Firefly House

A is for… Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1976)

Put an iconic piece of modernist furniture in front of me, and though I’ll admire it, I can’t always identify the designer or tell you its history. I’m still navigating my way through the icons of the Mid Century Modern movement, but that’s what this blog is all about.

To learn my Eames from my Aalto, this new series is a Designer A – Z, beginning with the most important Finnish architect and designer of the 20th century – Alvar Aalto.

There is a vast amount of information out there already, in books and on the web (I know, I’ve just spent a couple of days reading it) so I won’t try and paraphrase it for this blog.

Instead, my Designer A – Z posts will begin with a very brief overview of their life and philosophy, move swiftly on to their key furniture designs, and finish with a few interesting web links, in case you’d like to find out more. I might even throw in a few interesting facts I’ve picked up along the way.

As always, do let me know what you think, or if you’ve got anything to say regarding the Aalto oeuvre.

Auditorium of the Viipuri Municipal Library

Alvar Aalto was an advocate for design as a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), thus he considered interior design to be an integral part of a building’s architecture.

This approach was exemplified in two of Aalto’s key buildings – the Viipuri Library and the Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium, for which Aalto also designed the interior and furnishings.

His early career was defined by classicism, in particular, Nordic Classicism, but his design approach shifted to modernism in the 1920s with the Viiprui Library – his proposal was in the Nordic Classicism style, while the final building was very much a functionalist, modernist piece of architecture.

Despite Aalto’s modernist-functionalist approach, he rejected the tubular steel furniture designs of his peers, preferring organic, natural materials. This idea is fundamental to Aalto’s design philosophy.

From 1925, he began experimenting with bending plywood and laminated wood, and in 1929, established an experimental plywood workshop in Turku.

These experiments inspired Aalto’s architectural designs, and produced many revolutionary furniture designs, all recognizable by their curvilinear forms.

Aalto Crystal Vases

Another Aalto design instantly recognizable by its curves is the Aalto Vase, created by Alvar and his wife Aino for the luxury Savoy restaurant in Helsinki.

It is said to be inspired by Eskimåkvinnans skinnbyxa (“the Eskimo woman’s leather breeches”).

To meet consumer demand for his designs, in 1935 Aalto co-founded Artek with Aino, Harry and Marie Gullichsen, and Nils-Gustav Hahl.

The Furniture Designs of Alvar Aalto

There are many, many designs – here are but a few, illustrated by some of your photographs on Flickr.

Aalto Stools in an outdoor market
Stool 60 (1933) – This stool is most famous for Aalto’s method of bending solid wood.

Armchair 41 “Paimo chair” (1932), Armchair 406 “Pension” (1939), Armchair 45 (1947)

The Aalto house
X600 stool (1954)

Monkey pants
I think this is an Aalto-inspired chair rather than an Aalto design, but great photo nevertheless.

Chair 611 (1929), H-leg table (1956), Tea trolley 901 (1936) – the sleeve or H-leg method was the last of Aalto’s inventions to be adopted by the furniture industry.

Alvar Aalto model 44 chair
Armchair 44 (1932)

Alvar Aalto
Armchair 41 “Paimo chair” (1932) – named after the Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium in Southwest Finland. The chair was designed to ease the breathing of tuberculosis patients.

The Aalto house
The Aalto House

Aalto stools
Stool E60 (1933)

Did you know?

  • The city of Jyväskylä in Finland has more buildings designed by Alvar than any other city.
  • It is estimated that during his career, Alvar design over 500 buildings, 300 of which were built.
  • The Alvar Aalto medal is considered one of the world’s most prestigious architectural awards.

Further Links

  • Alvar Aalto Foundation
    Looks after the Alvar Aalto archive, incorporating the Alvar Aalto Museum and the Alvar Aalto Academy.
  • MOMA
    Alvar Aalto Collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • Design Museum
    Alvar Aalto at the Design Museum in London.
  • Iitalla
    Produces the Aalto Vase.
  • Artek
    The company founded by Aalto, which still produces his designs.
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One Response to A is for… Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1976)

  1. I absolutely adore his furniture. I’ve never heard or seen his work (although I do recognise armchair 44), but it’s wonderful stuff. Absolutely blown away by the Paimo chair.

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