Alvar and Aino Aalto: Furniture and design.
Sammlung Bischofberger
Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 28.11.2004 – 27.2.2005

“We feel with astronomic certainty that our only fixed point as colleagues is our work at an international level.”
Alvar Aalto to Walter Gropius in a letter of 23.10.1930

At the end of the year 2004, the Kunsthalle Bielefeld will present an exhibition of classic furniture – also including lighting and vases, fifty original drawings and twenty historic photographs – showcasing the work of the great Finnish interior designers Alvar and Aino Aalto. Starting in 1929 Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino developed a unique language for modern living which still holds its own internationally today.

What is Aalto furniture? Its most salient feature is the use of angled, moulded beechwood to retain the verticals and horizontals of the modern chair or table. These retaining supports stand proud of the table surface or chair seat such that stools, library chairs or circular tables can readily be stacked. In their armchair designs the Aaltos devised a number of experiments which eventually allowed them to bend thin single sheets of laminated beech with the result that the Paimio chair of 1932 looks deceptively like a gentle wave. Alvar Aalto compared their furniture production to the making of musical instruments.

In 1929 the Aaltos began to work on their forward-looking chairs and armchairs with Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture in mind; by 1936 – with a cantilever chair for the first Aalto house in Helsinki (which became known as the ‘Tank’) – they could offer the international market a fully coherent domestic range. In the years to follow they extended their designs to cupboards, vases, lamps and other forms of seating. From 1945 onwards, Alvar Aalto was approached by numerous international clients – amongst them the Berlin Hansaviertel – and realised his domestic range in both private and public interiors. As he did so his architectural language as a whole took on an increasingly sculptural aspect.

As early as 1931 – with the help of the architectural expert and critic Sigfried Giedion (who immediately wanted to manufacture Aalto designs) – Aalto furniture was already being distributed in Switzerland. A small chain of shops, which went by the name of ‘wohnbedarf’ and initially opened in Zurich and Bern, pictured a Möbius strip on the cover of its first brochure for Aalto furniture. It showed two seats, bold black-and-white typography by Herbert Bayer and a filigree support element. In view of the surprising moulding of the material, the ‘new wooden Aalto furniture’ was patented in Switzerland and other European countries. The forms developed by the Aaltos were described as ‘full of character’ and Giedion spoke of ‘surprising elasticity’, ‘a new kind of comfort’ and ‘unusually fresh design solutions’.

Following this success, in 1935 the Aaltos founded Artek, a Finnish furniture distribution company which still exists today. In 1936 Artek launched a catalogue aimed at the British market, promoting Aalto furniture as not so hard and cold as tubular steel furniture, as well as being less expensive. The dearest armchair, Model 37, initially retailed in Great Britain at £12; the simple stool in natural, black, blue or green cost as little as 10 shillings. And the sales pitch declared: “As the chairs are only waxed and polished, the excellent craftsmanship can be examined without difficulty; no daubing or staining hides possible faults.”

The affinity between the Aaltos’ designs and modern art was first apparent at the 1938 exhibition Aalto. Architecture and Furniture in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Philip Johnson, who designed the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in 1968 was already in touch with the Aaltos in 1930. John McAndrew, onetime Curator of Architecture and Industrial Art at the Museum of Modern Art, regarded the Aaltos as members of the second generation of the International Style, with the founders being Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Oud and Le Corbusier. In McAndrew’s view, Alvar Aalto was the most important designer of that younger generation: “To the heritage of pure geometric shapes, the younger men have added free organic curves; to the stylistic analogies with the painters, Mondrian and Léger, they have added Arp.”

Aalto’s first documented interest in furniture design is his letter of 14.7.1928 to the Berlin firm of Thonet GmbH responding to an advertisement for modern door furniture in Wasmuth’s monthly magazine for the world of building. In his letter Aalto not only asked for a number of catalogues, he also ordered 28 Marcel Breuer armchairs with grey fabric and 14 B9s, Breuer’s stackable tubular steel stools with wooden seats. With examples of Breuer’s furniture in their own home, the Aaltos quickly embarked on radical experimentation with wood as their material. Soon the production of Aalto furniture was booming. On 4.11.1933 wohnbedarf wrote to Finland to say that ‘there was interest on all sides – above all in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France – in taking out patents for stacking furniture, and for your sofa’.

The Bielefeld exhibition explores the genesis and multiplicity of furniture, glassware and lighting by Alvar and Aino Aalto spanning the period 1929 to the 1950s. The armchairs, chairs and tables by the Aaltos have become incunabula of modern living, along with certain items by Mies van der Rohe and the Eames Brothers. The exhibits in the Bielefeld presentation are on loan from the magnificent collection of Christina and Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich and the Alvar Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä, Finland. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue richly illustrated with images and documents, published in English and German editions by Hatje/Cantz Publishers.

Kunsthalle Bielefeld
curator of communikation
Christiane Heuwinkel
Artur-Ladebeck-Str. 5
33602 Bielefeld
0521-32 999 50-17


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