Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (1898-1976), better known simply as Alvar Aalto, was a profilic architect and designer revered in his home country Finland and known at least by architecture buffs outside it. (Being listed first in any alphabetical index probably doesn't hurt.)


Aalto is remembered for his work on many of Finland's best known public buildings, including Finlandia Hall and the House of Culture in Helsinki, as well as much of the design of the entire cities of Seinäjoki and Rovaniemi, and the Espoo campus of his alma mater, the Helsinki University of Technology. Many of Aalto's buildings are located outside Finland, including a student dormitory at MIT, flats in Zürich, an art museum in Shiraz...

A proponent of Functionalism, most biographies wax eloquent about his "expression of the organic relationship between man, nature and buildings" or "a synthesis of life in materialized form", drawing parallels to Frank Lloyd Wright -- but having had the dubious pleasure of completing my university education nearly exclusively in Aalto's buildings I have to say that I find him a bit overhyped. Everything that Aalto touched during his 60-year career has been effectively canonized, which is somewhat unfortunate as many of his earlier works are, to be quite frank, concrete monstrosities that aren't even funky enough to qualify as Brutalist. Even Finlandia Hall, regarded by many as his masterpiece, looks fine from the outside but its acoustics are terrible and the marble covering it is totally unsuitable for the harsh Finnish climate, requiring horrendously expensive resurfacing every few decades. (It would have made far more sense to replace the marble with a durable material, like white granite, but no -- how could we violate the artistic legacy of the Great Aalto?)

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Enough grumbling about architecture! Aalto may have left even a bigger mark on furniture design, although few associate his name with it: those precisely crafted, stark, often wooden chairs and tables now associated worldwide with "expensive Scandinavian design" (and, in these days, IKEA) are largely based on Aalto's legacy. The Artek company, founded by Aalto with his wife and two colleagues, continues to market the originals. They're pricy but durable and the styling is truly ageless -- the table I'm typing this on was designed in 1933, and trendy dotcoms are still snapping them up by the truckload.

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Aalto's unique Savoy Vase won a competition at the Paris World Fair in 1936 and is, by some reckonings, "perhaps the best recognized glass object on the planet". The bowl and many dishes based on the same idea are still marketed by Iittala in their Aalto line -- a pun, since "aalto" means wave in Finnish and that's the way they look -- and remain best-sellers year after year.

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