Despite being less well known than her husband, Aino Aalto was an important part of the modernist design movement taking place in Finland in the early 20th Century.
An active designer alongside her husband Alvar, both sit elegantly at the intersection of Nordic classicism and early functionalism, their work reflecting an understanding and appreciation for principles of lasting utility and beauty.
Aino was born in Finland in 1894. The industry was so male dominated, that when she entered architectural studies at the Helsinki University of Technology, only 10 women had graduated from programs of architecture within Finland. She went on to work with Alvar at his studio, the two finding a kinship in their love of design, and shortly after, each other.
To the untrained eye it is very difficult to unpick Aino’s work from Alvar’s, they cooperated closely on many projects, and even competed in the same design competitions. Over the course of her career Aino became known as a talented draftswoman for the office of Alvar Aalto architecture and monumental art, often translating Alvar’s sketches into technical drawings. Noted for her focused and humble way of working, she was no doubt a pioneering woman in the field, responsible for significant portions of the firm’s work, and author of the interiors and furniture designs of the entire Aalto portfolio.
Aino focused on the practical aspects of design, while retaining a strong, sensitive nature. Some of her most famous solo works are the collections of glassware called Bölgeblick, inspired by the rings a stone makes when thrown into the water. Simple stacking glasses were created emanating the effect, and to this day they continue to be manufactured by the company Iittala.
The Aalto’s collaborated on interior fittings of their buildings including custom furniture, light fixtures, and textiles, with Aino assisting Alvar in the design process of every piece. One of the most notable was for his prize-winning Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Aino helped to create bentwood and tubular-steel pieces, along with her own custom designs, showcasing a modernist approach that perfectly complemented Alvar’s experimental buildings.
Aino’s greatest contribution to 20th Century design was as creative director of Artek, a company she and Alvar founded in 1935 with their patron Maire Gullichsen and the art historian Nils-Gustaf Hahl. Their goal was to synthesise architectural design through the lens of functionalism to improve everyday living. Establishing Artek also gave the Aaltos the necessary framework for marketing and distributing their furniture locally, and abroad.
Aino Aalto died in 1949 at the early age of 54. Her death deeply shocked Alvar; she had been his true love, a key figure in everything to do with their shared work and their concept of everyday modern living. It was perhaps the passing of Aino that brought new depth and monumentalism to Aalto’s vision, for he went on to create some of the most significant buildings across 20th Century Europe and America.
Aino Aalto’s contributions undeniably influenced all areas of Scandinavian design, as well as the subsequent worldwide modernist movement. She is now rightfully accredited alongside her husband, as he would have wanted.
‘Goodnight my sweet Aino, I miss you’
Alvar & Aino Aalto’s personal letters and diary entries, AALTO Directed by Virpi Suutari
ANNA GRASSHAM / Head of Modern Design
Banner Image (detail): Aino Aalto Sitting on a Paimio Chair. Museum: Alvar Aalto Museum / Alamy