Designers at Nest: Alvar Aalto
Recognised today as one of the greatest Finnish designers and architects, Alvar Aalto created buildings that healed, furniture that inspired and was one of the founders of the global design brand, Artek.
Born and raised in central Finland, Alvar Aalto became one of the key figures of the modernism movement. Carving out his career at a time when the newly independent Finland was eager to create a unique identity for itself – Aalto went on to create designs that captured the attention of a nation.
By the 1950s, Aalto was so admired in Finland that even aeroplanes would wait for him. It is said he was one of only a few individuals who if they were late for a Finnair flight, the airline would delay take off until they were safely on board. Often, he would turn up deliberately late in order to stage a grand entrance.
A human kind of modernism
“We should work for simple, good, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street.” Alvar Aalto
Despite enjoying his newfound fame, Aalto firmly stuck to his principles that design should be human-focused and accessible to everyone. Designing his architecture with warm humanity - whether it was a public institution or a private home, his buildings stand out for their focus on the human scale, expert detailing and specially designed furniture.
Believing in the concept of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ (a total work of art), Aalto designed everything from furniture and light fittings to moulded glass accessories to sit within his buildings. Alongside his wife Aino, the couple very quickly developed a portfolio of beautiful, functional and affordable pieces of furniture. One of the Aalto’s very first designs, the Paimio Armchair was created in 1931-32 for a hospital for tuberculosis patients in southern Finland.
Bringing wellbeing to the masses
A modern piece of architecture nestled within a forest in southern Finland, the Paimio Sanitorium showed that hospitals don’t have to be stark, cold places. Described as “a cathedral to health and an instrument to healing”, this hospital had consideration for hygiene and healing in every part of the building whilst still being full of personality.
From the sun terraces Aalto added to each floor, to the warm and inviting colours specified for the patients’ bedrooms – this piece of architecture compassionately incorporated the needs of the tuberculosis patients across all levels of the design.
When designing a place for the patients to sit comfortably, Aalto wanted a chair that didn’t look like regular hospital furniture. Due to the fact tuberculosis spreads through bacteria, he needed to create a chair that wouldn’t collect dust and could be easily cleaned. The result was the distinctive moulded plywood form of the Paimio Armchair, a design that has since gained iconic status for its beauty and functionality.
Art & technology
In 1935, Alvar and Aino recognised the potential in their furniture designs and decided to set up a company that let them sell them internationally – Artek. Alongside fellow founders, Marie Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl they created a brand that would last for generations.
With a name derived from combining the words art and technology, innovation has always been high up on the list of priorities for Artek. Something which became a trademark of Aalto’s furniture designs was the unique method of bending wood he patented – a combination of cutting and steaming birch to soften it and allow it to be bent into shape.
This ingenious production method led Aalto to invent the widely copied L-leg, something he described as “the little sister to the architectural column”. Featured as part of the 60 Stool, this revolutionary leg could be attached directly to stool, chairs and tabletops without the needs for any extra joinery, something that was very unusual at the time.
Today, Artek continues to manufacture many of Aalto’s design in the factory in Finland. Using locally sourced Finnish birch, the company combine modern production methods with expert handcraftsmanship to sustainably manufacture furniture, lighting and accessories of only the highest quality.
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