Alvar Aalto's Artistic Bent at the Vitra Design Museum

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
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A new Vitra Design Museum exhibit re-examines Finnish designer Alvar Aalto's influences and creations.

From the curved exterior of the Baker House dorm, a bendy straw that rethought campus construction, to the Savoy Vase, a glass creation so abstract that it was originally called eskimoerindens skinnbuxa (Eskimo woman’s leather pants), Finnish designer and architect Alvar Aalto redefined shape and space. Jochen Eisenbrand, chief curator of the Vitra Design Museum and the organizer of the museum’s new exhibition about his career, wants people to rethink the origins of these influential and experimental forms. 

Viipuri (Vyborg) City Library, Vyborg, Karelia (today Russia), Alvar Aalto, 1927--1935

On of Aalto's first major works -- a commission he won as part of a contest -- this building is a famous example of functionalist architecture. The most influential facet of Aalto's design for the Viipuri City Library was the famous wavy wooden ceiling, a snaking set of slats made from Karelian pine and based on studies of acoustic waves. Along with the use of skylights to refract natural light, the roof helps to create an improved environment for study and contemplation.

© Alvar Aalto Museum

"People often think the shapes are a result of him being in nature, an environmental determinism or sorts," says Eisenbrand. "We want to challenge this with images of Leger, Arp and Calder. We want to say the notion of these abstract natural forms was strongly mediated by his preoccupation with contemporary art." 

Viipuri (Vyborg) City Library TodayDamaged and neglected over time, the library has undergone a still-in-progress restoration that has helped expose more people to Aalto's work.

Up through March 1, 2015, "Alvar Aalto: Second Nature" seeks to expand the understanding of his career. Its natural to make the connection between his work and organic forms. Consider how his blockbuster design for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair, as well as the Scandinavian showcases at the Milan Triennale, pushed the concept internationally. But he was engrossed in contemporary art and culture, according to Eisenbrand, a collector of modern art, friend to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and such a film fanatic that he went so far as to design a cinema, an outgrowth of his engagement with avant-garde movies and role in a Finnish film club. In addition to examining the furniture and architecture projects he’s known for — delving into the ways the Baker House project exemplified mass individuality by providing unique views for each room — his engagement with contemporary culture and an array of lesser-known commissions and projects are on display. Plans for an art museum in Tehran and a unique plywood, leather and bent steel chair from the Paimio Sanatorium project are among the rare pieces and projects being showcased. 

Living Room, Maison Louis Carre in Bayzoches-sur-Guyonne, France (1956-1951)

Aalto designed this private residence for an acclaimed French art dealer in a secluded location 40 kilometers from Paris. The living room, filled with furniture specially built for the home, exemplifies a balance of textures and space and provide sweeping views of the outdoors.

"He was someone who was able to merge vernacular ideas with very universal ideas," says Eisenbrand. "Another thing we can just touch on in the exhibit is how political developments influenced his career. The fact that Finland had just become independent and sought to define itself as a western country played a role in [Aalto] examining and drawing from a universal western architectural history." 

Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland (1939)

Commissioned to build an "experimental" home by a wealthy couple, Aalto began experimenting with serpentine shapes and forms. Supposedly the home was influenced by Fallingwater; Aalto was so taken by Wright's then cutting-edge design that he tried to sell the couple on the idea of building over a stream.

Villa Mariea Interior

Aalto's use of birch logs of varying length helped bring the surroudning forest inside the villa, and supported both the structure and the naturalistic motif.

Aalvar Aalto Sitting on a Paimio Chair in the 1930s

This photomontage shows the designers relaxing on a chair he constructed for the famous Paimio Sanatorium project. A lighter pieces constructed of bent plywood and still manufactured by Artek, the chair was meant to help the tuberculosis patients in the institution breather easier.

Aalto on his boat Nemo Propheta in the 1960s.

Paimio Armchair N°41 (1932)

A different view of Aalto's famous bent birch chair.

Pendant Lamp A 331, Beehive (1953)

These lamps were first introduced as part of Aalto's work on the University of Jyväskylä.

Iran Museum of Modern Art, Shiraz, Iran (1969–1970)

The concept for this never-completed museum, which got as far as the model phase, consisted of a stepped series of rooms rising out of the rocky plateau above the Iranian city.