Women Design: Aino Marsio-Aalto

Libby Seller’s book, Women Design, profiles a selection of the most dynamic female designers from the modern era. We had a chance to chat with her about her book and her experience as a woman in the design world. We asked her if there is a designer that the public isn’t but should be familiar with. Her answer? Aino Mariso-Aalto. Learn more in this excerpt from her book.

Architect and designer, 1894–1949

When she entered the competition to design the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Aino Marsio-Aalto’s scheme earned her third place. First and second place were awarded to two proposals by the one architect, Aino’s husband, Alvar. Although she would later collaborate on the exhibition with him, Aino would never be placed on the same level as her husband. Now, nearly seventy years after her untimely death, Aino is finally emerging from behind the great shadow of Alvar Aalto’s genius.

‘I think she is arguably the single greatest omission of design history,’ said Nina Stritzler-Levine, curator at the Bard Graduate Centre, New York. ‘She’s thought of as just a glass designer.’ The glassware in question, the 1932 Bölgeblick line of pressedglass tableware for the Finnish brand Iittala, is still in production and remains an important contributor to Aino’s international renown. But the position she held in the development of Finnish architecture, interiors and design of the twentieth century can no longer be reduced to that single series of glass. The reassessment of her legacy is partly a product of our times: an overdue re-evaluation of a patriarchal history of modernism. Yet, like so many professional partnerships, the Aaltos would often sign projects to the company, not to the individual, making the division of creative attribution difficult to decipher.

Bölgeblick glassware for Iittala (1932).

Born Aino Maria Mandelin (a Swedish surname, later changed to the Finnish, Marsio), she had a liberal childhood in a rapidly urbanizing Finland. Her family home in A.Iku, the first worker’s co-operative apartment building in Helsinki, had introduced her to neighbouring master carpenters and joiners with whom she would later apprentice. Even though she was one of only a handful of women in her particular year group, architecture in Finland (unlike the rest of Europe) was an acceptable field of study for women in the first half of the twentieth century. The enlightened program at the Institute for Technology in Helsinki, where she first met Alvar, encouraged an understanding of architecture as a positive societal tool and a holistic process, in which everything from the grand gesture of a building’s form right down to the door handles required consideration. As his elder, Aino graduated ahead of Alvar in 1920.

They were to meet again at the Finnish Association of Architects, which, given the relative population of the country, was a small body and meant that professional relationships soon became personal. Eventually Aino left her position at the architectural office of Gunnar A. Wahlroos, and joined Alvar’s architectural firm in 1924. Six months later they married, taking their honeymoon in Europe, the first of many trips together that would introduce them to lifelong friends and colleagues, including Le Corbusier, architect and Bauhaus School director Walter Gropius, and László Moholy-Nagy, the artist and Bauhaus master.

When the Aaltos returned to Finland and set up their joint office – first in Jyväskylä then later in the city of Turku in 1927 – they merged the ideas absorbed from the European avant-garde with the natural materials, warm colours and undulating lines of the Finnish topography. With their passionate belief in ‘design for everyday life’, they collaborated across numerous projects during the late 1920s and early 1930s, designing both the architecture and all the fittings, furnishings and interiors. Among their most critically acclaimed are the Paimio Sanatorium (1933) and Helsinki’s Savoy restaurant (1937), for which their tubular steel and bentwood components and furniture introduced a new, rationalist language of standardized systems to the Finnish architectural landscape. During the opening ceremony of their equally celebrated Viipuri Library (1935), Alvar proudly declared Aino to have designed ‘the most beautiful staircase in the world.’ Indeed, her strong moral compass lead her to place socially orientated projects – libraries, housing, day care centres, child welfare clinics and children’s furniture – at the centre of her practice, as typified by the Karhula nursery school (1939–41) and House for Children and a health centre at Noormarkku (1945).

Unassuming and practical-minded, Aino was the opposite of her unpredictable and spontaneous husband. Although their complementary natures have been sometimes over-exaggerated (often to Aino’s discredit), she brought skilled draftsmanship and functionalism to Alvar’s spirited imagination, she economized around his extravagance and kept strict control over the office administration. Their grandson, Heikki Alanen, wrote of their working partnership, ‘[Aino] provided a good balance to the bohemian Alvar, and her calm and punctuality are said to have ensured that competition entries and other projects were finished on time.’

One of the first projects credited entirely to Aino was Villa Flora (1926), the Aaltos’ holiday home located on the shore of Lake Alajärvi in western Finland. Resembling a robust farmhouse, it expressed the efficiency of modernism and the simplicity of rural Finnish life. One of its most unique features was a green roof, the plants offering cool respite during the blistering hot days, and warmth during the chillier evenings. Like her contemporary Eileen Gray (see page 109), Aino was unconvinced by the ideologies of modernism. She supported its goal of democratic design and beauty through functionalism, but she designed houses for domesticity – for all the patterns of family life – and not to an architectural ideology. Her particular attention to soft materials and furnishings, best represented by the Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland (1939), the private residence of Maire and Harry Gullichsen, lent a level of comfort and practicality that was unusual in twentieth-century modernism. As heirs to an industrial fortune and great patrons of modern culture, the Gullichsens were fast becoming integral to the success of the Aalto brand. In 1935 Maire Gullichsen, the Aaltos and the art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl, joined forces to establish Artek (a contraction of art and technology).

As stated in the firm’s manifesto, the aim was to unite commercial and cultural ambitions through the sale and promotion of ‘a modern culture of living’ from their central Helsinki gallery. With Hahl as managing director, Artek’s exhibitions of art and furniture sought to convey how customers could live with the modern, and its potential to enhance daily life. Not incidentally, Aalto furniture and interior designs were central to this vision. The furniture, typified by the famous stackable, three-legged bentwood Stool 60, was artful, mass-produced, standardized, modern and classic. As creative director, Aino oversaw all aspects of this side of the business, from the subtle revisions of existing furniture designs, interior commissions and ideas for new furniture, lighting, screens, household objects and textiles. When Hahl died in combat during the Winter War with Russia in 1941, Aino assumed his responsibilities, leading Artek through the troubled war years and towards its second decade of growth.

Under Aino’s direction the firm realized more than eighty interiors, including the Villa Mairea and the waiting room, restaurant and on-call lounge of Helsinki’s Malmi airport (1938 and 1947). The firm’s participation in numerous European trade shows introduced the Artek name and progressive manifesto to the world. Their advanced distribution network extended from retailers in Europe and the US to buyers in Africa and Latin America, via licensees. Yet, their highest profile client was perhaps in fact the Aaltos’ own architectural partnership, which utilized Artek furniture in all its subsequent projects, including the Baker House Dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1949), Alvar’s most significant US commission, received while a visiting professor of architecture there. Consequently, Artek became forever linked with Alvar’s practice. And as managing and creative director of the firm, Aino’s pioneering contributions were subsumed into the company legacy.

The Artek show room in Fabianinkatu, Finland, 1939.

While her untimely death in 1949 helped extend the vacuum into which her name disappeared, Artek was to be her greatest contribution to the twentieth century. ‘She set the tone for the company’s creative and commercial approach which is still valid today. Her spectrum bridged supposed opposites: art and technology, modern and vernacular, public and private spaces,’ says Artek’s current managing director, Marianne Goebl. ‘Ultimately, Aino Aalto is a role model of the modern professional woman, which strongly resonates with our current (mainly female) Artek team.’

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Women Design Pioneers in architecture, industrial, graphic and digital design from the twentieth century to the present dayFrom architects and product designers to textile artists and digital innovators, Women Design profiles a selection of the most dynamic female designers from the modern era, showcasing their finest work and celebrating their enduring influence.

Design throughout history has been profoundly shaped and enhanced by the creativity of women; as practitioners, commentators, educators and commissioners. But in a narrative that eagerly promotes their male counterparts, their contributions are all too often overlooked. Through 21 engaging profiles, Women Design rediscovers and revels in the work of pioneers such as Eileen Gray, Lora Lamm and Lella Vignelli, while shining a spotlight on modern-day trailblazers including Kazuyo Sejima, Hella Jongerius and Neri Oxman. Richly illustrated with archival imagery, this is a rare glimpse into the working worlds of some of the most influential forces in contemporary design.