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Who was Alvar Aalto and What was his Impact on Design?

Alvar Aalto was a Finnish architect, city planner, and furniture designer whose international reputation rests on a distinctive blend of modernist refinement, indigenous materials, and personal expression in form and detail.  His impact ranges from innovating the use of bent plywood to developing the field of modernism. 

His work includes architecture, furniture, textiles and glassware, as well as sculptures and paintings. He never regarded himself as an artist, seeing painting and sculpture as “branches of the tree whose trunk is architecture.” Aalto’s early career ran in parallel with the rapid economic growth and industrialization of Finland during the first half of the 20th century. Many of his clients were industrialists, among them the Ahlström-Gullichsen family. The span of his career, from the 1920s to the 1970s, is reflected in the styles of his work, ranging from Nordic Classicism of the early work, to a rational International Style Modernism during the 1930s to a more organic modernist style from the 1940s onwards.

Typical for his entire career is a concern for design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, in which he – together with his first wife Aino Aalto – would design the building, and give special treatment to the interior surfaces, furniture, lamps and glassware. His furniture designs are considered Scandinavian Modern, in the sense of a concern for materials, especially wood, and simplification but also technical experimentation, which led him to receiving patents for various manufacturing processes, such as bent wood. As a designer he is celebrated as the inventor of bent plywood furniture. The Alvar Aalto Museum, designed by Aalto himself, is located in what is regarded as his home city Jyväskylä.

 

Alvar Aalto’s Life and Career 

His father, Johan Henrik Aalto, was a Finnish-speaking land-surveyor and his mother, Selma Matilda “Selly”was a Swedish-speaking postmistress. When Aalto was 5 years old, the family moved to Alajärvi, and from there to Jyväskylä in Central Finland. He studied at the Jyväskylä Lyceum school, where he completed his basic education in 1916, and took drawing lessons from local artist Jonas Heiska. In 1916, he then enrolled to study architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology. 

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Aalto’s architectural studies at the Technical Institute of Helsinki were interrupted by the Finnish War of Independence, in which he participated. He fought on the side of the White Army and fought at the Battle of Länkipohja and the Battle of Tampere. Following his graduation in 1921, Aalto toured Europe and upon his return began practice in Jyväskylä, in central Finland. He built his first piece of architecture while a student; a house for his parents at Alajärvi.  In the summer of 1922 he began military service, finishing at Hamina reserve officer training school, and was promoted to reserve second lieutenant in June 1923. In 1927 he moved his office to Turku, where he worked in association with Erik Bryggman until 1933, the year in which he moved to Helsinki. In 1925 he married Aino Marsio, a fellow student, who served as his professional collaborator until her death in 1949. The couple had two children.

In 1920, while a student, Aalto made his first trip abroad, travelling via Stockholm to Gothenburg, where he briefly found work with architect Arvid Bjerke. In 1922, he accomplished his first independent piece at the Industrial Exposition in Tampere. In 1923, he returned to Jyväskylä, where he opened an architectural office under the name ‘Alvar Aalto, Architect and Monumental Artist’. At that time he wrote articles for the Jyväskylä newspaper Sisä-Suomi under the pseudonym Remus. During this time, he designed a number of small single-family houses in Jyväskylä, and the office’s workload steadily increased. On 6 October 1924, Aalto married architect Aino Marsio. Their honeymoon in Italy was Aalto’s first trip there, though Aino had previously made a study trip there. The latter trip together sealed an intellectual bond with the culture of the Mediterranean region that remained important to Aalto for life. On their return they continued with several local projects, notably the Jyväskylä Worker’s Club, which incorporated a number of motifs which they had studied during their trip, most notably the decorations of the Festival hall modelled on the Rucellai Sepulchre in Florence by Leon Battista Alberti.

The years 1927 and 1928 were significant in Aalto’s career. He received commissions for three important buildings that established him as the most advanced architect in Finland and brought him worldwide recognition as well. These were the Turun Sanomat Building (newspaper office) in Turku, the tuberculosis sanatorium at Paimio, and the Municipal Library at Viipuri (now Vyborg, Russia). His plans for the last two were chosen in a competition, a common practice with public buildings in Finland. Both the office building and the sanatorium emphasize functional, straightforward design and are without historical stylistic references. They go beyond the simplified classicism common in Finnish architecture of the 1920s, resembling somewhat the building designed by Walter Gropius for the Bauhaus school of design in Dessau, Ger. (1925–26). Like Gropius, Aalto used smooth white surfaces, ribbon windows, flat roofs, and terraces and balconies.

 

After winning the architecture competition for the Southwest Finland Agricultural Cooperative building in 1927, the Aaltos moved their office to Turku. They had made contact with the city’s most progressive architect, Erik Bryggman before moving. They began collaborating with him, most notably on the Turku Fair of 1928–29. Aalto’s biographer, Göran Schildt, claimed that Bryggman was the only architect with whom Aalto cooperated as an equal.  With an increasing quantity of work in the Finnish capital, the Aaltos’ office moved again in 1933 to Helsinki.

 

What Made Alvar Aalto’s Design so Unique?

Although he is sometimes regarded as among the first and most influential architects of Nordic modernism, closer examination reveals that Aalto (while a pioneer in Finland) closely followed and had personal contacts with other pioneers in Sweden, in particular Gunnar Asplund  and Sven Markelius. What they, and many others of that generation in the Nordic countries shared, was a common classical education and an approach to classical architecture, that historians now call Nordic Classicism. It was a style that had been a reaction to the previous dominant style of National Romanticism before moving, in the late 1920s, towards Modernism. 

The shift in Aalto’s design approach from classicism to modernism is epitomised by the Viipuri Library in Vyborg (1927–35), which went through a transformation from an originally classical competition entry proposal to the completed high-modernist building. His humanistic approach is in full evidence in the library: the interior displays natural materials, warm colours, and undulating lines. Due to problems about financing and a change of site, the Viipuri Library project lasted eight years. During that time he designed the Standard Apartment Building (1928–29) in Turku, Turun Sanomat Building (1929–30) and Paimio Sanatorium (1929–32). A number of factors heralded Aalto’s shift towards modernism: on a personal level, Aalto’s increased familiarization of international trends, especially after travelling throughout Europe, but in terms of completed projects it was the client of the Standard Apartment Building giving Aalto the opportunity to experiment with concrete prefabrication, the cutting-edge Corbusian form language of the Turun Sanomat Building, and these were then carried forward both in the Paimio Sanatorium and in the ongoing design for the library. While these early Functionalist works by Aalto bear hallmarks of influences from Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and other key modernist figures of central Europe, in all these buildings Aalto nevertheless started to show his individuality in a departure from such norms with the introduction of organic references.

His reputation grew in the US following the invitation to hold a retrospective exhibition of his works at the MOMA in New York in 1938, which was his visit to the US. The significance of the exhibition – which later went on a 12-city tour of the country – is in the fact that he was the second-ever architect – after Le Corbusier – to have a solo exhibition at the museum. During the 1930s Alvar spent some time experimenting with laminated wood, sculpture and abstract relief, characterized by irregular curved forms. Utilizing this knowledge he was able to solve technical problems concerning the flexibility of wood and also of working out spatial issues in his designs. Aalto’s early experiments with wood and his move away from a purist modernism would be tested in built form with the commission to design Villa Mairea (1939) in Noormarkku, the luxury home of young industrialist couple Harry and Maire Gullichsen. The design of the house is a synthesis of numerous stylistic influences, from traditional Finnish vernacular to purist modernism, as well as influences from English and Japanese architecture. While the house is clearly intended for a wealthy family, Aalto nevertheless argued that it was also an experiment that would prove useful in the design of mass housing.

In the 1950s Aalto immersed himself in sculpting: wood, bronze, marble or mixed media. Among notable works from this period is the memorial to the Battle of Suomussalmi (1960). Located on the battlefield, it consists of a leaning bronze pillar on a pedestal. Whereas Aalto was famous for his architecture, his furniture designs were well thought of and are still popular today. He studied Josef Hoffmann and the Wiener Werkstätte, and for a period of time, worked under Eliel Saarinen. He also gained inspiration from Gebrüder Thonet. During the late 1920s and 1930s he, working closely with Aino Aalto, also focusing much of his energy on furniture design, partly due to the decision to design much of the individual furniture pieces and lamps for the Paimio Sanatorium. Of particular significance was the experimentation in bent plywood chairs, most notably the so-called Paimio chair, which had been designed for the sitting tuberculosis patient, and the Model 60 stacking stool. The Aaltos, together with visual arts promoter Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl founded the Artek company in 1935, ostensibly to sell Aalto products but also other imported products. He became the first furniture designer to use the cantilever principle in chair design using wood.

Aalto, whose work exemplifies the best of 20th-century Scandinavian architecture, was one of the first to depart from the stiffly geometric designs common to the early period of the modern movement and to stress informality and personal expression. His style is regarded as both romantic and regional. He used complex forms and varied materials, acknowledged the character of the site, and gave attention to every detail of building. Aalto achieved an international reputation through his more than 200 buildings and projects, ranging from factories to churches, a number of them built outside Finland. He is perhaps best know outside of Northern Europe for his furniture, a legacy that continues to increase in value over time. 

Alvar Aalto’s 10 Most Iconic Designs 

1. Jyväskylä University Building (1951)

Jyväskylä, a city whose status as the center of Finnish culture and academia during the nineteenth century earned it the nickname “the Athens of Finland,” awarded Alvar Aalto the contract to design a university campus worthy of the city’s cultural heritage in 1951. Built around the pre-existing facilities of Finland’s Athenaeum, the new university would be designed with great care to respect both its natural and institutional surroundings.

The city of Jyväskylä was by no means unfamiliar to Aalto; he had moved there as a young boy with his family in 1903 and returned to form his practice in the city after qualifying as an architect in Helsinki in 1923. He was well acquainted with Jyväskylä’s Teacher Seminary, which had been a bastion of the study of the Finnish language since 1863. Such an institution was eminently important in a country that had spent most of its history as part of either Sweden or Russia. As such, the teaching of Finnish was considered an integral part of the awakening of the fledgling country’s national identity.

Aalto’s entry, entitled ‘URBS,’ laid out the campus buildings in a large U-shape, the center of which contains the sports field and a number of tree-lined circulation paths. This inner sanctum of the university was closed off to vehicular  traffic, reserving the space for pedestrians. Each new building was equipped with two entrances, serving as conduits from the city to the more discreet court. Although Aalto chose to shelter the inner campus, he took care to ensure that the university would still interact with Jyväskylä in a meaningful way. The university is accessed via a diagonal road that leads to the city’s primary commercial thoroughfare, linking directly to the school’s main entryway. The campus as a whole is seemingly created to give the impression of a community built incrementally over time. The same interest in Italian hill towns that informed the festival hall staircases influenced the overall aesthetic of the university’s new buildings: shed roofs and brick walls rose across the entire campus, with each one recessing to form partially open courtyards.

 

2. Muuratsalo Experimental House (1953)

Soon after the passing of his wife in 1949, Alto began the design for a summer getaway for himself on the western shore of island Muuratsalo, Finland. Through the process of designing the house, it became an experimental study of materiality, architecture construction and philosophies. The most basic understanding of the house is it’s courtyard scheme which focuses inwards on the space while also directing careful views of the nearby Lake Paijanne. The walls of this courtyard reflect the very nature of the experimental home, as there are more than fifty different types of bricks which are arranged in various patterns. This allowed Aalto to test the aesthetics of different arrangements while also monitoring how they reacted in the rough climate. 

Testing concepts like foundation systems, free-form brick construction, and passive solar heating, Aalto was comfortable exploring materiality because he only used the residence part time. The interior of the house holds a raised loft area which was to function as a painting studio. This is supported by large wooden beams which hold the space in tension. Like all of Aalto’s architecture, the surrounding landscape measuring 53650 square meters plays a critical role in the experience of the architecture. Boulders and stones which are covered with moss, bilberry and lingonberry bushes add a beautiful contrast to the brick and white colors of the house. A fire pit digs into the center of the courtyard, becoming a central gathering space. A feeling of ancient ruins is prevalent with the whitewashed brick walls that rise from the landscape on the hill. Adding to this ancient feel, vines wrap and stretch across the surfaces of the dwelling which reveals its age.

 

3. Maison Louis Carré (1959)

In the commune of Bazoches-sur-Guyonnes, about 40 kilometers southwest of Paris, sits one of the most important private houses designed by Alvar Aalto: Maison Louis Carré. The client, Louis Carré, was a prominent French art dealer who was also very interested in architecture. He desired a house that would be able to accommodate many guests for art viewings, but also incorporated a private component. He commissioned Aalto to design his house in 1956, and Louis Carré and his wife, Olga, were able to move into their new home three years later.

Aalto took great care in designing the total experience of Maison Louis Carré. In order to reach the house from first entering the site, one must walk up the sloping path to the top of the hill. This long path, as well as its distance away from Paris, gives the house a private, sanctuary-like feeling. Aalto specifically placed the house at the top of the site, providing ideal views to the south. The main exterior feature is the gradual sloping of the roof, which almost appears as an extension of the hill below.The materials used in Maison Louis Carré were purposefully chosen. The exterior is a clean-cut, white-rendered brick. The stone is local sandstone, the same stone used for Chartres Cathedral twenty kilometers away. Pinewood from Finland is used on the interior, while vertical wooden louvers are occasionally revealed on the exterior as well and most prominently at the main entrance. 

Maison Louis Carré is a residence that combines both public and private life. Guests enter through the main entrance and are confronted with a large wall used for displaying art, an important feature for Louis Carré. Guests are then directed down the wide Venetian stairway into the living room through careful design techniques by Aalto, such as the slight organic curve of the ceiling. This spacious living room contains large windows that span the entire length of the wall, providing views of the grassy hill and, today, a large woodland. Other public spaces of the house include a small library attached to the living room and a dining room on the opposite end of the entrance hall. The elegance of Maison Louis Carré is undeniable, from its materials to its exquisite detailing. It is Aalto’s only remaining building in France and was classified as an important historic building in 1996. 

 

4. Paimio Sanatorium (1933)

The building completed in 1933 as Paimio Sanatorium was of key importance to the international career of architects Alvar and Aino Aalto. Together with Vyborg (Viipuri) Library, completed two years later, it gave the Aaltos an international profile. Finnish architecture was no longer merely the receiver of influences from outside. The building served exclusively as a tuberculosis sanatorium until the early 1960s, when it was converted into a general hospital. Aalto’s starting point for the design of the sanatorium was to make the building itself a contributor to the healing process. He liked to call the building a “medical instrument”. For instance, particular attention was paid to the design of the patient bedrooms: these generally held two patients, each with his or her own cupboard and washbasin. Aalto designed special silent basins, so that the patient would not disturb the other while washing. Aalto placed the lamps in the room out of the patients’ line of vision and painted the ceiling a relaxing grayish green so as to avoid glare. Each patient had their own specially designed cupboard, fixed to the wall and off the floor so as to aid in cleaning beneath it.

Over the years, the hospital buildings have been altered considerably, but the key characteristics of the architecture and much of the original furniture have been preserved. In recent years, hospital functions have been transferred elsewhere and a new use has been sought for the building.

 

5. Säynätsalo Town Hall

Occupying the center of a small farming town in Finland, Säynätsalo’s Town Hall might appear almost too monumental for its context. Designed by Alvar Aalto in 1949, the town hall is a study in opposition: elements of classicism and the monumental blended with modernity and intimacy to form a cohesive new center-point for the community. These and other aspects of the design initially proved somewhat divisive, and the Town Hall has not been without controversy since its inception.

Aalto’s winning proposal for the project follows the traditional European court-and-tower model of a civic center. The complex consists of two wood-framed brick buildings: the rectangular library block and the U-shaped government building. These two buildings act as a retaining wall that allowed Aalto to fill the central courtyard with earth excavated from the slope of the site; thus, the courtyard is lifted one story above the surrounding landscape.This difference in elevations creates two contrasting experiences of the building, depending on whether one is inside the courtyard or observing from outside. Inside the courtyard, the facades of the surrounding library and office spaces are only one story tall; however, outside observers instead see an imposing two-story facade, much of which is monolithic, unornamented brick. The two staircases leading up to the courtyard from ground level are likewise divergent in style. Despite its Modernist aesthetic, Säynätsalo Town Hall has been heavily influenced by Renaissance and Medieval Italian architecture. The tower does not only allude to its counterpart in Siena; combined with the courtyard arrangement below, but also antecedents like Piazza San Marco in Venice, as well. 

 

6. Seinäjoki Center

This building is the administrative and cultural center of the City of Seinäjoki, Finland. It comprises six buildings, designed by Alvar Aalto and mainly completed between 1960 and 1968. The center represents one of Aalto’s most important works and is notable in Finland and even internationally as an architectural whole. The wooden plan of the center is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

An architectural competition was organized in 1951 for the design of Seinäjoki’s new church. Aalto’s entry, named “Cross Of The Plains”, won the competition, even though it exceeded the area set in the competition rules. It took several years before construction started; the church was eventually built between 1957 and 1960. In 1958, as the church was being built, the town of Seinäjoki organized another architectural competition for the design of a new town hall for a site next to the church. Alvar Aalto and his wife, Elissa Aalto, won the follow-up competition in 1959, which also included plans for a library, a theatre, and a state office building. The building is angular, dynamic, and creates a conversation between many different natural materials. The shiny black tiling all over the building combined with the wood slats and door frames creates a sense of contrast and texture, that blends with the grass carpeted stairway leading to the doors. 

 

7. House of Culture

Originally built as the headquarters for the Finnish Communist Party, the House of Culture has since established itself as one of Helsinki’s most popular concert venues. Comprising a rectilinear copper office block, a curved brick auditorium, and a long canopy that binds them together, the House of Culture represents the pinnacle of Alvar Aalto’s work with red brick architecture in the 1950s. Aalto’s office was busy with a substantial workload when design work commenced on the House of Culture in 1955. Numerous other designs were still on the drawing board, ranging from a studio house in Helsinki to a large concert hall in Oulu. Meanwhile, construction was ongoing on multiple other projects designed by the office – including the first phase of the Pedagogical University at Jyväskylä. However, it was the House of Culture that would emerge as perhaps the most memorable design to come out of Aalto’s practice that year. 

On the left side of the plaza is the undulating brick edifice of the auditorium. Constructing such an irregular form out of brick required extensive experimentation; a particular unit had to be capable of forming both concave and convex walls of varying radii. The resulting bricks were not rectangular but fanned, each forming a small segment of a circle. Rounded corners allowed for greater ease of assembly, more complex play of light across the surface of the facade, and even helped to protect against fractures in the walls. Visitors enter the auditorium wing by way of a vast, sweeping lobby which follows the curve of the seating in the auditorium itself. Three flights of stairs lead up and out of the lobby, their bronze handrails gleaming under the curving banks of lights above. 

Standing in silent rebuttal to the sinuous, irregular curves of the auditorium is the administrative block. “Block” is an appropriate term for the firmly rectilinear office wing, which is also surfaced in copper instead of the unique bricks that make up its neighbor. The building’s relatively austere, formal nature is suited to its use for bureaucratic affairs, as opposed to the public gatherings in the auditorium across the plaza.

 

8. Stephanuskirche (1968)

Stephanuskirche, translated to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Stephen, was designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1968. It is located in Wolfsburg, Germany, the same town that Aalto’s Wolfsburg Cultural Center was built. Stephanuskirche is among the prominent architectural testimonies of International Modernism in Germany.

Stephanuskirche is considered a modern religious building and is a return to the late work of Aalto’s functionalism of the 1930s. It is located on a slight hill in the middle of the urban life of Wolfsburg. The side of the building that faces the shopping center has a facade clad in Carrara marble and is completely windowless, having a symbolic meaning as it opposes the bustle of the mall beyond it.

On the east side, a freestanding bell tower rests on whitewashed concrete columns.  Aalto originally planned for twelve columns, but only nine were constructed. The back is composed of various sized cubes that are asymmetrically staggered up the hill. These cubes make up the community center and include offices, a library, club room, kitchen, and common rooms. Stephanuskirche does not compete with the high-rises in terms of size, but it is still a distinct urban landmark due to its façade treatment. The simple white-painted interior contains 250 individual wooden chairs and can hold up to 600 visitors. The high ceiling is covered in unique round, wooden sound reflectors. The altar made of Carrara marble rests at the north end of the trapezoidal plan.

 

9. Viipuri Library (1935)

Despite being one of the seminal works of modern Scandinavian architecture, Alvar Aalto’s Viipuri Library languished in relative obscurity for three-quarters of a century until its media breakthrough in late 2014. Its receipt of the World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize for a recent renovation was covered by news outlets around the world, bringing the 1935 building previously unseen levels of attention and scrutiny.

This renaissance is nothing less than extraordinary. Abandoned for over a decade and allowed to fall into complete disrepair, the building was once so forgotten that many believed it had actually been demolished. For decades, architects studied Aalto’s project only in drawings and prewar black-and-white photographs, not knowing whether the original was still standing, and if it was, how it was being used. Its transformation from modern icon to deserted relic to architectural classic is a tale of political intrigue, warfare, and the perseverance of a dedicated few who saved the building from ruin.

Viipuri was at that time a thriving industrial and commercial port city located near the country’s volatile Eastern border with the U.S.S.R. Construction ended in 1935, but its residency in Finland was to be short-lived. The Finnish government officially ceded Viipuri to the Soviet Union by treaty after the Winter War of 1939-40, upon which it was recaptured by Finnish troops during World War II and then retaken by the Soviets in 1944. Located in the center of the fighting and largely evacuated by its population, Viipuri lost well over half of its buildings to war and most that remained were heavily damaged. What was once Finland’s second most populous city suddenly became a ghost town, a Soviet boundary outcropping thereafter named Vyborg. Against the odds, the library survived the wars. In the late 1950s, a renewed interest in the town led to the first hasty renovation of the building by Soviet architects who allegedly did not have access to Aalto’s original plans.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Finnish President Tarja Halonen secured joint funding in 2010 for a complete restoration of the library. Refinishing the façade and interior walls in their entirety and meticulously rehabilitating Aalto’s trademark interior details, the renovation brought the building back to life. The circulation of this complex interior arrangement captures the essence of Aalto’s design. Analogizing to a rugged mountain topography defined primarily by changes in elevation, he strove to create a stepped “interweaving of the section and ground plan” and “a kind of unity of horizontal and vertical construction.”

 

10. Riola Parish Church

Riola Parrish Church is a stunning concrete form which mimics and modulates with the contours of its Italian landscape. The magnificent baptistery, completed in 1978, is located eight kilometers south of Bologna in the small town of Riola. Aalto’s evocative modernist architecture captures the spirit of this mountain setting; it is a spiritual structure which, inside and out, unassumingly expresses sanctity of faith and place. The interior chapel’s play on light is especially divine; the northern light is diffused through vertical, asymmetrical ribs, which create a majestic grid of soft light which projects down onto the worshipper.  The presence of light brilliantly transcends the occupier into a holy state. 

The intensified light around the alter is intended to create a close relationship between the functioning spaces of the alter, choir and organ, and the baptistery.  The hexagonal baptistery is occupied by wooden pews that descend in height as they approach the luminous alter.The interior of the church is left moderately unadorned, in modernist style, and instead highlights its architectural arches with natural light from above. The only other window is a sliver of glass which views out toward the adjunct river, the Limentra torrent. The Riola Parish Church is said to be characteristic of Alvar Aalto’s lamps; the architectural ribs which support the light shelves in this structure are reminiscent of the structure used to support the structure of his light fixtures. Is this perhaps the reason this luminous piece of architecture is so brilliant?

 

5 of Alvar Aalto’s Most Famous Furniture Designs

1.Paimio Lounge Chair

For his Paimio Chair, developed in 1931 and one of Aalto’s greatest furniture classics, he was inspired by Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair. The chair, with a seat-back shell made from a single curved piece of wood, was part of the design for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-33).

It is perhaps the best-known piece of furniture by Aalto, named for the town in southwestern Finland for which he designed the sanatorium and all its furnishings. The chair was used in the patients’ lounge; the angle of the back of the armchair was intended to help sitters breathe more easily. Aalto’s bentwood furniture had a great influence on the American designers Charles and Ray Eames and the Finnish-born Eero Saarinen. In 1935 the company Artek was established in Finland to mass-produce and distribute wood furniture designed by Aalto and his wife, Aino. Most of their designs remain in production.

 

2. Stool 60

Alvar Aalto’s iconic Stool 60 is the most elemental of furniture pieces, equally suitable as a seat, a table, storage unit, or display surface.  Despite – or thanks to – its purism and simplicity, it is an undoubted classic and available in countless versions today. And this is also where one of Aalto’s great inventions came into being, the L-leg: a birch wood strut bent into an L-shape which is screwed directly, making complicated wooden connections superfluous. With this new bending technique, which he used for the Stool 60, Aalto achieved a masterpiece that changed the design of wooden furniture. His entire oeuvre ranges from room plans to designs for individual buildings and furnishings. Thanks to its geometry, the stool can be stacked to save space in a spiralling tower sculpture. Manufactured in 42 production steps at the A-Factory in Turku, Finland, Stool 60 is available in a wide variety of colours and finishes. Several million units of Stool 60 and its four-legged cousin, Stool E60, have been sold, making it one of the most cherished products in the history of design.

 

3. Tea Trolley 

The tea trolley was inspired by British tea culture, which Aino and Alvar Aalto had become acquainted with though their many travels, as well as by the Japanese woodwork and architecture they admired. With a frame composed of two birch lamella loops, Tea Trolley 901 features two shelves and a solid birch handle. Twin wheels, in combination with the lightweight quality of birch, mean the trolley can be easily maneuvered and parked at will. Over the years, numerous variations of the Tea Trolley have been produced. Dutch designer and colour expert Hella Jongerius delved into Artek’s archives to offer her own take on one of Alvar Aalto’s most cherished products. Her subtle interventions resulted in a dark version of the trolley, which plays with the shifting light on the product’s upper and lower trays.

 

4. Beehive Pendant Light 

The A331, nicknamed “Beehive,” is one of Alvar Aalto’s most popular lighting designs. Suitable for homes and public spaces alike, “Beehive” creates a warm, diffuse light when switched on, a result of the ingenious design that features several rows of perforated steel rings. True to its nickname, “Beehive” retains its distinctive sculptural presence even when unlit and was originally designed for Finland’s University of Jyväskylä in 1953. Pendant Light A331 has a sculptural quality that commands attention. 

 

5. Day Bed 710

Day Bed 710 models the strength, simplicity, and versatility of Aalto’s L-leg family. The bentwood legs and slatted frame combine to provide a sturdy, lightweight structure that can be moved as necessary. Made of solid birch, the Day Bed 710 invites both sitting and reclining. Beyond the mattress, the day bed can also be accessorised with cushions; both items come with removable covers and are available in a variety of colours and textiles. Undoubtedly, this model influenced so many modern sofas and futons today: it’s simple lines, practical layout and beautiful details. 

 

Probably the most famous Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto really brought Scandinavian design onto the map, creating a legacy that has continued to this day. In some circles, he is more famous for his furniture, while his architecture is really what made an impact in Finland. 

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