Alvar Aalto: Effortlessly Modern Design

Artek armchairs, Alvar Aalto Exceptional pair of Artek armchairs, Alvar Aalto 1934. Sold for €97,500 via Artcurial (April 16, 2019).

by Dan Mobbs

“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, London, 1957

The art of creating pieces at the cusp of modern ideas is a challenge that only a handful of artists manage to achieve at any one time, but the ability to create items that maintain an effortless modern appeal for nearly a century is so rare that very few in the past century have succeeded. This is the case for Alvar Aalto though, who is celebrated as the inventor of bent plywood furniture and whose influence on design and architecture will be immediately familiar to many, even if his name doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

Alvar Aalto in 1960 (image via Wikimedia Commons).

Regarded as among the first and most influential architects of Nordic modernism, it’s his techniques for creating bent plywood furniture that mean his work has endured and been imitated and copied by countless high street furniture outlets. Spanning a 50 year career from the 1920s to ’70s, his style was reflective of the time period, and encompassed Nordic Classicism, Modernism, Functionalism and Monumentalism later in his architectural career. Alvar Aalto’s architecture was awarded a RIBA Gold Medal in 1957, but despite his artistic successes, Aalto never considered himself an artist, instead preferring to refer to his work as, “branches of the tree whose trunk is architecture”.

Early career

Born in the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1898 in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Aalto moved as a youngster to the town of Jyväskylä in central Finland where he would one day have a museum in his name. It was here that he first picked up a pen and took drawing lessons from local artist, Jonas Heiska, but he had to fit his education around the Finnish Civil War and the military service that followed until 1923. A year later he married architect Aino Marsio, with whom he worked closely throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, focusing much his energy on furniture design, partly due to a commission to design a series of furniture pieces for the Paimio Sanatorium

It was at Paimio that his desire for “simple, good, undecorated things” which he describes as “in harmony with the human being” came to fruition. This is typified by the now iconic Paimio chair. Designed for sitting tuberculosis patients, the characteristic design is a tour de force in bent wood that tested the limits of plywood manufacturing in the early 1930s and is perhaps his best-known piece of furniture. 

Redefining furniture

Inspired by the architect and designer Marcel Breuer’s Club Chair (1927–28), which was made of tubular steel, Aalto chose native birch for a more natural feel and its insulating properties to help develop a more organic form. Such was its success that it led him to receiving patents for various bent wood manufacturing processes.

This was followed a year later by the Model 60 Stacking Stool, an elemental piece that was equally at home as a seat, table, or display surface and thanks to its versatility it sold in the millions, making it one of the most cherished products in the history of design. In fact, the designs will be recognisable if you’ve ventured into an Apple Store, as the Alvar Aalto Stool E60 and High Stool are still used in the tech giant’s stores across the world.

Critical success

Aalto’s furniture was exhibited in London in 1935 to great acclaim and a year later this knack for creating furniture with universal appeal was repeated with the Armchair 400 (also known as Tank owing to its size), which was created for an exhibition at the Milan Triennale, where it was the Gold Medal. As effortlessly modern today as it was then, the celebrated cantilevered frame design has been patented in a variety of signature designs typical of Alvar Aalto furniture. And, if that cantilevered design was typical of Aalto’s design, the Tea Cart was an exciting peak into his ability to reinterpret the form of a British classic.

Not limited to redefining the use of plywood, he also designed the distinctive Alvar Aalto vase, created with his wife Aino. It has become an internationally lauded piece of Finnish design and is said to have been inspired by the dress of indigenous Sami women. Known as the Savoy Vase, it was one of a range of custom furnishings and fixtures created by Alvar and Aino Aalto for the luxury Savoy restaurant in Helsinki that opened in 1937. The vase was later displayed at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and like so many of his designs it is still in production today.

Enduring appeal

Aalto continued to enjoy acclaim after World War II. He was awarded The Royal Gold Medal for Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1957 and The American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1963.

The Aalto theater in Essen, Germany. Image credit Thomas Robbin via Wikimedia Commons.

Aalto died in 1976, but his appeal remains as his legacy his evident with the creation of the The Alvar Aalto Museum, designed by Aalto himself in Jyväskylä. In 1984, MoMA presented an exhibition devoted to his furniture and glass, Alvar Aalto: Furniture and Glass, followed by a centenary retrospective in 1998. Alvar and Aino’s life-long friendships with artists Alexander CalderFernand Léger and László Moholy-Nagy fostered during their many trips to the Mediterranean were also a great source of mutual inspiration.

But perhaps the biggest sign of his enduring legacy can be found by simply strolling along any high street, where his influence on furniture design can be seen in more places than perhaps you had first realised.