The Love Story of Alvar and Aino Aalto

Last time we wrote about the love story between Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and his wife Ise. This Valentine’s Week we are dedicating to another mid-century power couple Alvar and Aino Aalto. 

Alvar Aalto is probably the most famous Finnish architect and designer. Maybe one of the most important works in the early years of his development was building a tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio, Finland. The project was completely dedicated and adapted to patients’ needs. This project was also the beginning of Aalto’s career as a furniture designer – because he invented the famous Paimio chair to help the patients with breathing. But through his professional career, Aalto wasn’t alone. His life partner and colleague Aino Aalto was also an architect and worked with him on many projects, including the interior of Paimio sanatorium.

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Alvar Aalto and Villa Mairea

Paimio sanatorium in Finland with famous Paimio chairs

Aino Aalto (at that time Marsio) met Alvar Aalto at the Helsinki University of Technology. She was extremely organized and shy, while Aalto’s personality was more lively and bohemian. A proof that opposites attract is that they fell in love in college and got married in 1924.

Their work was so close that nowadays it’s really hard to differentiate what was actually Aino’s or Alvar’s design in their Arkkitehtitoimisto Aalto company (that they founded and worked in from the 1920s to the 1940s). Aino’s work and input were the biggest in interior design and exhibition architecture. Her background was functionalist, and her style was clear and simple. For Aino, aesthetic could be reached through clear, simple and practical solutions.

Alvar & Aino Aalto Collection Bischofberger

Alvar & Aino Aalto Collection Bischofberger

Alvar and Aino Aalto believed in the principle of total design (Gesamtkunstwerk) and tried to connect art with technology. When they established their own furniture company Artek they made it one of their main principles (with Nils-Gustav Hahl and Maire Gullichsen). The company’s core ideas were based on investment in material, research, quality, and sustainability.

To sum it up, they believed in promoting modern visual art and popular education through rational furniture. This concept was revolving around Bauhaus principle “form following function” incorporating sculptural form that follows the adaptability of the human form.

As it was the time when only male architects were appreciated, the work of Aino Marsio-Aalto was disregarded from the history of design. Aino Aalto was thought of as just a glass designer and the wife of famous Alvar Aalto, but the reality is that they worked collaboratively as equal partners. As they were trained architects, interning with carpenters and working on constructions sites they differentiate from other famous mid-century couples like Charles and Ray Eames (read their love story here).

One of the most important innovations Alvar Aalto invented and patented in 1933. was the so-called L-leg system where the legs could be attached directly to the table. He thought this was his greatest achievement ever and compared it to the invention of the architectonic column. Some of the new methods Alvar Aalto managed to establish on an industrial scale was bending and splicing wood. In time, this development shaped how we perceive modernism and gave popularity to the furniture we use today. That’s why we believe Alvar and Aino were truly pioneers of modern furniture design.

Among other things, the couple worked on a Villa Mairea project that provided them with possibilities to design something in their own spirit – modern, new, but also luxurious. This is one of the best examples of their collaborations where Aino was in charge for the interior design, among other things.

For most of their years spent together, Aino and Alvar worked in Artek, traveling abroad looking at products suitable for selling, and looking for inspiration in certain product lines they admired. They both developed their company carefully and placed great importance on the company’s identity (making sure it included genuine materials, international approach and that it was devoted to connecting modern art with design).

Bending wood at the factory

Workers at the factory making chairs from Alvar Aalto’s design

They both sold their own furniture (and furniture of their colleagues and admired designers) within the company. When Artek’s managing director Nils-Gustav Hahl passed away, Aino took over his job. In January 1949. she passed away from cancer, which she was diagnosed with a few years earlier. The death of a loved one is always hard, and for Alvar to lose his creative partner and wife was really traumatic.

Nevertheless, during their life, and their professional career the Aalto couple really changed our perception of what furniture can be, from bulky, massive objects to clean, practical and aesthetically pleasing objects that are also functional.