Alvar Aalto, Architect and Monumental Artist – that was the name of the first studio which Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto opened in 1923, while he was still studying at Helsinki University of Technology. Before that he already had an experience of designing his parents’ entire house. Since then his professional, successful career growth started.
Soon his first wife, Aino Marsio, also an architect, joined him, so they developed business together. At the same time, they designed their new house in Helsinki, the Villa Aalto. House was designed to be their office as well. Later, during the 1950’s, due to the increased amount of work, Alvar designed separate studio with his second wife, architect Elissa Mäkiniemi. He named it simply Studio Aalto. Today Villa Aalto is a museum, while the Studio Aalto is in hands of the Alvar Aalto Academy.
The Pioneer of Nordic Modernism
Among his first architectural works Alvar Aalto included numerous private projects as well, such as family houses and summer houses, but he also successfully worked on functional solutions for business clients. First works, in accordance with his traditional education, were classical. They belonged to Nordic Classicism inspired by national romanticism heritage.
Besides projects for his family, cousins and friends, he was responsible for several public facilities at the time, such as Jyväskylä Workers’ Club (1925), Jyväskylä Defence Corps building (1926) and Seinäjoki Defence Corp building (1924–1929).
His work became more expressive and more conceptual thus. His Villa Mairea from 1939 was an example of such a design. Significant projects followed, like Baker House within Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA (1946-49), and then Säynätsalo Town Hall (1952), Rautatalo office building (1955), Vuoksenniska Church (1959) and Finlandia Hall (1973) in Finland.
For his contribution to architecture he received numerous awards, among which were Prince Eugen Medal in 1954, RIBA Gold Medal in1957, and AIA Gold Medal in 1963.
Art Inspired by Nature
During his multi-decade long career Aalto projected more than 200 buildings, but was equally successful as furniture and interior objects designer. Vast number of items that he designed became symbols of Scandinavian modernism and are still in production.
Alvar Aalto found the inspiration in nature and his own surrounding and he was prone to using natural materials. He used to say that every piece of furniture which is directly in contact with human body simply had to be made of natural material. That was one thing he couldn’t compromise with.
He was excellent with any material that he worked with, whether it was wood, metal, glass or fabric. However he was especially remembered for experimenting with pressing and bending of laminate. Using this technique his items got original, twisted and sculptural shapes.
“It’s not an art to take and copy everything from tradition or past, it’s necessary to take the material and energy from nature and respond with the work of art, bringing your own psychical energy into it. We are prone to take everything from nature without giving anything in return. That’s not good – it can take a revenge on us.” Alvar Aalto said, as stated in a book Design and designers of the 20th century, written by Radmila Milosavljevic and Marijana Milosavljevic.
That’s why he, as a contribution to the beauties of nature and inspired by water waves, designed one of the most famous vases in history. It was the glass, wavy Savoy Vase. He designed it together with his wife Aino, for the occasion of opening the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki. The vase delighted everyone. Decorators regarded it as very inspirational, so much that they exposed it as a decoration. On some other instances several vases were put together along their wavy lines, while others were placed with flower bouquets.
Although it was in 1937, the vase is still one of the most impressive examples of Alvar Aalto’s authentic style. Finnish glass factory Karhula-Littala that produced the Savoy Vase even won the award at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937, within the International glass exhibition. It was often simply called Aalto Vase and it’s interesting that the word “aalto” in Finnish means “wave” which in this case has multiple symbolism.
The Savoy Vase was later produced in whole spectrum of colors, in different sizes and shapes. It is still produced according to the original Alvar’s design by the same glass factory – Littala from the Finnish town of Littala.
Between humanism and materialism
As for the furniture design, Alvar Aalto’s approach was under great influence of Bauhaus artists and designers, marked with functionality to a large degree. His solutions were characterized mostly by intuitive design and synthesis of playful and pragmatic ideas. After his honeymoon in Italy, and later Mediterranean journeys, the influence of Renaissance in his work increased.
He liked to use unusual forms, play with sound and light and experiment with materials, but always making the final product functional above all.
Rational approach to architecture is best seen in his projects for Paimio Sanatorium which was built from 1929 until 1933, as well as Viipuri City Library from 1927 until 1935. He also designed the interior and all furniture for his architectural solutions, connecting practical and aesthetic side but leaving a personal touch as well.
That’s how Paimio Chair was made, one of the most famous chairs of Alvar Aalto. The wavy lines of its armrest remind of waviness seen in the Savoy Vase. The seat was made of molded plywood and was skillfully fitted into the frame so it seems like the chair is floating.
Chairs, armchairs, tables, lamps and other furniture designed by Alvar Aalto have been produced by the Artek Company since 1935. Alvar and Aino Aalto, together with their patron Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl, founded the Company with a wish to distribute furniture and promote modern living culture through exhibitions and educative programs. Artek is still doing business successfully in Helsinki and Tokyo and is leading a separate platform for furniture restoration.
Alvar Aalto was not only one of the most recognized architects and designers in Europe, but was also extremely appreciated in America. New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) organized several exhibitions in his honor. The first one under the name Alvar Aalto: Architecture and Furniture was presented in 1938. In 1984, MoMA organized an exhibition dedicated to his furniture design and glass work – Alvar Aalto: Furniture and Glass. On centenary of his birth in 1998, a huge retrospective was arranged – Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism including original drawings, sketches and architectural models display.
Alvar Aalto – the giant of Finnish nation
With his extreme devotion to urbanism and rational planning, Alvar Aalto left a deep mark on Finnish and Scandinavian architectural scene. The fact that he is considered to be one of the nation’s giants supports this. That’s how Aalto University in Helsinki, founded in 2010 by merging Helsinki University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics and University of Art and Design Helsinki, got its name in the honor of his contribution to national architecture and urban culture.
The University’s seat, designed by Alvar Aalto himself, is within the campus in the town of Otaniemi. It consists of six schools with 17,500 students.
On their own initiative, students started the Aalto Design Factory, Aalto Ventures Program and Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (also known as Aaltoes) with the goal to increase the support to students with entrepreneurial ideas who wanted to develop companies of their own. It resulted in numerous innovative solutions and only in few years made Finland become one of the countries with the most developed start-up system in the world. Aalto University set the foundation for experimental education system in a way. It proved to be very successful connecting science, art and business society in Finland and making breeding ground for modern education, multidisciplinary research and progressive development. These are the exact principles on which Alvar Aalto based his whole career.
Featured image: Alvar Aalto by Anonimus [Public domain] / cropped from original