Biography of Alvar Aalto

Modern Scandinavian Architect and Designer (1898–1976)

Black and white photo headshot of older white man holding a pen
Finnish Architect Alvar Aalto. Bettmann/Getty Images (cropped)

Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (born February 3, 1898) became famous for both his modernist buildings and his furniture designs of bent plywood. His influence on American furniture-making continues to be seen in public buildings. Aalto's unique style grew out of a passion for painting and a fascination for the works of cubist artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Fast Facts: Alvar Aalto

  • Known For: Influential modern architecture and furniture design
  • Born: February 3, 1898 in Kuortane, Finland
  • Died: May 11, 1976 in Helsinki, Finland
  • Education: Helsinki University of Technology, 1916–1921
  • Key Accomplishments: Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium and Paimio Chair; Baker House dorm at MIT; three- and four-legged stools for adults, children, and restaurants
  • Spouses: Finnish architect and designer Aino Maria Marsio and Finnish architect Elissa Mäkiniemi

Early Years

Born in the age of "form follow function" and at the cusp of Modernism, Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto graduated with honors in architecture from Helsinki University of Technology. His early works combined Neoclassical ideas with the International Style. Later, Aalto's buildings were characterized by asymmetry, curved walls, and complex textures. Many people say his architecture defies any style label. except for Modernist.

Alvar Aalto's passion for painting led to the development of his unique architectural style. Cubism and collage , explored by the painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, became important elements in Aalto's work. As an architect, Aalto used color, texture, and light to create collage-like architectural landscapes.

Professional Life

The term Nordic Classicism has been used to describe some of Alvar Aalto's work. Many of his buildings combined sleek lines with richly textured natural materials such as stone, teak, and rough-hewn logs. He's also been called a Human Modernist for what we might call today his "client-centered approach" to architecture.

The Finnish architect received international acclaim with the completion of the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The hospital he built in Paimio, Finland between 1929 and 1933 is still looked upon as one of the world's best-designed healthcare facilities. "The details incorporated into the building design by Aalto illustrate many of the evidence-based design strategies published in recent years," writes Dr. Diana Anderson, MD in 2010. With an open-air roof terrace, sun balconies, inviting pathways throughout the grounds, orientation of the patient wing for rooms to receive full morning sunlight, and calming room colors, the architecture of the building is more modern than many healthcare facilities built today.

Aalto also designed interiors and furnishing, and one of his most enduring creations is the chair designed for the tubercular patients at Paimio. The Paimio Sanatorium chair is so beautifully designed that it is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Based on the metal tube Wassily chair designed in 1925 by Marcel Breuer, Aalto took laminated wood and bent it like Breuer bent metal to form a frame in which was placed a bent wooden seat. Designed to ease the breathing of a tubercular patient, the Paimio chair is beautiful enough to be sold to today's consumer. 

Maire Mattinen writes in the Forward to the Nomination of Paimio Hospital for Inclusion in the World Heritage List, "The hospital can be described as a Gesamtkunstwerk, all the aspects of which — the landscape, the function, the technology and the aesthetics — aim to promote the well-being and recuperation of the patients."

Marriages

Aalto was married twice. His first wife, Aino Mariso Aalto (1894–1949), was a partner in Artek, the furnishings workshop they established in 1935. They became famous for their furniture and glassware designs. After the death of Aino, Aalto married the Finnish architect Elissa Mäkiniemi Aalto (1922–1994) in 1952. It was Elissa who carried on the businesses and completed ongoing projects after Aalto died.

Death

Alvar Aalto died on May 11, 1976 in Helsinki, Finland. He was 78 years old. "Mr. Aalto's style was not easily characterized, but it was frequently described as humanistic," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger at the time of Aalto's death. "Throughout his career he was more interested in creating architectural housings to reflect the complexities of functions within than in fitting functions into a simple form."

Legacy

Alvar Aalto is remembered with the likes of Gropius, Le Corbusier, and van der Rohe as a major influence on 20th century modernism. A review of his architecture realizes an evolution from simple classical forms of the 1924 White Guards Headquarters to the functional modernism of the 1933 Paimio Sanatorium. The 1935 Viipuri Library in Russia has been called International or even Bauhaus-like, yet Aalto rejected that modernism for something less stark. The 1948 Baker House dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be known on campus for its piano tossing event, yet the building's wavy design and open spaces promote community and humanism.

modern interior, two levels, open stairway, second floor opens to first, round lights on the ceiling
The Baker House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alvar Aalto. Santi Visalli/Getty Images (cropped)

The curve in Aalto's architecture continued for the next 30 years, even in designs completed after his death, like the 1978 Church of the Assumption of Mary in Riola di Vergato, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. His impact on furniture design, however, is Aalto's legacy for not only people around the world, but to furniture makers such as the Eames partnership.

Alvar Aalto often integrated architecture with interior design. He is the acknowledged inventor of bent wood furniture, a practical and modern idea that had far-reaching influences at home and abroad. As Aalto transformed Breuer's bent metal into bent wood, Charles and Ray Eames took the concept of molded wood and created the iconic plastic molded chair. Without knowing the designers' names, who hasn't sat on one of Aalto's curved wood designs or Breuer's metal chairs or the Eames' stackable plastic chairs?

old color photo of modern furniture, a dining set
Furnishings by Alvar Aalto, 1938. Print Collector/Getty Images (cropped)

One can easily think about Alvar Aalto when coming upon a bad reproduction of his furniture. Discover a three-legged stool in your storage shed, and you wonder why the legs keep falling out of the underside of the round seat, as they are only glued into little holes. Many old, broken stools could use a better design — like Aalto's STOOL 60 (1933).  In 1932, Aalto had developed a revolutionary type of furniture made of laminated bent plywood. His stools are simple designs with bent wooden legs that provide strength, durability, and stackability. Aalto's  STOOL E60 (1934) is a four-legged version. Aalto's BAR STOOL 64 (1935) is familiar because it's been copied so often. All of these iconic pieces were designed when Aalto was in his 30s.

Furniture that doesn't end up in storage is often designed by modern architects, because they have better ideas of how to keep things together.

Sources

  • Anderson, Diana. Humanizing the hospital: Design lessons from a Finnish sanatorium. Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), 2010 Aug 10; 182(11): E535–E537.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917967/
  • Artek. Art & Technology Since 1935. https://www.artek.fi/en/company
  • Goldberger, Paul. Alvar Aalto Is Dead at 78; Master Modern Architect. The New York Times, May 13, 1976
  • National Board of Antiquities. Nomination of Paimio Hospital for Inclusion in the World Heritage List. Helsinki 2005. http://www.nba.fi/fi/File/410/nomination-of-paimio-hospital.pdf