Trending Now: The Alvar Aalto Vase
Lighter than air and smooth as a billowing curtain, this Finnish masterpiece has been transforming tabletops for more than eight decades.
Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto — known around the world as Alvar Aalto — had an international reputation long before he created the undulating glass pieces that would make him a household name.
Aalto was born in 1898 in Kuortane, a municipality in western Finland. Finland was then a part of the Soviet Union — a distinction that would eventually affect Aalto’s studies at the Technical Institute of Helsinki, as the young architect-to-be put his schoolwork aside to participate in his homeland’s successful struggle for independence.
After receiving his degree in 1921 and touring Europe, Aalto set up shop in Jyväskylä (in central Finland) and married one of his collaborators, the designer and architect Aino Marsio (whom he had known from his university days — and who must have been charmed in the studio, as she had considered him “arrogant and [a] snob” when they were in school). Success came quickly to Alvar and Aino: In 1927 and 1928, they received commissions for three buildings (the Turun Sanomat newspaper headquarters, a tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio and the city library in Viipuri). The library in particular showcased what would come to be known as Aalto’s characteristic style, a marriage of logic and formal geometry with organic details inspired by the natural world. All three projects also demonstrated Aalto’s interest in what one might call the little things, or the fixtures and furnishings that adorned his creations. One of those little things would have a massive impact on his reputation.
Two of Aalto’s three significant early commissions came about as the result of design competitions, which were a common method of selecting architecture firms in Finland at the time. In autumn of 1936, after the Aaltos had relocated their firm to Helsinki and established Artek (a portmanteau of “art” and “technology,” and the company the Aaltos would use to produce and promote Finnish furniture), the Karhula-Iitala glassworks — a venerable Finnish company founded in 1881 by Petrus Magnus Abrahamsson — announced a new competition. Entrants were to present designs that would be produced and displayed in the Finnish pavilion at the World’s Fair, which would be held in Paris in 1937. That announcement was music to the Aaltos’ ears: In fact, Aina had taken second place in a Karhula-Iitala competition in 1932 with her Bölgeblick collection (which went on to win a gold medal at the Milan Triennial in 1936 and is also in production today).
This time around, Aalto (whose surname means “wave,” a serendipitous nod to his entry) was inspired by the traditional costumes of the Sámi, indigenous people whose homeland extends from northern portions of Norway, Sweden and Finland all the way to portions of the former USSR (the fluted portions of these pieces look familiar, no?). He called his offering “Eskimåerindens skinbuxxa” (“the Eskimo woman’s leather breeches”) and presented five vase design plans. Spoiler: He won.
Aalto and Karhula-Iittala hit upon a production method for executing his designs by creating wooden molds that would burn away as molten glass was blown into them, and the pieces they created were a smash hit at the World’s Fair in Paris (where a turn through the Finnish pavilion was compared to “a magical forest stroll”) — and at the World’s Fair in New York two years later, where Frank Lloyd Wright called them “a work of genius”). The glassworks (who owned the rights to the vases) launched into production on a larger scale, and the pieces have been available in an ever-increasing array of colors and scales ever since.
Though times have changed, the time-intensive process behind the vessels’ creation has remained decidedly old-school: Each piece calls for 12 craftsmen, 10 hours of work and temperatures that reach 1,100 degrees Celsius. A slightly more textured surface is a hallmark of the earliest Aalto vases, as those original wooden molds added a bit of variegation to the glass.
Impressed with Aalto’s innovation, the restaurateurs behind the Savoy — a modern eatery perched on upper floors of Helsinki’s then-new Industrial Palace — turned to him for light fixtures, club chairs and, of course, his breathtaking new vases. Accordingly, they’re also known as “Savoy vases” today (and they’re still perched on each of its tables).
Though Aalto didn’t profit directly from his iconic vases, he was known to enjoy the benefits of design superstardom as his renown continued to increase: By the ‘50s, he was such a boldface name that if he was late to the airport for a Finnair flight, his plane would remain on the runway until his arrival. According to the London Design Museum (which houses his original pencil and crayon sketches for the vases), “Aalto enjoyed this so much that, if he arrived on time, he instructed his chauffeur to drive around Helsinki Airport until he was late enough to stage a grand entrance.”