A master of Modernism
Alvar Aalto remains, to this day, one of the masters of European Modernism. Born in 1898 in Kuortane, Finland, his designs are instantly recognisable. With his wife, Aimo Aalto, and their friends Maire Gullichsen and Nils Gustav Hahl, Artek was set up in 1935.
As a designer, he practiced the theory of Gesamtkunstwerk – a holistic approach to design that works around the idea of many different art forms coming together into one final work. It was this philosophy that first allowed Aalto to step into the world of industrial design when in 1928 he won the contract for what would become the world famous Paimio Sanitorium. Here, every detail was custom designed by Aalto. Perhaps the most widely recognised of his designs that was created for the Sanitorium is the Paimio Chair – its angled back was designed to ease the breathing of tuberculosis patients. Perfectly balanced even as it ages, each armrest is formed from a single piece of form-pressed wood that is then divided into two – ensuring perfect symmetry now, but also in years to come.
In the age of mass production, machines allowed artists and designers the freedom to push the boundaries of their practice. Alvar Aalto is well known for his manipulation of wood, which at the time, was the backbone of Finland’s economy. In order to explore the boundaries of the material, Aalto bent and shaped the wood using form-presses – heating the material with steam and then gently coaxing it around a mould. Artek’s designs were low cost, easy to replicate and importantly, they achieved an ideal balance between aesthetic form and functionality.
For Aalto, the design of furniture was an opportunity to extend his architectural philosophy. By rejecting tradition for tradition’s sake, more progressive ways of making could be brought to the forefront of design. In 1933, Alvar Aalto created Stool 60 – what would become one of his most distinctive designs. Crafted from solid Finnish birch, the L-shaped legs of the stool become characteristic of Artek furniture.
Alvar Aalto had an incredible influence on modern design. Fascinated by discovering the limits of modern manufacturing, his designs were innovative and democratic. How do designers shape culture? How can the made environment be improved upon? These are questions that Aalto considered and his philosophy has lived on, through his legacy, even past his death in the 1970s.