Lesson

Alvar Aalto and Artek

Helsinki

24 September 2013

Earlier this month, the Finnish furniture company Artek was bought by Vitra. As the company that the seminal Finnish architect Alvar Aalto founded in 1935 moves into the next stage of its existence, Disegno looks back at its legacy and how two of Aalto's earliest designs shaped its identity.

Earlier this month, the Finnish furniture company Artek was bought by Vitra. As the company that the seminal Finnish architect Alvar Aalto founded in 1935 moves into the next stage of its existence, Disegno looks back at its legacy and how two of Aalto's earliest designs shaped its identity.

From the very start of his career Finnish architect, Aalto devoted equal billing to architecture and furniture, developing chairs, tables and light fittings to compliment his Modernist buildings. Aalto condoned “unusable status furniture, factory baroque” and argued that “we should work for simple, good, undecorated things, but things that are in harmony with the human being”.

Although his furniture’s initial purpose was to fulfil a certain function within a specific building - the three-legged stools used in the Viipuri Municipal Library or the cantilevered chairs for the patients’ wing of the Paimio Sanatorium - many of the designs became iconic in their own right. Being suited to mass-production, the pieces gained access to a much broader audience than their original purpose might have suggested.

Little over a decade after setting up his own architecture practice in his home town of Jyvaskyla in 1923, Aalto founded furniture brand Artek with his wife Aino and fellow functionalist idealists Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl.

The aim of the company was “to sell furniture and to promote a modern culture of habitation by exhibitions and other educational means”. It was also set up, in part, to assist Aalto's architecture office with interior designs for his buildings. The vision was to interconnect modern visual arts, rational furniture production and architecture.

When the company was founded in 1935 an Artek manifesto was drawn up, inspired by functionalism. With roots in natural materials, a humane approach and long-term durability, the founders advocated a new kind of environment for everyday life. The founders chose a non-Finnish name, the neologism Artek intended to manifest the company's desire to combine art and technology.

It was Hahl, an art historian and writer who brought Gullichsen and the Aaltos together. Gullichsen, an art lover trained in Paris, was an early believer in Aalto’s talent. In the early 1930s she became friends with a core grop of young artists and intellectuals who were firm defenders of modernism. Hahl became the first managing director of Artek, while, under Gullichsen’s direction, the company organised exhibitions by renowned artists such as Picasso, Leger and Calder.

Yet the Artek journey started with Aalto’s Paimio Chair. In 1927, while working with Otto Korhonen - the manager of a furniture factory near Turku – Aalto became fascinated with the possibilities of laminating and bending plywood. It was a lasting relationship, and Aalto would entrust Korhonen with the execution of all his subsequent designs.

To Aalto, wood was “the form-inspiring, deeply human material”. He experimented with plywood for three years before he created the Paimio chair, a low lounge chair designed to make breathing easier for the tuberculosis patients at the Paimio Sanatorium, near Turku, which Aalto also designed in 1929.

Whereas his previous chairs had been supported by four separate legs, the Paimio chair could be attached to a new chair frame made of continuous ribbons of wood. This supported an unframed L-shaped seat bent out of a single sheet of thin plywood, curved at the top and bottom into bold cylinders.

The Paimio Sanatorium commission was not only Aalto’s first major built project, gaining him wide acclaim as a functionalist Finnish architect in a world just rearing its head out of Neo-classicism, but it also provided the means to design an entire range of furnishings, in the process developing new forms that would occupy his future designs. His early experiments with wood and his deep sensitivity to this chosen material had a huge influence on his later architecture projects, for example the slender wooden columns and posts that characterise the interior of Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland.

Not long after the Paimio commission, Aalto designed another building, the municipal library at Viipuri, on the eastern edge of Finland. For this project he was also commissioned to design the furnishings, creating one of his most iconic designs, the bent L-leg.

Aalto's design solved the age-old problem of joining vertical legs to horizontal seat tops. Aalto’s leg, laminated and bent at 90, can be fastened directly to the underside of the top, eliminating any need for any framework or additional support. The bend in the solid wood was created by back-sawing the top of the leg, making a series of short cuts parallel to the grain and inserting thin leaves of wood dipped in casein glue so the layers could easily slide against eachother when bent under pressure. More importantly, the legs could be made as standardised parts and manufactured at different heights for various applications, from bar stools to lounge chairs.

In many ways, the L-shaped system is at the very foundation of Artek’s philosophy - the original idea of standardised furniture parts and systems, which can be mass-produced and economically assembled - making furniture versatile and customised for individual projects. Aalto felt the L-shaped stools and chairs to be his single most important contribution to furniture design. And although he experimented with other leg forms, for example sawing his basic L-leg into five narrow parts and arranging them in a fan to create a fluid transition from top to bottom, none of Aalto’s later designs, from the 1940s until his death in 1976, were as successful as his early plywood experiments and stacking chairs.

Furthermore, these early experiments paved the way for other designers, at first Finnish, such as Juha Leiviska and Eero Aanio, and later Tom Dixon and architect Shigeru Ban, who continued to use clear shapes and natural materials, keeping Aalto’s design tradition alive.