Cover to Cover – ‘A Modern Way to Live’

This story begins with a dining set. Combining two households is never easy and making choices about which possessions can be ‘let go’ and those that will be in the next new home is challenging. There were some things that I knew were going to be non-negotiable and the largest of these was a Alvar Aalto dining set. So my dining table and chairs went and his stayed, that was some years ago.

In the early stages of researching for ‘Bridging the Gap’ I was given a book by my son for my birthday, ‘A Modern Way to Live, Five Principles from the Modern House’. It was a timely present as I have the home and my new (yet to be built) home in particular, very much on my mind. The book is written by Matt Gibberd who, with his childhood friend Albert Hill “set out to convince people of the power of good design and its ability to influence our well-being”. In 2005 they founded The Modern House, “an estate agency, publisher and lifestyle brand”. The book is structured into five different principles that they believe make successful homes; Space, Light, Materials, Nature and Decoration.

An easy and interesting read began and early into the book I read “The spaces that we feel most comfortable in provide us with the ability to observe (prospect) without being seen (refuge), and our homes must be equipped with a combination of the two if they are to adequately support us. The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto understood this concept more than most”. This caught my attention and I continued with the paragraph  stopping to re-read the following sentence, as my mind started to get ideas, “In my view, a visit to Aalto’s studio in Helsinki should be part of the curriculum for anyone thinking of designing a house”. I kept thinking about this sentence and how we  hadn’t been away for so long and it would be good research for the house we were designing and for my own work as an artist. It was our anniversary coming up too, I looked up flights.

Three days later we were airborne and on our way to Helsinki…

From the moment we got through passport control throughout the stay I felt very inspired. The soft, sheer drapes that hang down the walls along the passage to the airport exit have a distinctive print of silver birch trees, the national tree of Finland, and this immediately got me excited. For several weeks previously I had been sketching the silver birch trees at our building plot. I love silver birches particularly because my father was a self-builder and he planted some in the front garden of my childhood home.

 I had booked a tour of Alvar’s studio and also his house and the next day we made our way to Aalto’s house. I loved it! The style of the architecture and the pleasing interior features create a great sense of calm is very ascetically pleasing with some clever design details. The tour guide informed us about the architect’s life and pointed out various important facts and artefacts. Later we went to see the studio, about 5 minutes’ walk away, also very interesting but it was his home that I particularly enjoyed. The guide’s talk whetted my appetite to find out more about Aalto’s two wives.

Aino and Alvar Aalto
Alvar and Elissa Aalto

Both of Alvar Aalto’s wives played vital contributions and were a balancing element to their husband but, not well known about. As well as being a trained architect, Aino, Aalto’s first wife, was a trained carpenter and was instrumental in creating the bentwood furniture that made Aalto an internationally famous name. She was also chief designer and managing director of Artek , the homewares company that they formed in 1938 and still in existence today. Aino’s influence also extended into architecture and it is clear that they worked as a team. It was Aino who went out to work each day whilst Alvar stayed in his studio at home, she constantly juggling work and children. I read that “Alvar thought that Aino’s job was to take care of him first, then came the children, then her work”. Aino died of cancer in 1949 and by 1952 Alvar had married Elissa who also became a collaborator, co-manager and worked in tandem with him. Both women’s contributions stayed in the background and their professional careers in the shadows but were key figures in Finnish modernist architecture.

Wivi Lönn

Wivi Lönn was the first woman architect in Finland to run her own architectural firm and the next day we visited The Long Live Wivi Lönn! Exhibition at the Museum of Architecture celebrating 150 years since her birth.  The exhibition followed the career of Wivi Lönn , an architect who broke glass ceilings showing the importance of her significance for the generations of women architects who followed afterwards. We have a woman architect working with us on our house in a husband and wife partnership.

I found out a fascinating and startling fact in the exhibition:

” In 1991, the world’s most prestigious architectural award, the Pritzker Prize, was awarded to architect Robert Venturi, but not jointly with his wife ,architect Denise Scott Brown, even though the couple had been working together for more than 20  years. In 2013, the Women in Design student organization at Harvard Graduate School of Design started a petition demanding that the award be given to Scott Brown as well. Their claim was rejected by the Pritzker Prize Committee”. That was only 10 years ago and the claim was refused! It makes me wonder when will equality become the norm?

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