Born in the Finnish town of Kuortane in 1898, Architect Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto – better known simply as Alvar Aalto – had an impact on the history, and our perception, of modern Finnish architecture surpassing that of almost any other. Looking back over his work is an effortless lesson in the value and content of ‘timeless design,’ in what such a by now devalued term can mean when understood in its fullest, properly ‘holistic’ sense.
Alvar Aalto studied architecture at the University of Technology in Helsinki between 1916-1921, going on after graduating to found and direct an architectural bureau, initially based in Jyväskylä, later in Turku and finally in Helsinki, together with his wife. Aalto’s formal language was initially informed in its fundamentals by Nordic classicism; his travels through Europe, especially in Germany, brought him, however, into ever-closer contact with, among others, Walter Gropius and Hans Sharoun – influences that led him to an increasingly functionalistic understanding of architecture, a tendency evidenced by his admission in 1928 to the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). The Paimio Sanatorium (1929-1933), one of his earliest building designs, is today recognized as a milestone in the history of European architecture and functionalism. The basic stance of Aalto’s work during this period reflected that of the Bauhaus movement, the attempt to realize user-orientated criteria becoming paramount. Aalto’s Sanatorium design was rooted in exactly such an approach, every detail all the way down to the silent washbasins reflecting an understanding of architecture as a universally applicable, fully coherent, integrated and user-orientated art form. Aalto achieved international acclaim in the 1930s with his designs for the Finnish pavilion at the Paris and New York World Exhibitions in 1937 and 1939 respectively.
Alvar Aalto’s Furniture Designs: the E60 Chair
Aalto’s formal language came toward the end of the 1930s under the influence of organic building and he began designing furniture pieces. An demonstrative example of his work from this period, the stackable chair first developed in 1933 as the 60 chair with three legs that later became the E60 chair with four legs, suggests his wider formal understanding of design, functionality and innovation. The piece, which became the first of Aalto’s furniture designs to go into serial production, featured a round veneered birch seat made of layered laminate with white or black varnish, leather or cloth upholstery and four slender birch legs with a gentle curve at the top. Informed by Aalto’s conception of functional elegance, the E60 chair simultaneously demonstrated the designer’s ingenious spirit: in order to create a load-bearing frame, Aalto developed a method of bowing layered birch over hot steam to create a stronger material, a method later adopted and improved upon by furniture manufacturer Korhonen in a collaborative project. The new method, which applied special binding agents, made it possible to dry-press birch with hydraulic presses. The development of this wood-forming technique proved an essential foundation for Aalto’s work as a furniture designer, freeing him – unlike other designers of the period – from the reliance on metal in his designs and allowing him to realize his ideas exclusively in wood.
The E60 chair marked an important departure not only in terms of formal language, materiality and innovation but also in terms of the designer’s personal trajectory, preceding the founding in 1935 of ARTEK by Aalto, his wife Aina, art historian and writer Nils-Gustav Hahl and the grand old lady of Finnish art and craftwork, Maire Gullichsen – figures whose preoccupation with user-orientated functionality, organic design and natural forms dovetailed with Aalto’s own sensibility. The E60 chair consequently became one of the first pieces of furniture to be distributed by ARTEK.
Alvar Aalto, who died in 1976, was involved in approximately 200 projects over the course of his career, personally directing about half of them. His buildings, the details of his designs and every single, seemingly simple piece of furniture carry the viewer further toward an understanding of a conceptual unity of functionality through use, innovation in realization and elegance in design.
Text: Alexandra Klei