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Alvar Aalto

Born in Kuortane in the Finnish province of South Ostrobothnia in 1898, Alvar Aalto studied architecture in Helsinki between 1916 and 1921. The close proximity to nature engendered in his native Finland - even in the city of Helsinki one encounters large areas of forest - would become one of the most important influences on Aalto's work and makes Aalto's work particularly interesting in a contemporary context. Because Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino Aalto wanted to find a formal expression for the unity of man with his environment. This endeavour resulted in the curved lines, organic shapes and focus on natural materials and colours that are so typical of Aalto's buildings and designs. A closeness to nature, regionality and warmth that became characteristics of a Scandinavian functionalism shaped by Aalto, also in contrast to the rather cool, industrial charm of the German functionalism informed by the Bauhaus.

Designer Alvar Aalto

The Golden Bell in the Savoy Restaurant, Helsinki

Aino Aalto and Alvar Aalto - Pioneers of Scandinavian modernism

Today Alvar Aalto is considered to be the pioneer of Scandinavian modernism. It is difficult to understand why his wife Aino Aalto, who was an equal partner in Alvar Aalto's architectural office from 1923 before her marriage, is not mentioned in the same way.

Born in 1894 Aino Maria Marsi, studied architecture in Helsinki and met Alvar Aalto when, at her invitation, he gave a lecture to a group of architecture students she had set up. When Alvar Aalto founded his own office in 1923, Aino became an equal employee and the two married a year later.

Aino Aalto was involved in many architecture and design projects until her untimely death 1949. Project including, for example, the famous Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, the Paimio Sanatorium and the Savoy Restaurant in Helsinki. Exactly what part she played in many of the works currently ascribed to Alvar Aalto can no longer be determined. In addition to the fact that architecture was an absolute male domain at the time, Aino Aalto probably also had personal reasons that made her take on the role behind the scenes, as managing director of Artek and host for the intellectual elite of Finland in her own house. The friend and architect Siegfried Gideon, at whose invitation the Aaltos took part in the congresses of the CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne), once said of the Aaltos, "This marriage was unusual, but its real secret was probably a deep balance of human opposites. Aalto is restless, exuberant, unpredictable; Aino was intense, persistent and quiet."

Opposites attract: Aino and Alvar Aalto

The Aalto atelier

The Paimio Sanatorium, architecture, furniture and lighting design combined as a total work of art

In 1929 the Aalto's design won the competition for a sanatorium in Paimio, which was completed in 1933. The building, originally designed as a tuberculosis hospital, was intended to help Alvar Aalto achieve his international breakthrough as an architect and can be described as the cornerstone of the organic construction that shaped his work. Thanks to the east-facing hospital rooms and large window fronts, the tuberculosis patients, who at that time were mainly prescribed rest, fresh air and sunlight, were able to wake up to the sun and were housed in the immediate vicinity of the pine forests surrounding the hospital.

Not only the building, but also the interior, furniture, lamps and fittings, all of which were designed by the Aaltos, were perfectly tailored to the needs of the patients. For example, the wave-shaped design of the Paimio armchair, which is made from one piece of birch veneer was designed specifically to enable a posture that is gentle on the lungs.

Some of these first major furniture designs, created at the time by Alvar Aalto and Aino Aalto for the hospital, are still produced by Artek today.

The terrace of the tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio, which marks Aalto's breakthrough as an international architect

Aalto's legendary Paimio armchair, formed so as to enable tuberculosis patients to adopt a posture that is gentle on the lungs

Artek and Aalto

Artek has been producing Aalto furniture since 1935

The furniture manufacturer Artek was founded in Helsinki in 1935 by the Aaltos together with the art collector and patron Maire Gullichsen and the art historian Nils Gustav Hahl. With the intention of creating innovative furniture and lighting designs for everyday life based on Alvar Aalto's conception of design, Artek developed into one of the most important protagonists in the field of modern design. Aino Aalto played a special role as managing director and artistic director: she shaped the special Artek aesthetic by combining clear, modern forms with simple ornamentation. To this day, Artek is internationally successful and, in addition to established design classics by the likes of Alvar Aalto or Ilmari Tapiovaara, also produces works by contemporary contemporary designs. Of particular relevance are Alvar Aalto lighting designs and the so-called L-leg furniture collection.

L-leg Collection

The Artek Stool from Aalto's L-leg collection...

... and the complimenting 81B table

The L-leg collection in particular shows how innovative and refined Alvar Aalto was as a designer and how he created objects that still impress today with their seemingly timeless aesthetics.

The L-leg collection comprises a series of around 50 furniture designs made of plywood, all of which are based on an invention by Alvar Aalto, the so-called L-leg, an L-shaped bent solid wood leg. As a pioneer of technology Alvar Aalto had already experimented with bending wood in the late 1920s and finally developed the L-shaped leg in collaboration with the master carpenter and furniture maker Otto Korhonen. As a standardized, individual component, this L-leg could be easily and stably connected to table tops or seats and thus enabled the versatile and coherent furniture collection, which impresses with its combination of warmth and elegance due to the rounded corners and the material. Designs like the Stool Stool 60 or the table 81B 82B/82 have gone down in history as prime examples of modern design.

Aalto Lighting

The A110 lamp from Artek brings original charm

The Aaltos developed many of the Artek lighting designs themselves for their architectural projects. As lighting designs they are always based on the specific spatial conditions and exactly analysis of how the light scattering relates to the respective room. For the Paimio Sanatorium in particular a wide variety of lighting designs were created, from ceiling lamps to bedside lamps, but beyond that, they proved to be less commercially successful. The breakthrough came in 1937 with the Golden Bell pendant lamp for the Savoy Restaurant in Helsinki. Further lamp designs followed until the 1950s, such as the A110 pendant lamp in 1952, which is also known as the hand grenade due to its shape. Artek lights impress with their pleasantly scattered, diffuse and glare-free light, and as objects whose unmistakable dynamic design language appears simple, but never boring. Artek lights bequeath a wide variety of rooms an elegant, witty touch.

Timeless visual delight and a small masterpiece by Aalto, the Golden Bell lamp

Aalto's sculptural A201 pendant light never goes out of style

More about 'Alvar Aalto' in our blog

5 New Architecture & Design Exhibitions for May 2024 "The Pool – The Origin of Pool Skateboarding" at Aalto2, Jyväskylä, Finland According to Aalto2 The Pool – The Origin of Pool Skateboarding combines "Alvar Aalto’s architectural heritage, international skateboarding culture, rap and hip-hop culture"... One, The Capital – Samples of Jyväskylä Rap, exploring the influence of rap from Central Finland on wider hip-hop culture in Finland, and three exhibitions focussed on skateboarding: Colors with its reflections on skateboarding, skate culture, from the perspective of Lizzie Armanto; Concrete Currents with its skateboarding photography by Arto Saari; and, and getting to the heart of the matter, or more accurately the kidney of the matter, From the Surf to the Sidewalk – When Skateboarding Culture and Architecture Meet with its central argument that the organic form, that characteristic free flowing outline, Alvar Aalto developed for the swimming pool of the late 1930s Villa Mairea in Noormarkku is...

Mimesis. A Living Design at the Centre Pompidou-Metz

...And a third detour to two presentations of chaise longues, one of, essentially, pre-War, analogue, works by Bruno Mathsson, Hans J Wegner and Alvar Aalto... 39 to Alvar aalone, and indeed ascribing all the Aalto works featured to Alvar aalone, while noting in a text with the heading Alvar Aalto "...

5 New Architecture & Design Exhibitions for November 2020

...Alvar Aalto’s Museum Designs" at the Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyväskylä, Finland Alvar Aalto developed his first musem project in 1928 for a local museum in Perniö, a project that remains unrealised... Between the two standing a further 11 museum projects, both realised and unrealised, and thus an ongoing occupation with museum planning and design that spans all periods of his career, all periods in the development of his formal, structural, material, aesthetic understandings, and thus his museum designs would appear to offer a concise yet comprehensive conduit via which to approach a better understanding of Alvar Aalto...

5 Online Architecture & Design Exhibitions for April 2020

...⇶ Design Museum Danmark - furnitureindex Alvar Aalto Foundation - A Stool Makes History Hosted by Goggle Arts and Culture A Stool Makes History is the online version of the Alvar Aalto Foundation's 2013 exhibition of the same name, and despite the unequivocal title, isn't just about Aalto's Stool 60 rather it uses the story of Stool 60 as a conduit via which to explore the work of Alvar and Aino Aalto... And in being such not only helps one approach a better understanding of just how much research, revolution and design is contained within the inconspicuous looking Stool 60, but also allows for the briefest of insights into the person of Otto Korhonen, director of the manufacturer Huonekalutehdas Korhonen and whose technical knowledge was so important in the development of the Aaltos' bent wood furniture; of the Aaltos' Paimio Sanatorium, a defining project in the development of Aino and Alvar Aalto, and a not irrelevant project in our current times; of how and why Artek came to be; but for all as reminder that back in the day it was Aino and Alvar Aalto, Alvar's predominance in the partnership being a largely post-war phenomenon...

Echoes - 100 Years in Finnish Design and Architecture @ Felleshus, The Nordic Embassies, Berlin

...Presenting a mix of objects and photographs from across decades and genres, Echoes presents everything you would wish and expect to find in such an exhibition: Alvar Aalto ✔; Ilmari Tapiovaara ✔; Oiva Toikka ✔; Marimekko ✔; Tapio Wirkkala ✔; Liquorice ✔; Harri Koskinen ✔; Ice Hockey ✘; Eero Aarnio ✔; etc ✔; etc ✔; etc ✔; in addition to objects and projects which when perhaps not enjoying such a global popular appeal, help explain Finland and Finnish architecture/design, including, and amongst many others, Lahtiset felt boots, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland Maternity Package, The Futuro House by Matti Suuronen and a pair Nokia Hai wellington boots...

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