Last week we featured Frank Lloyd Wright.
After more than 20 DOTW articles, we were looking to do a little of a return to form. The more recent articles were longer, wordier, and featured both big and not-so-big names in the mid-century furniture industry.
Today we’re going to talk about Mr. Aalto. He was a Finnish architect and furniture designer and a huge representative of the Scandinavian Modern movement, who also saw the likes of Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Eero Aarnio, and many others (with a heavy Bauhaus influence, we might add).
Aalto became so famous in Finland that they even named a university after him. The spirit behind the wood, and into the wood itself. On the website dedicated to his work there’s an epigraph that reads:
My furniture rarely, if ever, arises as the result of professional design. Almost without exception, I have designed it in conjunction with architectural projects, a mixed bag of public buildings, aristocratic residences, and workers’ huts. It’s great fun to design furniture in this way.
Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in Kuortane, Finland, in 1898. He studied architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology from 1916 until 1921, and then opened his first practice in 1923, in the city of Jyväskylä. He then got married and went on to create the Artek company, along with his wifeAino Aalto (who was also a designer).
Much like Knoll or Herman Miller, Artek still stands today .Aalto’s architecture has been described as “distinctively Finnish,” and the artist also translated this form of expression into his furniture, as he himself stated above.
His first modern pieces were created for the tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio, in 1932. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Aalto intended for his furniture designs to match the buildings they were designed for in both aesthetic and function. Three years later, he would set up Artek in an effort to market his wife’s designs, which also included lighting, textiles, and other objects.
As he intended to “learn the language of wood fibers” he devised a new form of plywood design, which he had patented in 1933.
The most iconic chairs in all of Finnish design
What we see when we look at his catalog is, of course, a collection of plywood items, whose fashion reminds us of the Eames couple’s experiments, but Aalto had a different vision, and a different understanding of space. In fact, it is known that his designs heavily influenced the work of the Eameses.
He delved in lighting as well, though his wife surpassed him on this field. His most acclaimed breakthrough came with the Model No. 31 chair, the first plywood furniture item in the world to use laminated wood in a cantilever fashion.
While other plywood designers simply attempted to bend the wood to their particular will (no pun intended), Aalto wanted to solve a much older problem: How can we connect horizontal and vertical pieces of a certain material in a way that looks natural, organic?
His pursuit led him to reject other building materials such as tubular steel (which was very popular) and probably fiberglass. He saw these materials as too artificial, as if they were alien to nature itself.
One of the reasons why he is so celebrated and also unknown in the mid-century furniture spectrum is that he rejected mass production, industrial manufacturing (to a certain degree), and function over form. He was a true naturalist at heart. This philosophy of “organic” modernism, however, led him to become Finland’s favorite architect.