Kya deLongchamps takes an appreciative look at three domestic works, still in production, by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto who passed away 40 years ago this year.  

According to Alvar Aalto: “Objects are made to be completed by the human mind.” 

This curiously profound saying could be applied to most abstract adventures in art, and the designer and architect, (1898-1976) could have described his work in furniture with the same refreshing confidence. 

This year marks 40 years since the iconic Finn’s passing, and it seemed like a good time to look at three famous domestic pieces of his Scandinavia- bred design.

The best of Aalto’s work in building, interior design or sculpture is deceptively simple with lines and volumes that can be enjoyed from all sides. 

The innate organic beauty, happy modesty and keen practicality of his furniture and accessories have kept many key pieces in production to the present day.

Designed in 1931, the armchair 41 is Bauhaus in look and part of a family of bold cantilevered and open frame chairs that are strikingly familiar having been copied for over 75 years and beloved by the bentwood sling slouches of the 1970s.

Aalto had a talent for bending wood into athletic positions that once bolted together, could balance the sitter into a pleasing bounce. 

Little wonder he so admired the work of Austrian Gebruder Thonet (maker of the French bentwood café chair No 14). 

Some of his chairs were developed for an architectural project, the Paimio Sanatorium in south Finland, where TB patients required a supportive but comfortable place to sit with their lungs at a good angle to breathe, as they basked in the sun or sat in the corridors.

Suspended by two closed continuous cubes of laminated bentwood veneer, the seat of the Paimio 41 was a playful flick of undulating plywood. 

Inspired directly by Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair (1927/28), Aalto and his wife thought tubular metal “psychologically too hard for an environment of sick persons”. 

Paimio 41 provided Aalto’s softer, supple vision using organic materials and its clever engineering won instant acclaim. 

Finland maker, Artek, founded to sell Aalto’s work still produces the 41 — but sit down — despite its relative inexpensive materials, this treasure comes in at €3,347, new, www.finnishdesignshop.com 

A good entry point for collectors and one that will last a lifetime with care, is the Aalto Savoy vase (c1936) which has been much copied in glass, plastic and ceramic, and is a staple of 20th century design museums worldwide.

Period examples of Savoy Vase in clear and blue tones, c1936.
Period examples of Savoy Vase in clear and blue tones, c1936.

First seen as part of the accessorising of the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki, it was designed by Aalto and his first wife Aino Marsio (a talented glass designer who sold independent pieces to Littala).

It was inspired, it is said, by the leather breeches worn by Sami Eskimo women, Laplanders and the most northerly indigenous peoples of Europe, but many fans see the still shining lakes and rolling landscape of Finland in the work too. 

The vase is formed from a group of softly fluted cylinders ebbing loosely into one cloud like structure when seen from above - it’s still beloved of design fans and florists alike.

You can leave it empty, use the slight waisting to conjunct bunches of flowers, or show off fruit and objects from behind a curtain of thick glass. 

Seamed versions of the original 300mm Savoy are sold by Littala of Finland today starting at €95 for a 120mm vase, stunning in deep emerald green or a golden colour, termed Desert.

Finally, rather than vouching for the expected Aalto bar stool, I couldn’t resist introducing you to the Bilberry pendant (A338) — as fetching and unusual now as it was when designed in the late 1950s when Aalto was boldly experimenting with forms in his architecture and interior finishes.

The Bilberry is a type of whortleberry or Juolukka, used by the Finns to make a traditional mustikkapiirakka pie, which Alvar Aalto particularly enjoyed. 

Created for the private home of French socialite and art dealer Louis Carré, La Maison Louis Carré in Bazoches-sur-Guyonnes near Paris, it’s an ingenious pendant light with the talents of a small spot.

The delightful small, plump berry shape is sliced neatly off at one side to direct, angled illumination from the ceiling to a single area or object. The interior is white painted steel, and the original grey-blue finish on the outside, recalls the foggy skin of the bilberry. 

Hung up in odd numbered groups their beams focused on various directions, they are still very sharp in the right location – the perfect coming together of nature and modernity. 

Manufactured by Artek and priced from €401, www.finnishdesignshop.com 

* The Alvar Aalto Museum is located in the Finnish city of Jyväskylä. Entry €6, with €4 concession.

Keep up with their regular online exhibitions at: www.alvaraalto.fi 


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