Finnish architect and designer, mostly of furniture and glassware, Aalto was a leading figure in mid-twentieth-century modern design. His work dominated the architectural scene in Finland from the late 1920s until his death. Internationally, his fame was secured in the 1930s through his work in international exhibitions and his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in 1938. His work was characterized by a balance struck between the rationalism of the Modern Movement and sensitivity toward natural materials, the environment, and the psycho-emotional needs of the user.
Aalto trained at the Helsinki Technical University from 1916 to 1921. One of his teachers there, Armas Lindgren, a former colleague of Eliel Saarinen, was a leading proponent of National Romanticism. In his training, therefore, Aalto was introduced to the Arts and Crafts principles of the harmony among materials, function, environment, and user that make up the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. Aalto set up his own architectural office in Jyväskylä, the regional town where he had gone to school, in 1923. In 1924, upon their marriage, the office became a joint partnership with Aino Marsio-Aalto, which lasted until her death in 1949. After his second marriage in 1952, he worked in partnership with his second wife, Elissa Aalto.
From early in his career Aalto was receptive to international currents and readily established personal relationships within the international architecture and design community. Aalto’s friendships with the Swedish architects Gunnar Asplund and Sven Markelius made him part of a small circle of architects introducing the principles of Continental European modernism to the Nordic countries. These connections also led, in 1929, to his invitation to join the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) when he attended the second meeting in Frankfurt and the fourth meeting in Athens in 1933. Through CIAM, Aalto became intimate with the leading figures of the International Modern Movement, in particular the critics Sigfried Giedion and Philip Morton Shand, who championed his work in the international arena.
In 1927, the Aaltos moved to Turku. Here the furnishing demands of a number of new projects, including the Paimio Sanatorium and Viipuri Library, led to a long-lasting relationship with the master joiner and furniture manufacturer Otto Korhonen. In collaboration with Korhonen, Aalto developed a number of techniques for laminating and bending wood. These techniques formed the basis for the majority of furniture pieces designed by him and enabled him to develop his own Modernist idiom. The Paimio armchair is one of his most iconic designs. The seat and backrest were formed of a single form-pressed piece of birch laminate. The legs and armrests were composed of continuous curved forms, making the chair both structurally legible and sculpturally arresting. Aalto’s chairs attracted attention at the Milan Triennale of 1933, where he won a gold medal for furniture. They were again critically well received in the Triennale of 1936 and provided the foundation for the international export of Finnish modern design.
The Aaltos moved to Helsinki in 1933. With the support of the wealthy industrialists Maire and Harry Gullichsen, the Aaltos founded Artek in 1935 as a company to promote modern art and design in Finland and market their work abroad. The relationship with Korhonen on the one side and Artek on the other meant Aalto enjoyed a high degree of control over both the manufacturing and retail of his own designs from relatively early on in his career.
Aalto’s exhibition designs for the Finnish Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la vie Moderne, Paris, in 1937, for which he was placed first and second in the design competition (Aino Marsio-Aalto was placed third), provided another important international platform for his work. In the absence of many other Modernist architects, who were not chosen to represent their nations, Aalto’s pavilion attracted a lot of attention. As the designer, Aalto was able to showcase his own designs, such as the Eskimoerindens Skinnbuxa [Eskimo Breeches, now known as Savoy] vases, to great effect.
On the back of this success, Aalto was offered a solo exhibition at MoMA in New York, only the second architect after Le Corbusier to receive this distinction. The 1938 exhibition and catalog, Architecture and Furniture: Aalto, reflected the important role that his furniture designs played in his international image at this time. For the American curator, John McAndrew, Aalto’s use of wood and curvilinear forms marked a newer, gentler, and more “personal” language of modernism, with more appeal to the American public. Aalto was able to assimilate this perspective in his design for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The dramatic, romantic, undulating Aurora Borealis display wall cemented the wave as a motif that would be synonymous with Aalto for the rest of his life.
Aalto’s architectural career flourished in Finland, in large part through important commissions from the Gullichsens. Furniture designs from architectural projects were taken up and developed as part of the Artek range, which established successful markets abroad and public commissions in Finland. In the postwar period, Artek also began to make its mark in the Finnish domestic market. Aalto’s architectural career took on international dimensions and he secured a number of prestigious foreign commissions. Following a brief period as a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940, Aalto returned as a professor from 1945 to 1948. However, his career remained, first and foremost, centered in Finland, where he was responsible for a large number of prominent public buildings, such as the National Pensions Institute (1953–6), the Otaniemi Technical University campus (1962–8), and the Finlandia Hall (1967–75).
Designs for furniture and light fittings remained a continuous part of his practice, though later projects, for example the Rovaniemi Library (1961–8), were often furnished with pieces from his own “back catalog,” such as the no.60 stacking stool originally designed for the Viipuri Library in 1933. The no.60 stool was the work in which Aalto developed the L-leg, bentwood form used as the basis for most of his furniture. The Y-leg of stool no.61 (1946) is composed of twinned L-legs, while the X-leg takes the method further, creating a decorative fan of five elements, based on the L-leg principle. This more refined form first appeared in high-status public commissions in the early 1950s.
Aalto’s status in Finland is reflected in the founding in 1967 of the Alvar Aalto Medal as an international prize for significant contributions made to creative architecture. The Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Finnish Association of Architects award it, and Aalto was the first recipient. Aalto has also been awarded numerous Finnish and international prizes and honorary degrees and fellowships.
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