Aalto, Alvar (1898 - 1976)

He is considered to be one of the most important Finnish designers and architects of modern times: Hugo Alvar Hendrik Aalto. Quittenbaum can offer around 100 designs in auction 096A of his and his wife Aino Marsio-Aalto. Among the highlights of the choice one finds the famous ‚Paimio 41’ easy chair (lot 43), made in the late 1940s and the ‚Folk Senna’ easy chair that the architect had created when he started to experiment on moulded laminted wood. The shell is bent, the base of tubular steel (lot 14). The auction displays the whole repertoire of the successful designer: pendant lights, like the decorative ‚Golden bell’ (lots 62, 65), side tables, serving trolleys, vases and glass sets, chairs, comfy chairs, cabinets and sconces he had designed for the Tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio in the beginning of the 1930s.

From 1916 to 1921, Alvar Aalto had studied architecture at the Technical university in Helsinki. After his graduation he worked as exhibition designer and travelled across Europe and Scandinavia. In 1923, he founded his own architectural office in Jyväskylä in the cellar of a hotel and advertised in an endearingly immodest way. A metal badge read: BÜRO ALVAR AALTO FÜR ARCHITEKTUR UND MONUMENTALKUNST (office Alvar Aalto for architecture and monumental art). He hired young architect Aino Marsio (1894-1949), married her in 1924 and they started a very close work relationship. Among the most important architectural projects at the beginning of his career were the ‚Workers’ house’ in Jyväskylä (1924-25), his own home in Turku, the public library of Viipuri (1927-35, today Russia) and the famous Tuberculosis sanatorium at Paimio (1928-33).

Aalto made his break-through as a furniture designer with his bent plywood chairs. As early as the 1920s, he started to experiment on shaping wood and plywood. He examined different kinds of sticking techniques and new ways to shape plywood, together with cabinet maker Otto Korhonen who worked as technical director of Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas Oy. J. & J. Kohn as well as Thonet had been pioneers in this area. But Aalto found his ideals also in the bent tubular steel chairs of Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the end of the 1920s, Aalto created, for example, the ‚50101’ armchair (lot 10) and was awarded a first prize for it at a furniture exhibition in 1930. Aalto thought about his ‚Folk Senna’ chair, one of his earliest designs, named after Erik Gunnar Asplund’s ‚Senna’ chair and made of bent plywood and tubular steel, that it was „the world’s first soft wooden chair (Alvar Aalto, unnumerated). Aalto had designed the chair creating a complete bed chamber furniture. It could be also ordered with a detachable padding.

Aalto’s most outstanding design however was his L-shaped leg for chairs or tables that the well-spoken architect called „the little sister of the column“ (Louna Lahti, 2009, p. 29). Using bent lumbers, one was able to join horizontal and vertical elements easily. There was no need any longer of extra racks or pillars, the legs were joined directly to the bottoms of the seats, for example the three-legged ‚60’ stool (lot 264).

The Tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio, near Turku, was the most complete work of Aalto together with his wife Aino (1928-33). They realised the whole concept: Architecture, furniture, illumination, „My furniture is seldom, if ever, the result of professional design work. Almost without exception, I have done them as a part of an architectural wholeness...as an accompaniment to architecture.“ (Alvar Aalto Möbel, p. 9). The needs of the patients had priority in the deliberations: “The sanatorium needed furniture that should be light, flexible, easy to clean and so on. After extensive experimentation in wood, the flexible system was discovered and a method and material combined to produce furniture that was better for the human touch and more suitable as the general material for the long and painful life in a sanatorium.“ (Alvar Aalto Möbel, p. 14). Thus, easy-to-clean furniture of metal emerged, like sconces of white-painted sheet steel (lot 46), table lights, and lightweight, stackable stools. The ‚Paimio’ wardrobe (lot 9), on the other hand, was made of white-painted plywood. Aalto designed the ‚41’ armchair for the hall of the sanatorium, not, as was usual, of massive bent wood, but of birch plywood, to attain the „swinging feeling of cantilever steel chairs“. Moreover, the plywood promised to be more durable. The furniture must not be upholstered, due to the required hygiene. Later on, the Paimio models could be ordered with upholstery such as the ‚544’ sofa (lot 49).

By completing the sanatorium in the summer of 1933, Aalto made his international break-through. The triumph of his smoothly bent plywood furniture began.

Encouraged by the international success and aiming at a better marketing of his furniture, Alvar Aalto founded the Artek furniture factory in 1935, together with his wife Aino, and Maire and Harry Gullichson, for whom he had built the Mairea mansion. In the drawing office under the direction of Aino Aalto as artistic director, variants and new applications of Aalto’s classic models from the 1930s were conceived. The production stayed in the hands of Otto Korhonen’s factory in Turku. The Y- (lot 76) and the X- legs (lot 129) were developed.

Aalto favoured wood as material, but he also designed glass. In 1936, he took part in a competition of glass producer Iittala and presented vases and bowls. In the same year, his office was assigned to create the furnishing for the high-class ‚Savoy’ restaurant in Helsinki. In this context, the famous ‚Savoy’ vase was created. It captivates through its trend-setting organic design and its rhythmic asymmetric shape.

Designing lights, he cooperated with metal worker Viljo Horvonen who had founded ‚Valaistustyö Ky’ illumination in 1953. The factory was going to produce numerous lighting designs by Alvar Aalto. As early as 1937, Aalto created the ‚Golden Bell’ pendant lamp (lot 136) for the ‚Savoy’ restaurant, pleasing through its simple elegance.

Aalto’s designs were outstandingly famous in Great Britain and the USA in the 1930s and 1940s. He influenced designers of the post-war era, like Ray and Charles Eames. From 1946-48 he taught architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge/ USA. After Aino’s death, he married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi in 1952. He kept working with her until his own passing away. His late work concentrated more on buildings, his concept of furniture design and interior design did not change much: the connection between form and function, For him, plywood kept being a „shape inspiring, profoundly humane material“ (Schild, Alvar Aalto Sketches, p. 77) and he used an organic design vocabulary. Alvar Aalto created masterpieces of modernism, and became a forerunner in the world-wide carreer of laminated wood.

Stephanie Häfele B.A.

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