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Alvar Aalto

Pars pro toto (Latin for ‘a part [taken] for the whole’): bedroom furniture illustrates the Modernist concept of the building for which it was created, the Sanatorium Paimio. In the late nineteenth century the bacterium that causes the contagious disease tuberculosis (TB) was discovered. It was only then that medical science learnt how to put an end to this devastating disease. As tuberculosis primarily affects the lungs, it became quickly apparent that the patient’s environment was crucial. Consequently, special facilities were built throughout the world to provide rest and fresh air. One of the best known of these tuberculosis sanatoriums was built between 1929 and 1933 in the Finnish city of Paimio and designed by architect Alvar Aalto.

To this day, Sanatorium Paimio is considered among the most significant functionalist buildings of the twentieth century and one of Aalto’s most important works. The architect had a great eye for detail. Each part of the building and its interiors had to contribute to the well-being and recovery of patients affected
by tuberculosis. The rooms needed to be easily aired and the colours soothing; ornaments and superfluous shelves had to be avoided as they could gather dust. Because of the risk of infection, all surfaces had to have a smooth finish and be easy to clean, which led to the selection of materials such as linoleum, porcelain and smooth lacquered timber.

In 2000, Mudam acquired the light fittings, cabinet, table and door of one of the patients’ rooms. The intimate presentation of the bedroom furniture shows what the building itself exemplifies: a pressing issue of the period, tuberculosis, and the role designers can play in the fight against disease, as well as the timeless value and beauty of the modernistic idea, in line with other works in the Mudam’s collection.

The sanatorium was designed by Alvar Aalto, who, in close collaboration with his wife Aino Aalto, also designed the furniture and light fixtures. As is true of all the architectural elements, the shapes, colours, materials and surface finishings of the furniture and light fittings speak of sober functionality and elegant aesthetics. The patients’ well-being guided each choice. The iconic ‘Paimio Armchair’ (1932) is an eloquent example. Aalto did not opt for traditional metal tubes, but preferred what they considered more humane, warmer materials: bent plywood and laminated wood. The slightly slanted back of the chair was meant to allow the patient to breathe easily. Thanks to its basic functionality and timeless design, the chair is still produced today by Finish furnishing company Artek.

The building, interiors and furniture had an indelible influence on Aalto’s subsequent work. The following comment on the colours in the patients’ rooms conveys his attentive approach: ‘The walls are light and the ceilings darker. This makes the general tone more peaceful from the perspective of a lying-down patient. The general lighting point of the room is above the patient’s head at the interface of the wall and ceiling, which means that it is outside the angle of vision of a lying-down patient.’

Text: Louise Schouwenberg

Artworks

  1. Alvar Aalt, "Sanatorium Paimio (mobilier d’une chambre)", 1930–1933. Collection Mudam Luxembourg, Acquisition 2002 © Photo : Rémi Villaggi | Mudam Luxembourg
    Alvar Aalto Sanatorium Paimio (mobilier d’une chambre), 1930–1933

    Acier, aluminium, laiton, métal, nickel, bouleau, contreplaqué, porcelaine, verre
    Collection Mudam Luxembourg
    Acquisition 2000
    (Si Alvar et Aino Alto ont étroitement collaboré pour la conception du mobilier du Sanatorium Paimio, les éléments présents dans la collection du Mudam ont été conçus par Alvar Aalto)
    © Photo : Rémi Villaggi | Mudam Luxembourg

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