New York

“Alvar Aalto: Furniture and Glass”

This exhibition very elegantly reminded us that Alvar Aalto was a skillful synthesizer and “total” designer. At a time noted for dogma and inflexible Modernism, Aalto demonstrated that Modernism was not simply one route but many paths. He was fascinated with the interior life of his buildings. His search for architectural and environmental consistency, and for a fusion of exterior and interior spaces, led him to design chairs, furnishings, fabrics, glassware, and other domestic items. While he always sought to satisfy specific conditions, all his furnishing designs had a broader application; this ability to be near- and farsighted at the same time was one of his greatest assets as a designer. And Aalto’s concepts used standardized parts and serial production, which suggests that his good fortune stemmed from a calculated shrewdness rather than from luck and a favorable market.

Some of Aalto’s grandest innovations were realized in his interiors, and it was in the use of wood that he found a material to reinforce an emerging esthetic direction. Wood could be simple and direct, and yet possessed an inherent warmth. Aalto did not reject Modernism but he disliked its cold, austere qualities. With wood, he found a way to combine the best qualities of Modernism with organic abstraction.

The exhibition included a thorough documentation of the architect’s tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio, Finland (1929–33, with later additions), a facility he designed along with many furnishings including chairs, stacking tables, and even examination tables. From this project two significant chair designs emerged: the Paimio Lounge Chair and the Cantilevered Stacking Armchair were constructed in molded plywood, with sensuous silhouettes and broad and welcoming forms. The show also included a recreation of the undulating wood ceiling designed for the municipal library in Viipurl, Finland, which Aalto completed in 1935, and a video on “Making Aalto’s Furniture,” showing production techniques and innovations he introduced.

The exhibition was a quiet, perhaps somewhat compromised way to open the 1984 season. Aalto’s work was presented as benignly uncontroversial. The seductive forms here are lovely to look at and beautifully crafted; they appeal to the most ardent Modernists and post-Modernists, as well as to the general public. Yet a great deal about Aalto’s work is challenging and provocative. It offers ideas about metaphor and allusion, about nature versus architecture, about organic versus geometrical abstraction, and in this show these topics escaped even the most superficial analysis. “Alvar Aalto: Furniture and Glass” was the kind of exhibition one expects a major museum to mount, while one also wishes the curators had been more ambitious in the exploration of the ideas that ultimately guided Aalto’s work.

Patricia C. Phillips