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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.


img by Jon Garay


img by Flickr user ninara via ArchDaily


img by Scandium via Tanya Leech


img by Abel Sloane and Ruby Woodhouse


img by Iittala via Journelles


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


  • 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

How to know if the interior is in Scandinavian style?

Visualisation by Image Box Studios


When we think of Scandinavian style we usually have in mind an interior with loads of natural light and nice neutral colours. The most important things to remember about when designing such space is to use natural finishes, pick colours from neutral colour palettes (have a look here for beautifully matched colour palettes!) and simple shapes.  But more importantly you need to remember about the simplicity and function that are the most important principles in Scandinavian design.

Where Scandinavian style has started?

The Scandinavian style has evolved form the region of north Europe. Although the term Scandinavia  refers to Denmark, Norway and Sweden, when describing Scandinavian design it also adds Iceland and Finland as the term can be colloquially used for five of those countries. This design movement emerged in the 1950s taking a lot of inspiration from the modernism movement and Bauhaus. It is characterized by simplicity, minimalism and functionality but it also holds a humanism value and the importance of accessibility.

In 1930 in Stockholm, Sweden an exhibition was held which had a great impact on the Scandinavian style.  An intellectual leader of the fair was Gregor Paulsson who was also inspired by the British Arts and Crafts Movement as those traditions were also very important for Nordic artists.  But he wanted to embrace new technology to make the products accessible and affordable to all. Another crucial event that helped shape and make that style popular was the publication of 24 watercolour paintings done by Carl Larsson in 1899. He portrayed the ideal Swedish home and family life making it viral in those times.  The term Scandinavian Design was formed during an exhibition Design in Scandinavia that traveled through USA and Canada in 1954-1957.

It’s all about the weather

Walter Gropius, the head of Bauhaus said: “A thing is defined by its essence. In order to design it so that it functions well (…) its essence must first be explored; it should serve its purpose perfectly, (…) fulfill its function practically and be durable, inexpensive and beautiful.” These principles are also very important for Scandinavian design. One of the main reasons Scandinavian style uses a lot of natural light, natural materials and functionality is simply because the freezing, dark winters outside. In order to make the most of natural light Scands were trying to make their homes as as bright as they could, using big windows and white, grey and other light colours. Such objects could bounce off the light and make the space feel airy. The reason they  made everything so useful was the lack of accessible materials so they only used what they needed in order to make the living in the harsh north.

10 typical features of Scandinavian design

As mentioned before, the most typical trait of Scandinavian design is the functionality and simplicity. Those can be obtained in many ways. Most of the living spaces are an open plan, airy rooms with dominant of white colour which is allowing to make the most of the natural light. Natural materials are widely used in Scandinavian interiors. Not only for floors but also for any piece of furniture or even walls. Most commonly it would be birch or pine. The colour palette is very limited but it can be broken with a vivid colour of a rug, decoration items, artwork or pillows. That allows to easily change the look of any interior as the base stays always the same. It doesn’t require a lot of effort or money to change the  colours  of the details to get a fresh look.  For window treatments you should choose something that is made of light, see through materials so it is not blocking the light. Although usually the windows can be left without any blinds to maximize the natural light. You can have fun with choosing different textures to make the room cozy. Soft fluffy pillows or throws for the  sofa which will allow you to cuddle in during a cold day.

img by Alena Ozerova via: lovechicliving.co.uk


JB7img by Stadshem


mg by Alla Bilder


visualisation by Pressenter Design


img by femina.dk


img by onemustdash


img by myscandinavianhome


visualisation by Taleh Mehdisoy


img by Tina Fusell




  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavia
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavian_design
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_Exhibition_(1930)
  • http://www.plusfunction.com/about-us/scandinavian-design
  • http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/06/the-story-of-scandinavian-design-combining-function-and-aesthetics/
  • http://pelhamdavey.com/378545/2244411/writing/scandinavian-design-myth-or-reality