Most influential Scandinavian designers – Alvar Aalto

Everyone knows each other

Behind everything what is happening in the world in any industry there are always real people. It often fascinates me how relationships between them affect the direction in which something goes. For example I have recently seen Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture exhibition at Tate Modern in London (which is great and worth visiting if you happen to be in London, it’s on until April). Calder used to construct his own miniature circus performers and organize Cirque de Calder events and for one of them he invited Piet Mondrian to come over. Then, in 1930, Mondrian invited Calder to visit his studio. No great friendship came out of it as they didn’t agree on some artistic aspects  but it had a great influence on Calders later creations. In Modrians studio Calder spotted coloured cardboard rectangles that Mondrian used as compositional aids. Since then Calder started experimenting with painting and block of colours, combining abstraction and movement. Imagine if those two have never met. How different Calders art could have been. And this applies to everything. If you read biographies of famous artist from same period you can notice they all knew each other. It was exactly the same for Scandinavian design too.

Who did Alvar Aalto know?

One of the greatest Scandinavian designers – Alvar Aalto – also knew Alexander Calder. They met in 1937 at International Exhibition in Paris and remained friends ever since.  They shared the same approach to the modern art and architecture and found a lot in common in each other. They also helped each other in professional life. In 1938 Calder had his first jewelery exhibition at Artek. And a few of his necklaces  were bought by Maire Gullichsen – the same wealthy lady who has commisioned (and encouraged to be more daring) Alvar and Aino Alto to design Villa Mairea.  The building is situated in a pine forest near Noormarkku. The centre of the house is a central inner “garden” with a swimming pool. On the ground floor everyday living spaces were situated, and upstairs were the bedrooms and Maire’s studio. Modular walls not only allowed to play with light but also served as a display area for vast art collection of the home owners.

Most important projects of Alvar Aalto

Aalto first project in the spirit of modernism was actually Viipuri Library in Russia that was opened in 1935. At the beggining, when Aalto won the competition for the project in 1927 the design was originally in more classicism style. Aalto gained classical education and his first projects of single-family houses were designed in a style called Nordic Classicism. However, when working on the project of Viipuri Library he shifted from it to pure modernism style.  Because of the recession and change of site for the library, the first building that was actually completed (in 1932) and designed by Aalto in modernism style was Turun Sonmat Building. And right after that he finished Paimio Sanatorium in 1932. They all exhibit modernist approach and were inspired by Bauhaus style.  He treats with great attention the natural light, which he enhances with artificial one. For example he would mount electrical lighting above or inside skylights. In Paimio Sanatorium he designes patients’ rooms to be facing south to get the most of the natural light. How greatly he pays attention to maximal usage of natural light is very well visible in a project for student dormitory in USA – Baker House.  The divides the space in such way that the maximum possible number of rooms would be naturally lit and have beautiful views of the Charles River.

What is universal approach?

In his designes Aalto expresses universal approach. Not only he designes the building itself and its interior but also he pays a lot attention to details by designing the lighting fixtures and furniture. For his Paimio Sanatorium project he designes a  chair from two closed loops of laminated wood, forming arms and legs. You can still buy it today as it is contiuosly manufactered by Artek, as many other of Aalto designes. Artek is a company founded in 1935 by Alvar and Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen, and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Aalto’s great idea behind designing furniture was to manufacture some of the pieces in factories to compose from them unique and affordable pieces. He used to compare it to nature: each flower is unique yet they all made up of the same component parts. On of such modular parts was an L-shaped leg which was used in chairs, stools and tables. Some of the Aalto’s furniture you have for sure seen when you last went shopping in Apple Store. High Stool and Stool E60 are used there to seat the customers.

The most famous pieces and now also know as icon of Finnish design is the Savoy Vase. This beautiful, organic vase was shown in the Finnish Pavillion he designed as well in 1939 in USA. It still can be purchased for example here and be used as a boast of your living room.  Aalto’s reputation grew in USA as his design of the Finnish Pavillion for New York World’s Fair was very well received. Even Frank Lloyd Wright has described it as “work of genius”. The exterior of the pavillion was a simple white cube. Inside it had a 12-metere high stepped wooden wall, that leaned in from the top towards the visitor. That was supposed to resemble the Northern Lights in its shape and lighting.

10 years later in 1949 in a book on Modernist architecture Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition  by Sigried Giedion, Aalto received even more attention then any other Modernist architect which sealed his reputation. He was praised for functionality in his projects, mood and atmosphere. Aalto perceived architecture to be a part of one big whole. This is why he designed the furniture and lighting specifically to the project. Aalto believed that everything that the user is exposed to should a universal creation.

 

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img by Jon Garay

 

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img by Flickr user ninara via ArchDaily

 

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img by Scandium via Tanya Leech

 

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img by Abel Sloane and Ruby Woodhouse

 

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img by Iittala via Journelles

 

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img by Ezra Stoller/Esto Photographics Inc., VG Bild- Kunst, Bonn, 2014 via Metalocus

references:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvar_Aalto
  • http://press.lacaixa.es/socialprojects/show_annex.html?id=45836
  • http://www.artek.fi/
  • http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1998/aalto/timeline/
  • http://www.alvaraalto.fi/index_en.htm
  • http://calder.org/life/chronology
  • https://business.highbeam.com/4776/article-1G1-20739231/being-geniuses-together