This is the sixth installment in our Designer of the Week series. Last week we had Poul Henningsen.
The feature image credits go to the Finnish Design Shop.

We believe Finland to be the second biggest producer of influential mid-century modern designers after Denmark, many of which have been forgotten by most mid-century modern blogs. To start paying homage to them, today we’d like to present the story of a designer that was almost forgotten.

Aino Maria Mandelin is usually mentioned alongside her husband, Alvar Aalto, in a too familiar case of female erasure from the annals of mid-century modern design. She was born in Helsinki in 1984, a time when Finland was a Grand Duchy, subservient to the Russian Empire, which means that she would live to see her country’s establishment as a republic, an event that took place in 1917. She was, at this time, studying to become an architect, and she graduated from Helsinki’s Institute of Technology in 1920.

Aino Aalto (right) in Finland. (C) Tony Fretton.

In 1923, she moved to the city of Jyväskylä, where she worked at the office of Gunnar Achilles Wahlroos, a famous architect. She only stayed there for a year, and later began working on the offices or architect Alvar Aalto. This would be the beginning of a long partnership, as most internet outlets describe it, but Aino had her own body of work, though she wouldn’t start producing furniture until a few years later.

Early work and style

We should add that, even though Alto’s work did suffer from erasure, many sources claim that their relationship was extremely bent on equality. To be fair, she does appear alongside her male counterpart (as an equal) in most famous stores and official publications.

The living room at the Aalto House. (C) Maija Holma/Alvar Aalto Museum.

However, she gets less mentioned by name (in my opinion) than certain designers like Ray Eames. The Aaltos don’t really enjoy the ‘famous couple’ status that the Eameses have in America, and they’re usually still separated in the media, with Alvar being the face you get to see most of the time.

Aino’s drive and inspiration greatly differed from that of her husband’s, nonetheless. She has been described as a strict functionalist, and a pioneer of practicality and comfortable living. Her style, in the mid-century modern context, was very minimalistic and concerned with simplicity. She married Aalto only a year after they met, in 1925, and his office became their office.

She collaborated in all of their projects, mostly overseeing the interior design and furniture part, but never neglecting architecture. After a few successes, her style started to flourish in their work. The couple’s summer home from 1926 would become the first haven for her creative expression.

Artek’s Side Table 606 is often attributed to Alvar, but it was Aino who designed it.
(C) Danish Design Store.

Founding Artek

In the 30’s, Aino began to collaborate on even more projects, and the ideas for her tables and glassware started to make some appearances. Emboldened by their own success, the couple decided to allow themselves a lot more creative freedom, and they ended up founding their own company, called Artek, in 1935.

Wikipedia attributes the interior design of the couple’s famous Villa Mairea (1937) to her, and her work with the furniture for the Paimio Sanatorium. However, most of the links you’ll find on both places heavily feature Alvar and sideline Aino.

Aino’s glassware style of industrial design. Photo from Quintessenza Design.

You can still see her distinctive style when you look at the abundance of curves, L-shapes, and (most of all) the sheer simplicity and lack of wastefulness. These features are, to me, as characteristic of Aino as they are of Alvar, even if the latter seems to get most of the credit.

We hope the links we’ve provided can give you some more personal insight on Aino, and anyone is bound to eventually find better sources than the ones we’ve got from a couple Google searches. If that’s the case, be sure to send them to me via email. We’d really like to take a look at them. Hopefully, this short piece is enough to get some people to meet the woman behind the last name.