The spread of tuberculosis in Finland between the wars led to the construction of a number of sanatoria throughout the country. In 1929, Alvar and Aino received the commission for the sanatorium based in Paimio, Finland after winning an architectural competition for their new modern design. Since they believed that form followed function, the philosophy behind the sanitarium’s design was to make it a contributor to the healing process. Aalto referred to the building as a “medical instrument.”
Design as part of life
Aalto was known for linking his buildings to the surrounding nature. Architecture and location, technology and man, were always in harmonious interaction in Aalto's designs. No detail was too small. Aalto even designed the door knobs to his buildings. Everything between the landscape to a glass vase on the table was treated with careful consideration. His idea was that the leg of a chair was ‘the little sister of a column.’ Thus furniture was an integral element of architecture.
Alvar Aalto was already very aware of the Modernist movement on an international scale before the cutting edge design of Paimio Sanatorium. Later Alvar and his wife, Aino, travelled around Europe and Scandinavia where they befriended many of the biggest names in modern design.
The lecture hall was furnished with wooden chairs that were designed to help the patients breathe easier and were later known as the Paimio Chair. Admired as much for its sculptural presence as for its functionality, the Paimio Chair consists of a birch framework with a seat made of a thin sheet of plywood. The birch wood loop is the base of Aalto’s functionalist and sculptural principal and it became a hallmark of Aalto’s furniture design.
Villa Mairea, ’an experimental house’ has become one of the most important buildings Aalto designed. A friendship based on a shared view of art and society prompted Harry and Maire Gullichsen to commission Alvar Aalto to design their family home, the Villa Mairea. Aalto was given total freedom to envisage the villa. The result is a comprehensive space which opens up as a free-form yard with three organically shaped elements: the swimming pool, the asymmetric western corner and the entrance canopy. Alvar Aalto and Aino Aalto worked together extensively, while Aino was also an established designer in her own right. Aino is often described to have been the more practical one, while Alvar injected a flair of free form into their creations.
Functional, practical and sculptural
Aalto’s innovative Stool 60 was first presented in 1933 to the international market at an exhibition at Fortnum & Mason department store in London. The show was received with much enthusiasm with Aalto receiving high praise for his beautiful and innovative treatment of wood. The L-shaped leg fastened directly to the underside of the seat eliminating the need for complicated joinery. Millions of the bentwood stool have been sold, making it one of the greatest successes in modernist design. It is still widely used today.
Alvar and Aino Aalto were as concerned with designing the interior of Paimio Sanitorium as the exterior. They believed that each detail, especially lighting, was responsible for producing a unique atmosphere. A series of lamps featured a narrow opening restricting and directing the light while the perforated rim created a luminous corona. In the now classic “Beehive” design, the light passes through brass slits while the lamp itself has a spherical form.
Text source Alvar Aalto Museum, www.alvaraalto.fi / Alvar Aalto, A Life’s Work. Architecture, design and art. Göran Schildt, Otava 1994 / Alvar Aalto, Designer, Alvar Aalto Museum 2002 / Alvar & Aino Aalto. Design. Collection Bischofberger, Hatje Cantz 2005 / Suomalaisen lasin juhlaa Iittala 125, Designmuseo, 2006. Images Paimio sanatorium and Villa Mairea, Alvar Aalto Foundation. Paimio chair and Stool 60, Artek. Beehive lamp, Juha Nenonen Artek. All other images, Iittala.
’Don’t forget to play.’ Alvar Aalto