Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Bard Graduate Center Gallery on Manhattan's Upper West Side and saw "Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World," an exhibit devoted to the interior and furniture design of the Finnish modern masters Alvar and Aino Aalto.
I'm pretty familiar with Aaltos's work and his furniture in particular. I remember fist seeing his chairs at MOMA in the 70's and then, during my semester abroad in Copenhagen in 1987 it was everywhere - in schools, libraries, restaurants, homes, offices, etc. Their ubiquitous presence blended into a neutral Scando background. The furniture was, in a sense, a great humanist equalizer. And, yes, I got tired of it though not the star pieces like the Paimio chair or the "39" chaise.
Artek was, in a sense, the homeware manufacturing branch of the Aalto office. And like any aspiring Modern movement, it was founded with a manifesto. The threefold mission of Artek was to: organize exhibits of modern art, design modern interiors, and to propagandize modernism. Idealism incarnate.
This is mass production furniture softened by its materiality. Wood is the primary material complemented with fabric cushions or webbing. This is not the cold International Style modernism of tublular steel and shiny leather (think Breuer or LeCorbusier) but a warmer, more regionally inspired modernism meant to be touched. Aalto's furniture is completely in sync with his buildings.
I confess though, that I'm not so fond of the Aalto's lighting primarily because I view it as an inchoate version of Poul Henningsen's roughly contemporaneous work. In fact, there's quite a similarity between their fixtures but Henningsen's are far more refined with crisper and sleeker lines that convey speed. But I love the Aino Aalto drinking glasses with their inherently anti-slip, saw-toothed profile.
Behind the Aaltos and their business partners, stands silent hero Maija Heikinheimo, who served as Aalto's right hand man and a key force in the development of Artek. His drawings are phenomenal and convey a skill and visual acuity that are rarely found. He drew as well or better than Alvar himself. That said, one could argue that some of the most compelling drawings in the show are those Alvar made of his wife as she was dying of breast cancer.