Pioneer of Modern Architecture and Design
After qualifying as an architect from Helsinki Institute of Technology (later Helsinki University of Technology and now part of the Aalto University) in 1921, Aalto set up his first architectural practice in Jyväskylä. His early works followed the tenets of Nordic Classicism, the predominant style at that time. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he made a number of journeys to Europe on which he and his wife Aino Marsio-Aalto, also an architect, became familiar with the latest trends in Modernism, the International Style.
The pure Functionalist phase in Aalto’s work lasted for several years. It enabled him to make an international breakthrough, largely because of Paimio Sanatorium (1929-1933), which was finalized 1933, an important Functionalist milestone. Aalto had adopted the principals of user-friendly, functional design in his architecture. From the late 1930s onwards, the architectural expression of Aalto’s buildings became enriched by the use of organic forms, natural materials and increasing freedom in the handling of space.
It was characteristic of Aalto to treat each building as a complete work of art – right down to the furniture and light fittings. Major part of the important Aalto furniture were designed for Paimio sanatorium and became an important part of the Artek collection. In 1935, Artek was formed to promote the growing production and sales of Aalto furniture. The design of his furniture combined practicality and aesthetics with series production, following the main Artek idea of encouraging a more beautiful everyday life in the home. As far as design was concerned, Aalto was driven by an interest in glass since it provided an opportunity to handle the material in a new kind of way using free forms. His win in the Karhula-Iittala glassware design competition in 1936 led to the birth of the world-famous Savoy vase.
From the 1950s onwards, Aalto’s architectural practice was employed principally on the design of public buildings, such as Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948-1952), the Jyväskylä Institute of Pedagogics, now the University of Jyväskylä (1951-1957), and the House of Culture in Helsinki (1952-1956). His urban design master plans represent larger projects than the buildings mentioned above, the most notable schemes that were built being Seinäjoki civic centre (1956-1965/87), Rovaniemi city centre (1963-1976/88) and the partly built Jyväskylä administrative and cultural centre (1970-1982).
From the early 1950s onwards, Alvar Aalto’s work focussed more and more on countries outside Finland, so that a number of buildings both private and public were built to his designs abroad.
Architect Aino Marsio-Aalto was a partner in the firm Alvar Aalto Architects, the CEO of Artek, and Alvar Aalto’s first wife. She was an independent career woman of her time, and her husband’s invaluable working partner.
The architect couple worked closely together, and their relationship was marked by equality.
As a thoughtful and hard-working person, Aino was seen as the balancing counterpart to her extrovert husband who was actively involved in the architectural discourse of the time.
Aino Marsio had grown up in Helsinki. The progressive, railway-worker family with ten children valued highly their children’s education. At that time, in addition to a career in the then still male-dominated field of architecture, Aino was considering a career as a kindergarten teacher.
She graduated as an architect in 1920 from the Helsinki University of Technology, the same educational establishment as her future husband. During her studies, Aino undertook, among other things, masonry and carpentry work. After graduation, she visited architectural sites in, for instance, Germany and Italy on a Grand Tour-type study trip together with her female architect colleagues.
She was hired to work in Alvar Aalto’s one-room architectural firm in Jyväskylä in 1924.
Aino Marsio and Alvar Aalto got married that same year. On their month-long honeymoon, they visited various architectural sites in continental Europe.
After that, Aino became a fully fledged partner in Alvar Aalto’s office and an essential part of his daily life when traveling around Europe.
After their marriage, she used alternately two forms of her name. This was not a regular practice, but the name Aino Aalto was more commonly used in architectural circles and in connection with Alvar Aalto. Especially later on, during her involvement with Artek, she used the name Aino Marsio-Aalto.
The Aaltos had two children: Johanna was born in 1925 and Hamilkar in 1928. At the time of the planning of the Paimio Sanatorium, the family lived in Turku. Their office was located adjacent to their home apartment. Reconciling family and work was made easier by employing a nanny.
At home, Aino was fond of playing the piano and singing. Together with her husband, she picked up influences from around the world; she danced foxtrot to the beat of a gramophone, studied English, and played tennis all year round.
The Aaltos worked closely together on their design projects. The young architects’ office actively participated in architectural competitions. Entries were usually signed under the names of both of them. In the design of the Paimio Sanatorium, they were able to apply the principles of functionalism and shaped their own, more humane version of it, which brought world recognition to their architectural firm.In the Paimio Sanatorium, Aino’s role as an architect was especially evident in the design of the nurses’ and chief physician’s dwellings. In addition, she designed furniture made in both metal and wood.
Beyond the design work, Aino documented the Paimio Sanatorium by photographing it in the spirit of the times. She was influenced directly by László Moholy-Nagy, a multi-talented artist who worked as a teacher at the avant-garde Bauhaus school in Germany. Subcontractors even used Aino Aalto’s images in their advertising.
Aino Aalto also participated in design competitions with her own proposals. She designed the Bölgeblick glassware, sold today under the name ‘Aino’, for a utility and art glass competition held by Karhula-Iittala in 1932. The shape of the glass has a practical starting point: the ringed design was not only robust but also forgiving of possible quality problems in the glass mass.
Aino took care of the marketing of the new wooden furniture designed for the Paimio Sanatorium. Exports helped the Aaltos financially in overcoming the difficult economic recession, when work opportunities were scarce for the architectural firm.
In 1935, the Aaltos founded, together with Nils-Gustav Hahl and Maire Gullichsen, Artek, a company specializing in the marketing of Aalto-designed products. Initially, Aino served as the company’s artistic director but became its CEO in 1941 after Nils-Gustav Hahl’s death during the war. In a company with an international outlook, her work involved a lot of travel.
It is often said that all the Aaltos’ major furniture innovations were made in the 1930s, the rest being just variations of them. As Artek’s artistic director, Aino Aalto played a significant role in designing these variations.
Under Aino’s leadership, Artek’s drawing office designed the interiors of the buildings of Alvar Aalto Architects, thus establishing an Artek way of interior decoration.
Aino was independently responsible for the design of several exhibition displays essential to the Aaltos’ and Artek’s reputation. She even received awards for her exhibition design, for instance, the Milan Triennial Grand Prix in 1936.
Due to her commitments on other projects, Aino’s active participation in the architectural firm decreased, but Alvar is said to have relied on Aino’s opinion in all his designs.
Despite her outwardly active, international lifestyle, Aino Aalto had suffered from illness over a long time. She died of cancer in 1949, at the age of 55.