My American colleagues and I arrived in Helsinki earlier than the rest of the group, so we had a few extra hours to get as much design inspiration in as possible. The Ministry of Finland was kind enough to arrange a private tour of the Alvar Aalto house for us on Tuesday morning. Tommi Lindh, the director of Alvar Aalto Foundation & Museum met us at the house and walked us through. It was interesting to hear stories about Aalto, his two wives and the way they lived in the spaces.
Alvar Aalto and his first wife, Aino, and their children moved to the Helsinki house in 1935. After Aino passed away Aalto stayed in the home with his second wive, Elissa. It was interesting to see the space in mostly original condition, with original furniture pieces arranged as they would be at the time of Aalto.
Most furniture in the home is unique to the house, and many pieces are prototypes, tested and used before actual furniture pieces were put into production. The objects seen in the house are owned by the Aalto family and being lended to the foundation. The foundation was founded by Alvar Aalto and his friends. (Aalto and Aina also created the furniture and object company Artek, which was recently acquired by Vitra.)
The home was originally a live/work space, with a dedicated office area for Aaalto’s staff, with it’s own office entrance for approximately 20 years. When the firm became to large the staff moved into it’s own studio near by, which we didn’t have time to visit. After the move Aalto and Aino kept the work area as is and used it as their own private studio, to work at home.
When you walk through the space you notice many interested details, like the cigarette table in the living room. There are only two of these tables in the world! There is a painting in the living room, gifted to Elissa by Le Corbusier. I kind of felt like I was in Midnight in Paris when I heard that. Can you imagine being given a gift of an original painting by Le Corbusier! Across the piece hung an original Léger. It was pretty incredible.
The dining chairs in the house stood out, they were completely different from everything surrounding them. The Aaltos purchased the chairs on their honeymoon in Italy. It was a endearing detail.
One thing I noticed in this house, and in Finnish design overall is that everything is made purposefully, and simply. Yes, the pieces are aesthetically appealing, but what makes them coveted is that everything is useful, and comfortable. The Aalto dining room had a custom cupboard, which was accessible from both sides. Kitchen staff and maids could access the cupboard from the kitchen side, and family members could access it from the dining room side. The cupboard also had several different sized doors and drawers, so everything fit in perfectly.
The second floor was interesting, and we were told it was a typical second floor for a larger house in Helsinki. When you reach the top of the stairs you see a family sitting room with brick fireplace. This is where the family gathered informally.
There was an entrance to the terrace off of the second floor. The terrace allowed the family to have an extended summer, with a large roof covering part of the terrace. There was also an attached sun room, enclosed with glass and a fireplace. The home was designed around the rising and setting of the sun. The terrace and first floor outdoor breakfast area face west, so the family could enjoy the sunset in the evenings.
On the tour I learned that the goal of Aalto’s buildings (and pieces) were to age beautifully. He did not use insulation in his buildings, instead insulation the walls with air, so the home would deteriorate nicely and look nice as it did. He used his home to test ideas and theories before implementing the ideas on other buildings. He also famously used a flat, level roof on this home, not a tapered one as you often see in places where snow can accumulate. The residents of Helsinki have mixed feelings about this roof.
Alvar Aalto originally designed a city near this house, which wasn’t realized. As payment for the design the Aaltos received the plot of land that this house sits on. Now there is a lot of vegetation surrounding the house, but at the time when the house was built, you would have been able to see the water directly from the terrace.
*A note to visitors, if you arrive at a time when the house isn’t open, you can still walk the grounds and take pictures of the exterior.