How to spot an Aalto
Interior designer Elysia teaches us about the influential architecture and design work of Alvar Aalto
It begins in Helsinki
I recently enjoyed a trip to Helsinki in Finland where I stumbled upon Alvar Aalto’s genius. He was a Finnish architect born regarded as a pioneer of Nordic design during a career spanning the 1920s -70s.
Alvar Aalto was born in 1898 and on graduating in 1921, he set up his practice in Helsinki. He was renowned internationally for creating over 200 buildings and his office was the most innovative of its time. He was committed to the idea that architecture should be adapted to the surrounding beauty and be functional in design - connection with nature was therefore important to him, as was the use of locally-sourced materials and functional space planning. Aalto’s style is seen as a modern movement, using simple and geometric lines, typically undecorated.
The Aalto University
His largest work is the masterplan for the Aalto University in the 1950s. Named after him, the location is nestled within the Nordic trees on the west side of Helsinki. Poetry by design ties all the buildings together - red brick blocks and interesting interiors that work seamlessly with the environment.
Aino & Elissa Aalto
Aalto was considered to be a genius by critics, however there were two important women beside him that were the heart and creativity of the office. Aalto was married to two women during his lifetime: Aino and Elissa Aalto. They were both impressive figures, and yet their work remains in the shadows of his reputation. They were independent designers in their own right and in addition to taking charge of running his practice, their inputs on his projects was heavily influential.
His first wife Aino Aalto was a Finnish architect. They married in 1924 and set off to Italy for their honeymoon where they were influenced by functional simple architecture and suburban churches. When they returned to Helsinki they founded the furniture company Artek with visual arts promoter Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl. This was a trendsetting store that would be renowned internationally, now seen as the iconic mid century design of North Europe. Aino Aalto died in 1952 yet her impact continued to influence her colleagues and contemporaries long after her death.
Elissa Aalto, Alvars second wife, graduated as an architect in Finland and joined Aalto’s office thereafter. She married Alvar two months later and the pair travelled Europe extensively. Elissa Aalto was head of design for several projects, such as the Saynatsalo Twin Hall and the Murratsalo experimental house. Since the two worked on almost all projects together it is hard to distinguish between their work. However, we do know Elissa Aalto was more focused on the interior design aspects.
The place of ideas
While on my trip in Helsinki we stopped to have a tour of Aalto’s former office. Hidden within a city suburb, the building is slightly hidden from street view and is U-shaped in plan, curved around a small courtyard in the centre. An open space that lets nature in, and where film screenings and project critiques were occasionally held.
The Aaltos loved details, designing for function rather than decoration. The way in which users interacted with a space was important, even down to the door handles - they were specially design to curve inwards so that no clothing got accidentally caught.
The Aaltos experimented with materials, most famously their wood-bending plywood furniture. In 1933, the stacking stool was designed, selling millions for its functionality in design and modern style. Aalto also designed the lighting for all his projects - bespoke and paired elegantly with the architecture. One of the most iconic designs created by Aino Aalto was the nature-inspired glassware that imitates water. It is still in production today and symbolises the simple beauty in Finnish design.
Aalto died in 1976, and his wife Elissa Aalto continued to run the office in Helsinki until she passed away in 1994.
The Aaltos left a huge legacy - mastery in design, and representing an inspiration to many architects and designers in the world. Their forward thinking still has relevance today and is particularly important to sustainable practice.