A Seductive Designer; (1)Alvar Aalto, the Finnish Architect Who Made the British Fall for Restrained Scandinavian Design, Is Celebrated at the Barbican(2)HOMES & PROPERTY

Article excerpt


ALVAR Aalto, the designer who taught us to love open plan living - with sliding walls and floor-to-ceiling windows - was one of Scandinavia's first Modern masters, famous for an astonishing range of blond-wood furniture classics and the man behind the world's most familiar glass vase.

He was a leader among 20th century Modernists, and, though he died in 1976, his influence on our homes has never been stronger: today we crave open-plan everything, creating adaptable living spaces in which we can work, rest, cook and play.

His designs were softer than some.

Instead of making furniture with cold, tubular-steel frames, Aalto used wood, and introduced curves, organic shapes, upholstery, beautiful lighting, textured ceramic tiling and plain brick, and rooted his buildings in the landscape.

Aalto gave modern design a human touch and trusted his emotions.

"I don't think there's so much difference between reason and intuition," he said. "Intuition can sometimes be extremely rational." His individual approach made him the father of "soft Modernism", which has always appealed to British tastes, and won him the Royal Institute of British Architects' prestigious Gold Medal in 1957. Now his work is on show in the first major Aalto retrospective in the UK, at the Barbican.

Born in Finland, in the closing years of the 19th century, Alvar Aalto trained as an architect and set up his own small practice in his early twenties. His career took off as Modernism was gaining momentum; he designed cafes and exhibitions at first, before gaining his first major commission - when he was barely 30 - for a tuberculosis sanatorium set in a forest.

He and his architect wife, Aino, designed everything in the crisp, white building, with its sunny terraces, from its wood-framed furniture, to its light fittings, washbasins and door handles.

The building won him international acclaim, while the furniture captured British imaginations so completely that, in 1933, the UK hosted Aalto's first exhibition - in the unlikely venue of Fortnum & Mason. His handsome chairs, stools and tables - all made from tactile birch and plywood, featured sensual, flowing shapes and cantilevered seating, intriguing stacking chairs and stools with legs that curved at the top to tuck under the seat.

These fresh designs attracted huge crowds. Such was the demand for this elegant and well-crafted modern work that a company, Finmar, was set up in 1935 to market the furniture in the UK.

At the peak of the subsequent Finnfever, 80 per cent of all Finland's furniture exports were sent to Britain.

The furniture remains in production and is today made by the Finnish company Artek. It includes the famous Aalto circular birchwood stool, which has been made continuously since the 1930s, and has sold more than seven million worldwide. Also selling by the million is the Aalto vase, designed for the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki (Aalto's classy interior design from 1936 remains intact and is among the smartest places in town). …