Long before the Scandinavian style became fashionable, there was Alvar Aalto. He was an architect and a representative of Finnish Modernism. While there is no specific year for the beginning of this cultural, artistic, and design movement, historians agree that Modernism started in the late 1800s, right when Aalto was born. The Finnish creator breathed this cultural phenomenon, and that’s how his works developed. A humanist and a symbol of northern influences and ideas, Aalto succeeded in forming a legacy.
The nordic style wasn’t always as glamorous as it is today. This aesthetic was confined to the North since the Mediterranean style still influenced the rest of Europe. But these were the years of industrial design, affordable and easy to mass-produce. The decades of plastic, at least in Modernism. But Aalto had his own aesthetic. First, let’s take a look at where he came from.
A Brief Biography
Alvar Aalto was born in the town of Kuortane (Finland) in 1898. A small village in the country’s south, Kuortane produces pine tar, an Olympic Training Center, and a world-famous architect. He didn’t come from an artistic or design family, but when he moved to Alajärvi at five years old, Aalto started studying drawing. In 1916, he enrolled at the Helsinki University of Technology to study architecture, his first passion. While World War I didn’t disrupt his studies, the Finnish Civil War did in 1918.
Despite this interruption, Alvar Aalto graduated in 1921, also thanks to the house he built for his parents. He showed his first piece at the Industrial Exposition in Tampere in 1922. One year later, Aalto opened his first architectural office in Jyväskylä, where his career began with
small single-family houses. When he was 26, he married fellow architect Aino Marsio. During their honeymoon in Italy, Aalto discovered Mediterranean culture and beauty, which later inspired his work.
Artek and the Success of Alvar Aalto
The architect’s career blossomed, so much so that he later opened an office in Helsinki, Finland’s capital. During his decades of professional work, Aalto also designed furniture, and that’s why he and his wife founded Artek in 1935, a company to sell furniture. They founded it with visual arts promoter Maire Gullichsen and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl to promote their work and innovative concepts.
After years of creating, Aalto retired from the scene towards the end of the 60s. He started traveling with his second wife, Elissa, and, in the Sixties, he received honors and awards. Until 1968, he was the President of the Academy of Finland, but he later retired to private life. Some of his last projects and designs were posthumous, reflecting his idealistic views on architecture.
The Finnish architect died in 1976, after a long and fruitful career. He left a unique heritage to Finland well before the Scandinavian style became fashionable. Despite being criticized by the new generation of Nordic creators, Aalto is increasingly becoming more popular. In fact, towards the end of his career, he was accused of elitism. Perhaps it was true since he came from a different time. This was the time of changes, after two world wars. That’s why he took inspiration from everything and everyone around him. Until he created his own style.
The Influences of Alvar Aalto
During his career, the Finnish creator managed to find his own style, defined by his culture and surroundings. Modernism in architecture and design was about functionality. Instead of depicting an ideal life or abstract one, the representatives of the Modernist movement depicted modern life as it was. Slowly, modern society was turning into an industrial one, moving away from traditions like the one of Classicism.
Instead of decorative columns, curved arches, and patterns, the modernists chose simple lines and geometry. Instead of frills, architects like Aalto chose rationality, and they decided to create their own art and pieces. They didn’t follow the ideas of form, color, and line that generations of artists and architects had passed down. The modernists decided to create their own movement.
That’s where the concepts and beliefs of Alvar Aalto came from. But, during his career, he changed and switched, especially during the 50s. The Finnish creator wanted his buildings and furniture to be user-friendly, not just glamorous pieces or trendy objects. He looked at practical designs capable of welcoming people. He decided to use natural materials, melting them with industrial ones to create something unique. Aalto broke every rule about space and design to value freedom. Freedom of creating, changing, and being.
Alvar Aalto’s Career and Accomplishments
To Alvar Aalto, his architectural path wasn’t just a livelihood and job. It was his vocation. A bit of an outsider, the Finnish architect wasn’t afraid of criticism or speaking out. He didn’t like frills or excessive decorations. Instead, he looked for harmony.
He dreamed of a green city filled with parks and organized streets. He dreamed of a town where humankind and animals interacted in the typical way of the North. A harmony of species in the shade of skyscrapers and trees. Decades before sustainability became a topic of conversation in architecture and design, Alvar Aalto had a vision.
“We should work for simple, good, undecorated things,” Aalto said, “but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street.”
He wasn’t afraid of experimenting with both architecture and design of furniture. One of the most controversial works of Aalto is his low-income housing projects. For example, the Baker House dorms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he finished in 1947. Two years after World War II, Alvar Aalto had to design prefabricated houses for the postwar reconstruction. To some eyes ugly and to others provocatory, the Finnish architect described this project as “the lousiest bricks in the world.” These dorms were the symbol of Functionalism, a movement that Aalto followed and that he molded to his aesthetic.
Northern Aesthetic Meets the World.
Being from Finland, he couldn’t ignore the push of the modern Nordic movement, with elements of his work that were regionally specific. It’s no secret that the days in Scandinavia can be cold, short, and dark. The region’s creators wanted their works to be affordable and the interiors to be sleek. This group focused on clean lines, functionality, and neutral palettes. The Viipuri Library in Russia is an example of this aesthetic.
Two rectangular blocks make up the library, and they are offset horizontally from one another. With transitional spaces and three-floor plans, this building is anything but straightforward. Steep and complex in its interior, this library created a unity between vertical and horizontal lines. Anything but boring. Corridors move like a maze, upward and inward, with bookshelves bridging inter-floor gaps. A modern design filled a mix of natural and industrial materials, such as concrete, glass, and wood.
The Essen Opera House
To Alvar Aalto, the home (and the libraries) were supposed to be practical and pleasing to the eye, creating a beautiful everyday life. The Finnish designer exploited natural light and materials to achieve his goals. In Finland and in all of Scandinavia, function, and inspiration from nature combined to produce a regional (yet global) movement. But Aalto didn’t fit in one label. Through the 1960s and 70s, he discovered monumentalism with its geometric grids and blocks of construction. For example, the Essen opera house, which his wife saw to completion after Aalto’s death.
The Finnish architect designed this opera house (now called Aalto Theater) with an asymmetrical layout, seating for 1,100 spectators, and three rows of balconies. Even in this design, Aalto chose functionality. In fact, the distance to the stage for the highest and lowest-sitting spectators was the same. This way, everyone could enjoy the show. A system of metal netting in the ceiling creates an echo chamber, ideal for acoustics.
The entrance to the galleries and balconies mirrors the auditorium in the foyer, so the design connects each part of the theater. Even if the opera house in Essen was completed after the architect’s death, the development stayed true to his aesthetic, ideas, and concepts inspired by his surroundings.
Alvar Aalto’s Use of Light
The North, where days can be cold and dark, valued the use of light. This is why Aalto and contemporary Scandinavian designers focused on open spaces and the maximization of light. Specifically, natural light and the exploitation of every single ray and reflection. This way, the Finnish architect created welcoming spaces, warm and clean.
In fact, Aalto wanted the people who enjoyed his spaces to feel well, both mentally and physically. So, he worked to optimize the use of light and capture the sun’s power and warmth. Thanks to Aalto’s commitment and aesthetic, every quality of the buildings and spaces was exalted.
The Finnish designer always stayed true to his beliefs. He appreciated nature, light, and clean lines. Each of these works represented Aalto’s ideas and vision of the future. Just like his pieces of furniture did, ready to capture natural light and the avantgarde of Scandinavian style.
Furniture Signed by Alvar Aalto
In the 1950s, the Finnish creator began experimenting with sculpting. He used bronze, marble, and wood to figure out who he was as a designer. Even if he wasn’t as prolific and productive in designing furniture, Aalto made a lasting impression on this industry. He was able to promote and sell his objects and products via his Artek company, a space for experimenting. These are his most famous works:
- Paimio Chair, 1932
- Model 60 stacking stool, 1933
- Armchair 400 (a/k/a/ Zebra Tank Chair), 1935-36
- Aalto Vase, 1936
- Lounge Chair, 1937
- Armchair 406, 1939
- Floor lamp A805, 1954
- Floor lamp A810, 1959
The Paimio Chair
The Paimio chair is an example of Aalto’s love for experimentation. The first model was designed for the sitting tuberculosis patient who had to stay in the same position for hours. Made of cantilevered birch wood, this piece of furniture experimented with the bending of the material. The Model 60 is almost an upgrade to the Paimio. It features a ben wooden chair leg, perfect for industrial and mass production.
The Alvar Aalto Vase
The 1936 vase is one of the most famous of Aalto’s production. He designed with the help of his wife, Aino, for the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki. It’s a symbol of Finnish design, a piece of glassware simple yet charming. The Aalto vase inspired later versions with a slight curve at the base, like bigger models without visible seams.
The furniture company Artek produced each of these pieces, and it’s still active nowadays. The four founders include Alvar Aalto, his wife Aino, Maire Gullichsen, and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Four idealists and four representatives of the Nordic style. Their goal was to create modern furniture made for the modern people and their houses. And to take this aesthetic worldwide, as the 1935 Manifest stated.
More influential and innovative designers collaborated with Artek, including Eero Aarnio. Other creators who believed in the same cultural concepts were Eero Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames. These designers produced everyday objects and products, like the Beehive Lamp by Alvar Aalto. It’s a pendant light that looks almost like a sculpture. It features a diffused light thanks to rows of perforated steel rings, which are warm and delicate.
Each design, decor, and architecture piece that Alvar Aalto produced reflected his research for functionality, clean lines, and simple yet intriguing style. The Finnish creator was part of the Nordic movement avantgarde long before IKEA was a thing.
The Legacy of the Finnish Creator
Without a doubt, Scandinavian modern design has inspired many contemporary creators, designers, and industry representatives. This cultural and social movement developed in the 50s, alongside Modernism. Aalto and other creators like him were right in the middle of the two movements, taking the best of both.
So, the Scandinavian style focuses on “democratizing” interior design and decor, making it accessible yet charming. Neutral palettes and geometric shapes characterized this aesthetic that came directly from the North. Practical and bright, the Scandinavian space and decor is a fans’ favorite, at least in contemporary design. And the world has names like Alvar Aalto to thank for this.