Aino and Alvar Aalto: the mythical couple of Scandinavian design

If the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is well known to design enthusiasts as one of the pioneers of Scandinavian design, the role of his wife, Aino Aalto (1894-1949), is less well known. For 25 years, she worked alongside her husband in all of their agency’s projects, and later in those of the Artek company. This post is an opportunity to recall that Aino Aalto was not just the wife of…by revisiting the couple’s boldly executed works of architecture, interior design and furniture design.

Aino Marsio-Aalto & Alvar Aalto in the Artek-Pacoe showroom in New York, 1940
© Herbert Matter : courtesy of Aalto Family Collection

Aino Aalto née Marsio was four years older than Alvar Aalto. From 1913 she studied architecture at the Aalto School of Art, Design and Architecture in Helsinki, graduating in 1920. It was already very rare for a woman to study at university, especially to become an architect! Before she met her future husband, Aino Marsio successfully collaborated with several architects, including Oiva Kallio and Bengt Schalin (a garden architect and botanist), and travelled in Europe.

Alvar Aalto also studied architecture from 1916 to 1921 at the Technical University of Helsinki. It was there that he met Aino. In 1923, only two years after graduation, he opened his own architectural practice in Jyväskylä. a year later, he hired Aino as his assistant, and six months later he married her. For 25 years, Alvar and Aino designed and created together major architectural and design projects for their time.

Aerial view of the Viipuri Library, circa 1935, Finland, architecture: Alvar Aalto, 1927-1935. An emblematic work of the architect, an expression of modern style for its time.
© Courtesy of The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library
The Viipuri Library in 2014, partially restored. It is now part of the city of Vyborg, Russia. Unlike the 1st generation of Modern architects such as Gropius and Le Corbusier, Aalto favoured natural materials. For the library, this is the 1st time he has combined wood with concrete, white stucco, glass and steel.
© Courtesy of The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library and Petri Neuvonen
Viipuri Library, architecture: Alvar Aalto. Exterior view.
© Denis Esakov
Main entrance, Viipuri library, Alvar Aalto architecture.
Image © Courtesy of The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library and Petri Neuvonen
Viipuri Library, architecture: Alvar Aalto. Loan room in 2009, before the restoration work. One of the modern characteristics of the Alto style cylindrical zenithal openings.
Image © Courtesy of The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library
Interior of the Viipuri Library, Alvar Aalto architecture. A very innovative conference/meeting room for its time, as Aalto designed an undulating acoustic ceiling. This unique element built with wooden slats was to allow good sound transmission from all points of the very long room.
© Alvar Aalto Museum, photo: Gustaf Welin, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2014
Alvar and Aino Aalto with Aarne Erve inside the Viipuri library.
© Courtesy of The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library
Viipuri Library, interior, architecture: Alvar Aalto, 1927-1935.
© Wiki Arquitectura

Viipuri Library, interior, 2015. Architecture: Alvar Aalto, 1927-1935.
© Massis Sirapian

Although the Viipuri Library (pictured above) is generally credited to Alvar Aalto, the two architects collaborated so closely on each project that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish which works were Alvar’s or Aino’s. the couple’s career was marked by four mainly architectural projects: the design and construction of the Paimio Sanatorium (1928-1933), the interior decoration of the Savoy Restaurant (1937), the design of the Villa Mairea(1938-1939), and the construction of the Finnish pavilion at the New York World Fair (1939).

Paimio Sanatorium, architects : Aino & Alvar Aalto (1928-1933). View of the patients’ wing, sun terraces, 1930s.
Photo Gustaf Welin © Alvar Aalto Foundation
Paimio Sanatorium, architects: Aino & Alvar Aalto (1928-1933). View of the patients’ wing, sunny terraces alternating with interior spaces
Photo Maija Holma © Alvar Aalto Foundation
Paimio Sanatorium, architects: Aino & Alvar Aalto (1928-1933). Top floor terrace, 1933.
Photo Gustaf Welin © Alvar Aalto Foundation
Paimio Sanatorium, architects: Aino & Alvar Aalto (1928-1933), interior view.
© Arquitectura Viva

The Paimio Sanatorium is considered, along with the Viipini Library, to be a functionalist achievement. The Aalto’s follow some of the principles of modern architecture laid down by Le Corbusier, such as the flat roof. However, it expresses the couple’s belief in humanistic design, hence the design of long, sunny balconies to which the beds of tuberculosis patients could be drawn. A sun terrace was designed to allow the more robust patients to get some fresh air.

What defines the Aalto architectural style? In addition to a strong humanistic approach, we can even speak of design adapted to the user experience: for the sanatorium, Alvar Aalto and his wife spent time imagining spaces from the point of view of tuberculosis patients lying in their beds; for the Viipuri Library, the reading spaces are arranged under a glass roof, the auditorium is designed with an undulating ceiling with acoustic qualities. Particular attention is paid to natural lighting and the living spaces are often very airy. They advocate a humanist design, somewhat at odds with the rigorist design that they consider too “cold” advocated by the European avant-garde (Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer). Instead of geometric lines, the Aalto family favoured organic curved lines.

Model of the Finnish pavilion, partial view of one of the interior facades consisting of a swinging wall made of dynamic wood, New York World’s Fair, 1939, architects: Aino and Alvar Aalto
© Alma Reyes

Vintage photo of the famous wooden wall designed for the Finnish pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939. Architects: Aino and Alvar Aalto. This wall, which seems to slope and envelop visitors, is made up of thin strips of wood that let the light through. A “work of genius” according to the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom the Aalto’s share a taste for design that brings people and nature closer together.

In 1935, the Aalto family, the art gallery owner Maire Gullichsen and the art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl founded the Artek company, which specialised in bentwood furniture, to distribute the furniture created by the architectural duo for architectural projects. Alvar Aalto and his wife conceive of the construction of a building as a total work of art, which includes the design of the interior surfaces, from furniture, lamps and glassware to fabrics. The interior of the Savoy Restaurant and the design of the Villa Mairea are concrete examples of this comprehensive approach.

Photographs of the Savoy Restaurant, 1937. The interior design of the restaurant is by Aino Aalto, Alvar Aalto and Dora Jung with the company Artek
Image © Artek
The Savoy Restaurant in 1937.
Image © Artek

Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland, architecture: Alvar Aalto & Aino Aalto, 1937-1938. The building has a U-shaped plan with an L-shaped living area to the east and a sauna to the west, connected by a gallery covered by a green roof. The Aalto’s philosophy was to design houses that fit into their natural surroundings. The relationship between man and nature was essential to them.
© Armin Linke

Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland, architecture: Alvar Alato & Aino Aalto, 1937-1938. View of the interior staircase of the Villa, a hymn to wood.
© Armin Linke

The decoration of the Savoy is marked by the creation of the Savoy Vase, which has become an iconic object of modern design. The object demonstrates the Aalto’s commitment to organic design, marked by rhythmic lines and flowing forms that find their inspiration in nature. It is a characteristic of their work that marks a departure from the concomitant development of the very “raw” aesthetic of the international architectural style and brings them closer to the style of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The iconic Savoy Vase, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto, 1936, also known as the Aalto Vase (in Finnish aalto means ‘the wave’).
Image © Artek

An important contribution of the Aalto’s to the history of design is their development of new methods for gluing and bending plywood. They filed several patents on wood bending. The Aalto family comes from a country with a strong woodworking tradition. Alvar Aalto refused, for example, to use metal tubes and other artificial materials used by the European avant-garde, which he considered too far removed from nature. They launched technically innovative chairs on the market, such as chair no. 41 (the famous Paimio chair), no. 31 (1931-1932), both of which were cantilevered. For the first time the legs are anchored under the seat without using a frame or additional structure

Alvar Aalto, Paimio chair model No. 41, 1931-1932, designed for the Paimio Sanatorium. The seat was designed to give patients an ideal position.
© Art Design Tendance

Artek 42 armchair, designed by Alvar Aalto, 1932. Aalto’s experiments with glued and bent plywood resulted in the creation of chairs that are both functional and comfortable.

Alvar Aalto, 1935. Chair 68 can be stacked up to 4 chairs high and is currently available from the publisher Artek with upholstery and in a variety of colours and finishes.

The wonderful chemistry of the Aalto duo came to an abrupt end in 1949, when Aino died of cancer. Thereafter, Alvar Aalto continued his career as an architect until the end of his life. The company Artek, which publishes the furniture designed by the Aalto couple, still exists and was acquired in 2013 by the publisher Vitra. Alvar & Aino Aalto left their mark on the design of thefirst part of the 20th century. Their ideas associated with organic design greatly influenced post-war designers such as Charles and Ray Eames.

François Boutard