Aino + Alvar Aalto

Aino and Alvar Aalto were renowned Finnish architects, industrial designers, craftspeople, and furniture makers. Together with two others, the couple founded the furniture company Artek in 1935. Alvar Aalto considered himself an architect first, with other design typologies falling within the architectural domain. Aino Aalto covered a vast range of materials and design genres, including textiles, glass, furniture, and architecture as well. While Alvar Aalto is often attributed (perhaps misattributed) to most of the furniture works by Artek on the market, it is worth noting that Aino was head designer at Artek, before she eventually became managing director. Artek still exists today and produces works by both Aino and Alvar Aalto.

Some of Aino's most known independent pieces include a glassware set that was designed for the Finnish glass company Iitala, along with a Child's chair (model 103) produced by Artek, both of which can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Aino worked on a number of collaborations with her husband Alvar as well, including works of architecture and the now iconic Savoy vase. Between the 1920s and 1930s, Aino and Alvar worked on furniture pieces in great depth and explored some of their bent plywood forms. In designing the Paimio Sanatorium, the interiors and furnishings were part of the scope (via the concept of a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk). Aino took a leading role in the interiors of the building, as she did often prior to her passing. The notable Paimio chair was designed for this project and remains on of the most famous Artek pieces. Aino passed away from cancer in 1949.

Alvar Aalto was an exceptionally productive architect, alongside his work in furniture, lighting, and glassware. He designed some 500 buildings during his life, approximately half of which were designed during Aino's lifetime. Aino and Alvar were known earlier on in their marriage to submit entries to architectural competitions separately, reflecting both of their competencies and confidence. In the architectural domain, the Santa Maria Assunta church in Riola (constructed from 1975-1993) is one of Alvar Aalto's most stunning and recognizable works. It reflects Alvar's interest in an organic modernism, which differentiated him from architects like Mies Van Der Rohe. The MIT Baker House Dormitory is another terrific and earlier example of Alvar's work. It utilized a sinuous curve in its plan, with a more reserved material palette, fitting for the New England vernacular of the time.

In collecting furniture pieces by Alvar and Aino Aalto, it is worth paying close attention to the approximate dates of production and perhaps more importantly, the patina of each individual piece. Since Artek has been producing Aalto furniture since its inception, it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly when a piece was produced, especially if it lacks a label or a legible marking. From our experience, a considerable amount of information can be gleaned from the condition and vibrance of the wood finish, alongside the wear and use found on upholstered pieces. Newer Artek furniture or those produced since approximately the 1970s carry a brighter appearance to their birch plywood and likely used a different type of finish. Examples made since circa 2002 often retain a more identifiable label stating something like "Original Alvar Aalto Design, Artek, Made in Finland 2002." As is often found with early Knoll pieces, this may in fact be primarily because the stickers are still sticking at this point and have yet to fall off. For a time during the 2000s, Modernica in Los Angeles was also producing some designs made to Aalto's spec, which should be noted when looking for newer examples. Those Modernica examples are unrelated to any Artek works. For examples pre-dating the 1970s and certainly before the 2000s, it is helpful to consider what design is being assessed and whether those designs were widely produced. If it is a more successful or iconic piece such as the 37 400 Tank chair, Paimio chair, or 60 stool, then it may require a more particular assessment, however, some more obscure designs may indeed be easier to identify, as some were not widely produced and may be more generally associated with a specific period.

At the moment that this is being written, we have a set of 8 Aalto 611 stacking chairs, which were produced in 1951 or very close to. We know this because they were purchased new for a house designed by James Speyer and constructed in 1951. Example of the 611 chairs from previous sales typically show 1950s production, thus helping to further assess this model. As a similar example, we also have a 37 400 tank chair and 34 402 lounge chair in-house, which came from the same estate in Vermont as an early Knoll grasshopper chair. Aside from the clear signs of patina, original and torn upholstery, and oxidized hardware that all help to signify a production run, we also knew that these pieces were purchased new from the same owner and that at the very least, the Grasshopper chair was no longer in production by 1965, with that run beginning in 1946. We concluded that based on other examples we were familiar with and based on other provenance from the original owner that the chairs date to the early 1950s. The point of these examples is that Aalto furniture is often imperfect in its preservation of details and is not as well documented or consistent as Eames furniture by Herman Miller with dates and patent numbers being so trackable in their case. A nuanced eye and investigation is often required to identify year and model number, which can be further aided with books published on Aalto's furniture for instance. Lastly, keep an eye out for markings that say Finsven, Finmar, or Artek. All of those markings were used on early Aalto pieces and can help to further identify your piece.

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