Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is a Finnish architect, town planner and designer, follower of functionalism and organic architecture. Many of its buildings fit harmoniously into the landscape, with which they form an architectural whole.
From an early age, this son of a land surveyor showed interest and a disposition for the decorative arts. He created everyday objects such as the famous Aalto Vase and laminated and curved wooden furniture.
Nevertheless, it is first as an architect that Aalto will impose himself on the international scene. In 1929, he designed the building of the Turun Sanomat newspaper in Turku (his first functionalist building), and two years later took part in the design of the exhibition for the 700th anniversary of Turku, which would be his first complete modern-style project presented to the Scandinavian public.
These remarkable beginnings will be followed by many widely acclaimed architectural achievements, the library of Viipuri (now Vyborg in Russia) (1927-1935), the sanatorium of Paimio (1929-1933) and the pavilion of Finland for the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1937 and New York in 1939.
Unlike his modernist contemporaries in Germany and Italy, who advocated the use of industrial materials such as steel and glass, Aalto made plywood his material of choice. From 1929, he began to study veneer techniques and explored the limits of molded plywood with Otto Korhonen, technical director of a furniture factory in the Turku region.
These experiences would lead to his most technically innovative wheelchairs, such as the Paimio 41 (1931-1932). This design, both functional and attractive, will immediately signal to the international avant-garde the new path opened up by the use of plywood as well as the emergence of a vocabulary of softer and warmer forms.
In 1935, the Aalto couple founded the Artek company. Its technique of bending the wood will allow, for the first time, to anchor the legs directly under the seat without using any frame or additional structure. This original technique gave birth to the series of seats with L-shaped (L-leg, 1932-1933), Y-shaped (Y-leg, 1946-1947) and fan-shaped (fan-leg, 1954) legs.
Aalto also worked independently with Riihimäki (1933) and Iittala (1936) glasses. Just like his furniture and his architecture, his glass creations are characterized by their organic forms. The 1936 Savoy Vase has become a classic. Its sinuous shape could also be an allusion to its name, which means "wave" in Finnish. Either way, the rhythmic, asymmetrical lines of the Savoy express the quintessence of nature and herald the flowing forms that would be the hallmark of post-war Scandinavian design.
A convinced follower of the humanizing vocation of design, Aalto refused not only rigid geometric shapes but also metal tubes and other artificial materials, which he considered too far removed from nature. His work was particularly well received in Great Britain and the United States from the 1930s and 1940s. His ideas as the "founding father of organic design" greatly influenced post-war designers such as Charles Eames and Ray Eames.
In 1952, Aalto married the architect Elissa Mäkiniemi, with whom he collaborated until his death. The Museum of Modern Art in New York devoted three major exhibitions to him (in 1938, 1984 and 1997). Inspired by the relationship between man and nature, Aalto's global and humanistic approach is the philosophical ground on which Scandinavian design has developed and flourished.
More builder than theoretician, he took functional sides and used standardized elements, but above all he showed extreme formal freedom: avoiding systematic recourse to orthogonal lines, he often preferred curved or oblique lines in relation to a free and asymmetrical plan, generating a continuous space with subtle articulations. Finally, he was above all concerned with harmonizing his constructions with the surrounding site and adapting them to the specificity of the programme. His approach is similar in many respects to that of Frank Lloyd Wright.