Biography of Alvar Aalto

Modern Scandinavian Architect and Designer (1898-1976)

Black and white photo of Finnish Architect Alvar Aalto
Finnish Architect Alvar Aalto. Photo by Bettmann / Bettmann / Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Alvar Aalto (born February 3, 1898 in Kuortane, Finland) became famous for both his modernist buildings and his furniture designs of bent plywood. His influence on American furniture-making is even seen in today's 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.

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.

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 Alvar Aalto's work. Alvar Aalto used color, texture, and light to create collage-like architectural landscapes.

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 in the early 1930s 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. Add to all this the creation of the Paimio Sanatorium chair, designed to ease the breathing of a tubercular patient but 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."

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 on May 11, 1976.

Important Buildings by Alvar Aalto:

Aalto's Three-Legged Stool:

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. Without knowing Aalto's name, who hasn't sat on one of his curved wood designs?

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. As a bar stool, Aalto's HIGH 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.

Source: Humanizing the hospital: Design lessons from a Finnish sanatorium by Diana Anderson, CMAJ 2010 Aug 10; 182(11): E535–E537; Nomination of Paimio Hospital for Inclusion in the World Heritage List, National Board of Antiquities, Helsinki 2005 (PDF); Artek – Art & Technology Since 1935 [accessed January 29, 2017]