabia resorted to boosting domestic sales and focused its efforts on developing co-operation with the wholesale trade. Arabia’s product range underwent major changes and saw many additions in the first years of the 20th century. New patriotic topics were introduced to the decorations, such as the Finnish ”coat of arms” in 1903. The ”Jugend” style copperplate decorations Capella, Ester and Hildur, for instance, appeared in the 1906 Arabia catalogue.
The First World War brought a change in the ownership of Arabia. In 1916, Rörstrand sold the entire share capital to Finnish buyers. Independence in Finland marked a period of vigorous growth for Arabia. Gustav Herlitz had handed over as managing director to his son, Carl Gustaf Herlitz. The new managing director drew up a program of fundamental reform for the production facility, which was launched in 1919. Over the next five years, the factory was completely modernized. In 1912, Arabia organized its first design competition. It was won by Eric O. W. Ehrström.
Under the program of reforms set in motion by the new managing director, Carl Gustaf Herlitz, new premises were built for preparing raw materials, molding and casting work and for firing. Old factory buildings were also completely modernized. In addition, the factory started production in a completely new field – that of electrical insulators. In 1923, Arabia acquired Teknillinen Posliinitehdas Oy, a factory in Turku where Arabia’s insulator production was later centralized. Despite the improvement in production facilities, the deal did not produce the desired outcome, with imported goods continuing to flood the Finnish ceramics markets. This did not, however, deter Arabia’s management from continuing the expansion program. With a view to securing financing, Arabia’s majority shareholding was sold to the German company Arnhold Group which was convinced that Arabia was a worthy investment target. However, as no funds became available for further development of the factory, Arabia’s share capital was successfully repatriated in 1927 in a deal which also saw the shares of the Swedish porcelain factory Lidköping and those of Arabia’s original parent company Rörstrand passing to Arabia, who held on to them until 1932.
Arabia illustrated progressive thinking in appointing an artistic director for the factory. Kurt Ekholm was appointed in 1932. He built up Arabia’s renowned Art Department, but also influenced the design of tableware by introducing new international trends. The worldwide depression, however, meant a slump in demand for Arabia’s products and the factory operated below capacity. The motto of the day was rationalization of production, in which Arabia was a pioneer. Work as a process was studied scientifically for the first time and steps were taken to automate production and efficiency was increased in certain individual stages of the manufacturing process. Rationalization was also applied to the relationship between production and sales. Numerous special commissions had resulted in an inflated range of over 30,000 individual products. This made it very difficult, for example, to keep to the promised lead times. In 1936, Arabia established a Production Planning Department which had the task of matching production at the factory with the annual sales programs.
Despite the war, Arabia was given permission to extend the factory in 1941. The project was completed in two phases with final completion in 1947, by which time a nine-storey factory building had been constructed in Hämeentie Street in Helsinki, with a six-storey wing linking it to the old factory building. The new building housed the Art Department and the Decorating Department as well as kilns. In 1945, Arabia appointed Kaj Franck to develop the product design function. The Arabia Museum, on the ninth floor of the building, opened its doors in 1948. The kiln-hall contained three new kilns. With the extension of the production facilities the existing machinery was modernized and new machinery installed. The large factory had become a giant, providing employment for over 2,000 people. Due to the limited production caused by wartime shortages as well as the need to maintain the export operation, domestic trade was subject to sales quotas which were in force until 1949. The quotas meant that each central trading organization received a certain proportion of the factory's output which it then had to distribute amongst its member outlets. The majority of the goods sold in the domestic markets were seconds, since the prime quality products were reserved for export.
In the 1950s Arabia’s product range was thoroughly updated. The Kilta range by Kaj Franck, which came onto the markets in 1953, was a leading example of this modernization process. At first, it was not an easy task to sell the updated product range, as it involved entirely new concepts relating to kitchen ware that a household might need. This took Arabia into the realm of modern communications and advisory work which included educating the public, consultation and press services. The showroom/outlet in the Esplanade in Helsinki – still located in the same spot – opened to the public. In 1951, 1954 and 1957 Arabia’s artists received numerous prizes in the Milan Triennials. Gunvor Olin-Grönqvist, Liisa Hallamaa and Brita Heilimo started work in the Department of Industrial Art and Oiva Toikka and Francesca and Richard Lindh in the Art Department. Visiting artists from abroad were invited to work in the Art Department. In export sales, Arabia abandoned the practice of using agents to sell products to retailers, instead commissioning importers to deliver the goods from their own warehouses direct to the retail outlets. Firing techniques were modernized by adopting oil for open firing. In addition to the Kilta range, other new products included AR-Heini (Kaarina Aho/Raija Uosikkinen 1957) and Ulla Procopé’s Liekki dishes (1958). At the end of the 1950s, Arabia set up its own serigraphy print works for the production of transfer prints.
A new production material, stoneware, was introduced into Arabia’s household range. The first tableware set made from the new material was Ulla Procopé’s Ruska, well-known worldwide. The much-loved Paratiisi series by Birger Kaipiainen was launched in 1969. Birger Kaipiainen’s popularity extended abroad: his Bead Birds enchanted the public in the Milan Triennial and were awarded the Grand Prix in 1960. Birger Kaipiainen’s Orvokkimeri (Sea of Violets) was on show at the World Fair held in Montreal in 1967. Roller-moulding machines for plates and fully automated molding units for cups boosted production in the period 1959-1961. The fully automated molding units for cups which were introduced in 1967 further increased efficiency. New lines in the 1960s included not just the Ruska and Paratiisi ranges, but also Valencia (Ulla Procopé 1960), BK-Paratiisi (Birger Kaipiainen 1969), Palapeli (Kaarina Aho 1964), SN plant pots (Richard Lindh 1964) and the GB restaurant range (Göran Bäck 1968). The following new artists were employed by Arabia in the 60s: Heljä Liukko-Sundström, Inkeri Leivo, Anja Jaatinen-Winquist and Peter Winquist.
One of the most significant modernizations that was carried out in the Arabia factory in the 1970s was the completion of the automated molding lines and two tunnel kilns in the new kiln-hall in 1979. Inkeri Leino’s pure white Arctica was the first set of tableware to emerge from the tunnel kilns that was made from the new material, vitro porcelain. Artist Francesca Lindh created the Elämänpuu (Tree of Life) relief for the new kiln-hall. The manufacture of sanitary porcelain was transferred to Tammisaaren Posliini in 1971. In the period 1971-1977, the Arabia trademark was also used by Nuutajärven Lasi (Nuutajärvi Glass) and Järvenpään Emali (Järvenpää Enamel). The oil crisis and the problems caused by cheap imports led to cut-backs in personnel and the product range. They were also the reason for a three-year period (1975-1977) of collaboration in marketing between Arabia and Rörstrand. The production of annual plates with a Kalevala theme by Raija Uosikkinen was launched in 1976. New lines in tableware included M-Karelia (Anja Jaatinen-Winquist 1970), EH-Faenza (Peter Winquist 1973), Tea for Two (Gunvor Olin-Grönqvist 1978) and Arctica (Inkeri Leivo 1979). Artists Paul Envalds and Pauli Partanen were employed by Arabia.
In 1981-1983 new chamber and decorating kilns were installed in the Arabia factory. In 1984 Arabia’s owner company, Wärtsilä, acquired Rörstrand. The deal meant that Arabia’s old parent company now became its subsidiary. Production was boosted in 1989 by the introduction of the dry-press process for plates. The Arabia Museum and Gallery were opened to the public in 1984, and in 1989 the Arabia Cultural Foundation was founded to support the Art Department and the museum. Rut Bryk’s work ”The Coming of Spring in the North” for the Finnish Embassy in New Delhi was completed in 1985. The first Pro Arte Collection was created in 1988. Kati Tuominen, Pekka Paikkari and Dorrit von Fieandt all started work in the Arabia Art Department in the 1980s. Visiting artists included Howard Smith, Rudy Autio, Minni Lukander, Jun Kaneko and Kristina Riska. Kaj Franck modernized his Kilta series, and it was relaunched under the name Teema in 1981. Other novelties included Tuuli (Heljä Liukko-Sundström 1983), Saaristo (Inkeri Leivo 1985), Microset (Göran Bäck 1986), Teema (Kaj Franck 1987), Domino (Kati Tuominen/Pekka Paikkari 1987) and Harlekin (Inkeri Leivo 1989).
Arabia was acquired by Hackman in 1990, which made Arabia one of the trademarks owned by Hackman Group. The other trademarks were Iittala, Hackman, Nuutajärvi and Rörstrand. In the 1990s, Arabia design was awarded numerous different prizes globally. Arabia received the Design Plus prize in Frankfurt’s Ambiente Fair for Kati Tuominen-Niittylä’s Storybirds pitchers in 1994, Heikki Orvola’s 24h tableware in 1997, Pia Törnell’s Tilda range in 1998 and Pekka Harni’s ABC bowls in 1999. Pressure casting was introduced in the Arabia factory in 1993. In 1997, Arabia’s Cultural Foundation and the Hackman Anniversary Year Fund were merged to form the Hackman Pro Design Foundation. In addition to the collections in the Arabia Museum, the new foundation took charge of the Iittala and Nuutajärvi Glass Museums as well as the Cutlery Museum. Rut Bryk’s work The Ice Flow was installed in the Finnish Presidential Residence, Mäntyniemi, in 1991 and Kristina Riska’s installation in the Finnish Embassy in Washington in 1995.
The company's name changes from Designor to Iittala Oy Ab. The Arabia Art Department Society is founded. The Lumi series designed by Heikki Orvola is launched in 2002. In 2005, Arabia launches the new, modern KoKo tableware series designed by Kristina Riska and Kati Tuominen-Niittylä. Arabia is Finland's most valued brand. In 2007, Iittala Group is bought by the Fiskars Group, which was founded in 1649. In 2009, Arabia launches the Runo series of tableware designed by Heini Riitahuhta.
Arabia launches the Tuokio decoration for the 24h series. Helsinki is the World Design Capital in 2012. Arabia launches the Kotikaupunki mug series to celebrate the occasion and the Hetkiä mug series two years later. The Arabia factory celebrates its 140th anniversary. In honour of the jubilee year, Arabia launches 12 different jubilee plates. The Lysti series designed by Pekka Paikkari and Pattern Bakery is launched, along with the Piilopaikka decoration designed by Piia Keto for the Arctica series. In 2014 Arabia modernizes its image, introducing a new logo, factory stamp and brand promise. Arabia. All set for life.