Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto 1898 – 1976 Aino Maria Marsio-Aalto, née Mandelin 1894 – 1949
Architects and Industrial Design Pioneers
When our travels take us to cities with public transportation, we prefer to leave our car behind and jump on a tram or bus to get from A to B should the distance be too great to walk. Truth be told, rather than jump, we carefully climb into any given carriage these days! Public transportation is vastly more efficient and fun than driving yourself in unknown territory. There is neither the stress to navigate correctly nor the desperate search for a parking space at the destination – and one gets to see the sights along the way as an added bonus. Helsinki has a comprehensive tram and bus system which gets you pretty much anywhere in the city, consequently we used a tram to travel in comfort to the Aalto family home in the western suburb of Munkkiniemi for our scheduled guided tour.
Tram #4 carried us from Aleksanterinkatu in less than 30 minutes to the Laajalahden aukio stop in Munkkienimi. On route, we caught glimpses of a few of Helsinki’s landmarks, like the Aalto-designed Finlandia Hall conference center and the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, the Symphony, the Parliament Building, and more. It was also interesting to pass through assorted neighborhoods. After arriving in Munkkienimi, a short walk from the tram stop brought us to the Aalto home.
And there it was, austere, unassuming, cubic. The Aalto Foundation administers the legacy of Academician Alvar Aalto through four Aalto designed structures, two in Helsinki and a further two in central Finland. The Studio Aalto joined the Villa Aalto in Munkkienimi during the mid-1950s, while the Experimental House on Muuratsalo island in lake Päijänne which Aalto designed in 1952 for his second wife Elisse, is located close to the 1973 Aalto Museum in nearby Jyväskylä.
The Aaltos first became familiar with Munkkienimi during a proposed building project for an apartment complex along the shore of Laajalahti Bay. The project was never realized, but in 1934 the couple bought a lot for themselves in this still rural and unimproved area which would only be incorporated as a Helsinki borough twelve years later. The architects designed their home at Riihitie 20 specifically for this lot with its granite outcroppings and native vegetation. The near windowless northern, streetside façade and enclosing wall was intended to provide protection against the outside world and harsh winter winds. While the Aalto house was under construction, passing neighbors wondered what kind of chicken coop might be going up there. Although the house looks perfectly “normal” to us today, we can imagine how outlandish it must have appeared in 1936 rural Finland, rural anywhere, really!
The house is too small to accommodate more than twenty visitors at a time, so we loitered in the garden while the previous tour finished up. The garden was as carefully mapped as the house, forming an extension of the man-made structure by utilizing the existing flora and geology augmented by carefully chosen plants. To honor Japanese tradition, Aalto planted several plum trees, for example, which are still producing fruit to the delight of the local bird population. The house opens up towards the South with terraces and windows inviting sunshine and green tranquility to enhance the life within. By the time they were building their home, Aalto had already gained considerable attention and critical acclaim with two of his major early works, the Viipurin kirjasto [Vyborg Library, now Russia] and the Paimio Sanatorium. After winning the competitions for the Finnish Pavilion for both the World Fair of 1937 in Paris and the 1939 World Fair in NYC, Alvar Aalto became an internationally known star in the contemporary design world which also drew public attention toward his home in Munkkienimi. Aino and Alvar used to startle cheeky tourists who climbed over the fence separating their property from the neighboring public land with their habit of taking “air bath” in the nude in their lush garden.
Our tour commenced under the tutelage of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide with an introduction to the studio wing where Alvar and Aino, plus a number of additional architects and draughtspersons worked for almost 20 years until the Aalto Studio was finished around the block at Tiilimäki 20. The workspace here is clearly quite limited despite the functionality of the light-filled, high-ceilinged room. The studio is overlooked by a gallery giving it greater storage capability. Some of the studio walls are paneled with bast mats, adding texture, warms, and a bit of sound-dampening to the otherwise minimalist space.
The Aaltos’ professional growth stretched from a beginning in Northern Classicism to their personal version of Functional Modernism, an all-inclusive design philosophy considering every aspect of a dwelling and its impact on the daily life of the occupants and their environment. In the Aalto design ethos, the strict functionality of a modern home came second to the human need. Therefore an important factor of the duty of an architect was the development of the interior fittings, furniture, and even textiles. To retain control over the manufacture of their designs, the Aaltos founded the furniture company ARTEK with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustave Hahl in 1935. The name is an acronym of Art and Technology which underlines the mission of the firm, in particular, Alvar Aalto’s patented bent plywood techniques. Many of the groundbreaking designs of the couple are still produced and sold by Artek and also Iittala, most importantly the 60 and E60 stools, the iconic Paimio or Scroll chair, as well as textiles, glassware and more.
We got a good look at some of the well known Aalto furniture, especially the 1936 armchair 400 called Tank in the Zebra fabric the inspiration for which Aino might have glimpsed at a Zürich shop a year earlier. Next to the Tank chair is a coffee table in a style reminiscent of the X600 stools with their fan-shaped legs. When I looked at an Aalto sketch of a fan leg online, it reminded me very strongly of the Aalto sculpture I showed you at the top of this post. It might well have been a precursor of his 600 series stools and tables of the early 1950s, at least in my opinion. And speaking of works of art, there was a sculpture more captivating to me than the build-in cupboards in the dining room and I couldn’t help but play with it.
After my little burst of creativity, let’s return to Alvar and Aino Aalto’s world in Munkienimi and their circle of creative colleagues and friends who inspired them along their journey of design discoveries and inventions. On Alvar’s piano, we saw a portrait of Aino next to an intriguing table lamp with a pleated shade. I assumed at first that it was Aino’s work even though it was too playful, really. While still in Finland, I briefly came across a picture of the Riihitie House living room stating that this lamp was not an Aalto design. I never managed to find this reference again which bothered me quite a bit. As I have said before, I can’t stand it when I can’t properly address something. That’s biologist-speak for knowing the proper name of the specimen in your dissecting tray. Back home, I continued searching online for the provenance of this lamp with its simple, wooden base and complicated, origami-mushroom shade.
Since I don’t have access to professional search engines, this quest amounted to nothing more than endless googling, which proved to be entertaining but fruitless. There were pleated shades, sure, even one or two by famed Danish lighting designer Henningsen but none looked even remotely like our specimen on the piano. A Henningsen fixture, by the way, that I’ve always loved, is his Artichoke pendant ceiling light. He developed the Artichoke out of his Septima pendant of the late 1920s, one of which, a Septima from 1929 sold at auction for just under $40 000 in 2016 in London! Just for the fun of it, I’ll add an excerpt from an article in the Modernity website, a gallery in Stockholm for 20th Century Scandinavian Masterpieces:
Beyond the original PH Lamps, Poul Henningsen worked on the Septima between 1927 and 1931. Here again, he cloaked the bulb in several layers that simultaneously diffuse and reflect light to create a warm and harmonious ambiance. The commercial and cultural potential of the Septima was never fully realized, and very few examples were produced. On the eve of World War II, Louis Poulsen ceased production due to material shortages. And then, given Henningsen’s outspoken radical views, he and his wife moved to Sweden (along with fellow Danish designer Arne Jacobsen and his wife) to avoid the Nazis. Nevertheless, the Septima still had a significant impact. It’s believed that Henningsen revisited this design specifically in 1958 when he was commissioned to create large, opulent chandeliers for a venerable, waterfront restaurant in Copenhagen called the Langelinie Pavilion.
Cloaking the bulb – I love that image! As enjoyable as my lighting fixture research was, it didn’t bring me any closer to the pleated shade on the piano. At this point, I had only one avenue left, I had to contact the Villa Aalto team asking for help. Fortunately for me, they are a kind bunch and didn’t mind to engage in an e-conversation with me. The mystery lamp was indeed designed by PH, as Poul Henningsen is known in Danemark. It’s another one of his rare specimens, so it’s not too surprising that I didn’t find any information about it till the Aalto Foundation crew helped out. Much appreciated!
Addendum: Meanwhile, I’ve received further input about the PH lamp on the piano through the Aalto Foundation’s Chief Curator Katariina Pakoma who said that Alvar Aalto and Poul Henningsen were good friends. The lamp was a gift from Henningsen himself during a visit with the Aaltos around 1944. The date is a guess based on photos showing the lamp subsequently. I would like to thank both Ms. Pakoma and Ms. Liukkonen for taking the time to share their knowledge. Kiitos molemmille! And since the lamp doesn’t seem to have an official name, it shall henceforth be known as the PH Origami Lamp!
Our tour concluded with a visit to the upstairs den, terrace, and family bedrooms, and a rather unique bathroom featuring the same sinks Aalto designed for the wards at the Paimio Sanatorium. The ever-practical Alvar liked them because they were noiselessly splash-free.
So much in the Villa Aalto rang true to my own experiences with modernist architecture and interior design while growing up in Europe, where one can’t help but stumble across works by the Bauhaus group, or Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens, or Duiker et al. The central European architects and their Scandinavian colleagues either knew or knew of each other which enriched their individual creativity. Equally important were the social, regional and global political influences of the tumultuous first half of the 20th century ranging from communism to nationalism, bringing both the needs of working families and the wish for a distinct national identity of emerging nations like Finland to the forefront of industrial design and architecture. When we consider that Gropius, Mies, and Corbusier apprenticed with Peter Behrens concurrently, we can understand how closely intertwined the design world was, nevertheless showing distinctive regional and philosophical differences. This was also a time when the essence of industrial design and architecture was deeply influenced by other art forms and crafts including painting, sculpture, ceramics, weaving, ironworks, and even poetry, a platform of which the Bauhaus clearly took the lead. With the invitation of Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy as a master teacher at the Bauhaus, Photography and Experimental Film became important facets of the ever-evolving industrial design world until the iron fist of Naziism shattered this fruitful realm of innovation.
Consequently, several modernist architects had to continue their work in the USA, thus transplanting the modernist industrial design principles to the New World, giving me a chance to explore their iconic buildings when I lived there. Foremost in Chicago, veritable heaven of architectural history beginning after the Great Fire of 1871, but also in Midland, Michigan where local star Alden B. Dow joint his larger-than-life architectural brethren in the mid-west, notably Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, and later Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as a creative innovator. In that sense, our visit to Alvar and Aino Aalto’s home was a little like coming home, especially since my grandmother’s house, also finished in 1936, though overall more traditional in design, had purpose-build fitted furniture and storage, and it was laid out to facilitate functionality in the Aalto spirit.
As we were leaving the Villa Aalto, one of the crew mentioned the Academic Bookstore in the city center to me. It’s a much-loved destination in Helsinki with a stunning three-story internal courtyard. Aalto won the 1962 design competition and it was built between 1966 – 69. The Book Palace, as it’s also called still has the original shelving and other Aalto design features, but its main attraction is an arrangement of three skylights flooding the interior with natural light. The skylights are often described as crystalline prisms. They pierce the ceiling in dramatic fashion, complementing the elegant white Carrera marble flooring and balustrades.
The bookstore itself is quite impressive aside from its beautiful design. We spent a lot of time checking out its international offerings. The Akateeminen Kirjakauppa [Academic Bookstore] is part of the Swedish Bonnier Books Group which was, coincidentally, our building neighbor at the Airbnb. Small world! Naturally, there was an extensive section related to architecture.
Since my husband wears Steve Ray’s signature hat, this volume caught our eye.
This had been an action-packed day and we were eager to be on our way home, but not until we surveyed the Artek store two doors over from the bookstore … we just couldn’t resist!
P.S. Links you might find interesting:
- During our stay in Munich in 2016, we encountered Rietveld’s “Z” chair among many other examples of modernist design and their precursors at the Pinakothek der Moderne, the most delightful experience!
- A video clip about the Paimio Sanatorium and a very informative 2016 “Architectural Review” article by Ellis Woodman about Aalto’s groundbreaking work in Paimio.
- Moholy-Nagy’s wife, Lucia Moholy née Schulz, 1894 – 1989, an inspired photographer in her own right, became the unpaid in-house pictorial annalist and chronologist of the Bauhaus and its activities while her husband taught there. It is dismaying to learn how Walter Gropius used her images for decades to promote himself and the Bauhaus ideals without Moholy’s permission and without ever giving her photo credit. It is even more upsetting to realize that in the current publication of the Bauhaus100 organization Lucia Molony is listed in their category of Entourage (!) without any mention of her struggles to regain possession of her archives. Shameful Old Boys’ Club behavior, to say the least. A more detailed biography of Lucia Molony can be found in the Encyclopædia Britannica. A much more intimate essay of Lucia was published in the Michigan Quarterly Review by Meghan Leigh Forbes Ph.D. in 2016: What I could lose.