For a week in spring term, first-year students on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA are liberated from their libraries and seminar rooms to learn on site in some of some of the world’s most design historical cities. This year’s lucky students had the opportunity to choose between visiting Istanbul, which we’ll hear more about in a post later this month, and Helsinki and Tallinn, the subject of Alicia Farrow’s guest post, which is filtered through the lens of Finnish architects and designers, Aino and Alvar Aalto.
If, as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa once said, ‘The door handle is the handshake of the building,’ then pulling back the wavy bronze door handle of the Academic Bookshop on our first day in Helsinki, felt like a personal welcome to Finland from the building’s architect, Alvar Aalto himself.
Although Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) and his wife Aino Aalto (1894-1949) were never the explicit focus of this year’s V&A/ RCA History of Design study trip to Helsinki and Tallinn, the architects gave us a useful introduction to the development of Finnish design during the early 20th century and, indeed, offered a springboard for writing about what was a packed week of architectural walking tours, boat trips, visits to museums, galleries, workshops and factories that explored how Finland sits within wider discussions of ‘modernism’ and global design history.
Having shaken hands with his 1969 building, so to speak, Aalto introduced us to his love of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork, ushering us seamlessly from the smallest detail of a handshake to the bold modernist articulation of space and light. With an architect’s delight in the theatrical big reveal, the regulated geometry of the bookshop’s dark copper exterior vanished behind us to reveal a bright, white marble atrium inside. This was topped with inverted glass skylights, while irregular pentagonal windows drew our eyes upwards through the vast space, as they collected precious Finnish daylight and channelled it down onto the books below.
A stone’s throw from the bookshop, across the city’s main esplanade, stands Artek’s flagship store. The Finnish furniture design company was co-founded in 1935 by the Aaltos, art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl, and the influential collector of art and design, Maire Gullichsen. They wanted to create objects that celebrated high-quality materials and technical craftsmanship, and they experimented extensively with the uses and properties of materials, such as laminated plywood. Many of Artek’s later creations, including one of the era’s most innovative chair designs (Model No. 41), came about as a result of their experimentation.
The team worked on an elegant solution to the age-old design problem of the junction between the vertical and the horizontal, and although it seems almost pedestrian to us now, the bent wood leg was a revolution in furniture design. Legs could be joined directly to the underside of seats and tables without the need for additional frameworks of wood, nails and screws.
The technique is now only too synonymous with Swedish furniture giant IKEA, who appropriated Artek’s classic ‘L Legged’ stool (Model No. 60). Modernism’s simplicity of design and ease of manufacture inevitably left it open to imitation, and indeed the effect IKEA has had on the original Scandinavian furniture design industry, and in forming our preconceptions of Scandinavian modernism, began to sink in as we window-shopped our way around Artek’s flawless showroom.
The following morning we hopped on a tram over to the city’s Munkkiniemi district, where Alvar and Aino designed and built their home in 1936, followed by a separate studio, a short walk away, in 1956. Visible in every inch of space is the architects’ careful use of colour and materials, clever manipulation of light and play on perspectives, which lend both buildings a fluidity and considered coherence. We especially enjoyed the double-sided cupboard that formed the dividing wall between kitchen and dining spaces at Aalto House. Complete with drawers that push and pull from both sides, it epitomises the space’s elegant functionality.
Aalto House and Studio gave us a greater understanding of the Aaltos’ approach to modernism, which, although very reminiscent of the Bauhaus, softened the latter’s idealism with natural Finnish materials, such as timber and granite. An amphitheatre space carved into the garden landscape at Aalto Studio illustrates this integration of nature and design. Similarly, at the Arabia factory, we also saw the Aaltos’ love of nature in design evident in the famous Savoy Vase, produced by the Iittala glass company, that many believe to be inspired by the organic curves of the Finnish landscape.
Having explored Finnish design from modernism to the present, we were also eager to get a glimpse at its future, so we headed over to two of Helsinki’s leading design schools to talk to students, who were busy working on product design, fashion, woven textiles, and architectural projects. The 20th-century architects also greeted us here, at the university named in their honour. Aalto University consists not only of the two design schools, but also includes schools of technology, business and economics, which speaks of the importance of the Aaltos’ role in Finnish history, and Finland’s ongoing commitment to design.
The Aaltos’ approach to design and architecture – its fastidious eye for detail, commitment to modernist ideals and close references to nature – has certainly shaped perceptions of Finnish design for much of the 20th century. From our initial ‘handshake’ at the Academic Bookshop, the Aaltos became our trusted guides as we went on to encounter a much wider range of Finnish design histories throughout the week.
To see what else V&A/RCA History of Design students have been up to, read our other blog posts, check our pages on the RCA website and take a look at Un-Making Things, a student-run online platform for all things design history and material culture.
We’d love to meet you if you’re considering studying History of Design. The V&A/RCA History of Design Programme will hold a special Open Day on Wednesday 1 July, which begins in the Humanities Show space at 3pm, before moving to the Humanities Seminar Room. For more details about how to find us, see here.