Alvar Aalto's Healing Instrument

Heralded as revolutionary in design, Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium showcased the young architect’s uncanny ability to synthesize form and function for specific ends. Aalto won the commission to design the Finnish tuberculosis hospital in 1928, and, as he himself explained, “The main purpose of the building [was] to function as a medical instrument.” With the goal of patient wellbeing and rehabilitation foremost in mind, Aalto created a space that optimized daylight (considered highly beneficial for treating tuberculosis) and accommodated for social interaction through a wide range of communal spaces, including a library and workshops. Aalto worked closely with his wife Aino to personally see to the hospital’s interior, for which they personally developed custom lighting, furniture, and finishings.

Privileging the individual’s experience in his approach to every design problem, Aalto produced a building that transcended the brittle architectural doctrines of its period and which continues to radiate a profound sense of human empathy today.

Ellis Woodman on the Paimio Sanatorium, Architectural Review

Alvar Aalto

Born in Kuortane, Finland, in 1898, Alvar Aalto began his formal training studying architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology. It was here that he met his future wife and collaborator, Aino Marsio who was also an architectural student in the program. The two were married in 1924. In 1929, Aalto won a competition to design a new sanatorium in Paimio for patients convalescing from tuberculosis; a total Gesamtkunstwerk, Aalto designed everything at Paimio, from the chairs to the sinks, to create a soothing and sanitary environment for the patients. In 1932, Aalto’s architectural drawings were featured in the landmark Modern Architecture: International Exhibition which was curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock and included the latest architectural innovations from around the globe. In 1935, Alvar and Aino Aalto, Nils-Gustav Hahl, and Maire Gullichsen formed the design company, Artek. In addition to a focus on practicality, the work of Artek is marked by its use of light-colored woods, organic forms, and biomorphic lines. Though, many of Aalto’s designs were imbued with playful elements like zebra prints and reindeer fur or bright pops of colored paint on the seats of his three-legged stools.

In 1936, Aalto won the Karhula-Iittala Glass Design Competition for the flowing and animated shape of his glass vase design and the following year he was invited to design the Finnish Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris. His organic pavilion design won him international acclaim, and it led to a large retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1938. Later in his architectural career, Aalto would take on urban planning with his designs for the city centers of Seinäjoki and Rovaniemi in Finland. Aalto passed away in 1976, but he is renowned for his objects and buildings that combined the modernist style with an outstanding and authentic Finnish aesthetic.

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