On St Mary’s Road in South London stands an exemplar of British Modernist architecture. Once the Pioneer Health Centre, it not only served as an experiment on preventative healthcare but also a social centre for working-class families. A photograph taken in its opening year of 1935 shows the children’s playground furnished with chairs and tables designed by the Finnish architect-designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).[i] Why was Aalto’s furniture found to be appropriate in such facility, especially in a space created for children?
Alvar Aalto is one of the leading figures of Modernism and plywood furniture in the twentieth century. When discussing his design for Paimio Sanatorium (a hospital in Finland completed in 1933), Aalto explained his preference for wood as the material is ‘better for the human touch’.[ii] The moulded wood furniture he created for the sanatorium was light, flexible and easy to clean. With the feeling of warmth and comfort associated with timber and the hygienic quality of its coated surfaces, his furniture was well-suited for the interwar pursuit of well-being and health.
In a lecture he gave in London after receiving the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 1957, Alvar Aalto stated:
‘We should work for simple, good, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically fitted to the little man in the street.’[iii]
Less expensive than the British products of the time,[iv] his plywood furniture could be found in Modernist public spaces across England, including the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea. At the opening of the Finsbury Health Centre in 1938, where Aalto’s pieces filled the waiting area, the architect Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) expressed ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.[v]
Alvar Aalto designed a chair (similar to Fig. 1) for the children’s section of the City Library in Viipuri, Finland (now Vyborg, Russia) in 1935. The circular seat, bent legs (produced by a technique Aalto patented in 1933) and rounded edges give a sense of protection to children. The incorporation of birch plywood and veneer makes the chair light but, at the same time, robust enough for children to move around. Included in a 1950s catalogue of furniture for kindergartens, healthcare and day-care centres approved by the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare in Finland, the chair was recognised for meeting the specific needs of children.[vi] Thanks to their practicality and simplicity, Aalto’s designs possess a timeless appeal, which has contributed to their continuous production and reproduction today (Fig. 2).
The architectural journalist Philip Morton Shand (1888-1960), who organised ‘Wood only: The Exhibition of Finnish Furniture’ to showcase Aalto’s work at the Fortnum and Mason department store in 1933, wrote to the designer saying ‘You will be long remembered in England.’[vii] 85 years after Alvar Aalto’s furniture was first displayed in London, you are invited to come and look at the children’s chair (Fig. 1) in our upcoming exhibition ‘Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today’ at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green (from 30 March to 2 September 2018, free entry). We would love to hear what you think of the chair and the many other wonderful Nordic designs on display!
[i] The photograph ‘Pioneer Health Centre, St Mary’s Road, Peckham, London: the children’s playground at night’ is in the RIBA collections (reference no. RIBA7318): https://www.architecture.com/image-library/RIBApix/image-information/poster/pioneer-health-centre-st-marys-road-peckham-london-the-childrens-playground-at-night/posterid/RIBA7318.html (accessed on 10 Mar 2018)
[ii] Alvar Aalto Furniture (Museum of Finnish Architecture, Finnish Society of Arts and Crafts and ARTEK, 1984), p.118.
[iii] R.I.B.A. Journal (May 1957), p.262.
[iv] H. Charrington, ‘Retailing Aalto in London before Artek’, in Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World, ed. N. Stritzler-Levine and T. Riekko (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), p.109.
[v] J. Kinchin, ‘Urban Health: Two Centers’, in Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012), p.119.
[vi] “The Artek ’Manifesto’ in Practice: Art, Interiors, Propaganda”, in Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World, ed. N. Stritzler-Levine and T. Riekko (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), p.343.
[vii] H. Charrington, ‘Retailing Aalto in London before Artek’, in Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World, ed. N. Stritzler-Levine and T. Riekko (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), p.103.