“My furniture rarely, if ever, arises as the result of professional design. Almost without exception, I have designed it in conjunction with architectural projects, a mixed bag of public buildings, aristocratic residences, and workers’ huts. It’s great fun to design furniture in this way."
The basic problem in furniture design, both historically and practically, is the connecting element between vertical and horizontal parts. I would go as far as to say that this is its determining stylistic factor. In the way it provides a connection with the horizontal level, the chair leg is the little sister of the architectural column.”
Alvar Aalto began his work in the 1920s, in the spirit of Nordic Classicism, but by the second half of the decade he had switched over to following the tenets of Functionalism.
In 1927, Alvar and Aino Aalto moved from the small town of Jyväskylä in Central Finland to Turku on the west coast. During the 1920s and 1930s, Turku was considered to be something of a free-thinking city in terms of atmosphere. It was a place where the pulse of change and speed was beating in time to its groups of surrealist artists, its numerous cinemas and its busy nightlife. In the early 1930s, Turku acted as the stage for Functionalist architecture in Finland particularly because of the presence of Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggman (1891-1955).
His interest in rationalism and standardised design increased along with his visits to continental Europe. The most important of the Functionalist buildings designed by Aalto is considered to be Paimio Sanatorium (1929-1933).
Paimio Sanatorium, designed by Alvar Aalto and the flagship of Finnish Functionalism (1929–32), was furnished principally in 1932. Both the loose furniture and the built-in furniture came off the drawing boards of Aino and Alvar Aalto.
Aino Aalto signed the drawing of this stool which was intended to be used at least in the reception hall of the sanatorium. The seat of the stool is circular and made of plywood, while the legs are of bent tubular steel.
The year the L-leg stool was born, 1933, was a very important one for Aalto and his office. During that year, he made his breakthrough on the international stage and increased his reputation in Finland. P. Morton Shand, a critic on the English magazine Architectural Review, proclaimed Aalto to be one of the leading lights of the new architecture, while Aalto’s own contacts with other pioneers of Modernism were reinforced at the CIAM* meeting in Athens. In the same year, Aalto, his family and his office moved from Turku to Helsinki, the capital of Finland.
In 1933 too, Paimio Sanatorium, a project which had kept the office busy for several years, was opened, and an extensive building complex for the Toppila pulp mill in Oulu was completed. The next major project, Viipuri (Vyborg) Library, was given its final form on the drawing board.
During the first half of the 1930s, Functionalism had become well established in Finland, a country which had managed to survive the depression, and a number of architectural competitions, including those for a sports stadium and an exhibition hall in Helsinki, were organised. Despite his enthusiastic participation, Aalto met with only moderate success in these.
Nevertheless, the competition proposals and the sketches that preceded them are interesting, particularly since Aalto often considered ways of resolving the junctions between vertical and horizontal planes, as he did with his furniture design.
The ultramodern furniture designed for Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar and Aino Aalto was made in the factory Huonekalu- ja Rakennustyötehdas (later Huonekalutehdas Korhonen). The factory was known for the high quality of its products.
Alvar Aalto had already met joiner Otto Korhonen, who was works manager, on a previous building project. They established a seamless form of cooperation which had far-reaching results.
Otto Korhonen knew about wood, especially the properties of Finnish birch and was well-versed in manufacturing techniques. Alvar Aalto on the other hand, was determined to find a way to large-scale series production that would provide a beautiful result. The modern furniture designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto emerged from the close cooperation between them and Korhonen.
In 1932, the pieces of furniture made by the wood-bending and laminating processes designed by Alvar Aalto were ready for production and marketing. Aalto and Korhonen continued their experiments in bending wood, which they planned to use for genuine series production on a large scale. In 1933, they invented a production method which could be used to bend solid pieces of wood into the L-shaped form intended for the legs of chairs and tables.
Finnish birch will bend
Birch is one of the most common broad-leafed trees in Finland and Huonekalutehdas Korhonen has always used carefully selected Finnish birch wood. The trees that are to be used to make legs for furniture are felled in winter-time, between December and March.
The plain-sawn birch planks are loosely stacked and allowed to dry in the open air for about six months. After drying in the yard, the stacks are taken down and the timber is restacked in a warehouse for further drying and processing.
The manufacturing method for the L-leg developed by Alvar Aalto and Otto Korhonen is, in principle, very simple. First a number of precise saw-cuts are made in the end of the billet of wood intended to be used as a chair or table leg. To begin with, the L-leg was bent by hand and needed a minimum of six saw-cuts.
The bending technique developed rapidly and after the manually operated bending press was taken into use, only four saw-cuts were needed. When the manually operated bending press was replaced by high-pressure bending in the 1960s, the new bending process called for one additional saw-cut, increasing the number from four to five.
After the saw-cuts are made, the wood is softened using heat and water. In the next stage of the process, the saw-cuts are filled with slips of wood dipped in adhesive. The wood is then bent at an angle of 90 degrees and when the adhesive dries, it retains its shape.
The leg is carefully finished and screwed to the underside of the chair seat or table top at the bent end. This fixing method eliminates the complex hand-crafted joints which otherwise take up so much of the joiner’s time. This invention represented a dizzying leap forward towards large-scale series production of Aalto furniture.
Alvar Aalto was granted a patent for the invention ‘A method of bending wood and the objects made using this method’ in several European countries and in the United States. The first patent application was submitted in England on November 8, 1933 and the next in Finland on November 7, 1934. The patent application process as a whole often lasted for years.
A stool seat to suit everyone
In the first real ‘mass-production’ year (1934), the seats of the stools were covered or upholstered in various different ways. They were produced with a birch veneer finish and upholstered in fabric; they came with or without cushioning, or were painted in a variety of colours to suit the customer’s preference. Stools finished in linoleum were also in production as early as 1934. Plastic laminate, on the other hand, a thin laminated sheet made of paper and resin and known as ikilevy in Finland, was not adopted as a seat material until later, as were bast fibre and artificial leather.
The seat of the L-leg stool has always been circular and its diameter has been, almost without exception 35 cm. In professional circles, the core of the seat is referred to as the frame. The construction of the seat is symmetrical, so that if the top surface is laminate, so is the bottom surface. This ensures that the seat does not warp. The edge of the seat is finished with a wood trim when the covering or upholstery is anything other than birch veneer. The edge of a veneered seat reveals its construction and the frame joints remain stylishly visible as decoration.
Stool no. 60
Practicality was one of the mottos of Functionalism. The L-leg stool was designed to have three legs precisely because of practicality, since it was a property that would guarantee the stool’s stackability.
Thus in the space occupied by one stool, several dozen stools could be stacked on top of each other.
The product number of the 3-legged stool became standardised as 60, while the 4-legged version of the stool, product number E60, came into production in 1934.
Stool no. 60 was shown to the public for the first time in London at a major review of Finnish furniture, in November 1933. The exhibition, held at the Fortnum & Mason department store, was entitled Wood Only. The exhibition sparked off a substantial flow of exports of Aalto furniture to Britain. During the period 1934-1935, for example, almost 2,000 L-leg stools were exported to Britain, most of them 3-legged stools.
In Finland, the first stool is known to have been sold in 1933, but sales in Finland remained small. The stool was launched on a wider audience at the Strindberg art gallery in an exhibition entitled Alvar and Aino Aalto Architects, which opened on April 21, 1934. The gallery sold Aalto furniture during and after the exhibition, and from April to November, almost 40 of the stools were sold.
In the early years, exports of Aalto furniture were handled by the manufacturer, Huonekalu- ja Rakennustyötehdas, but in 1935, Artek was founded to take care of the marketing and export of Aalto furniture.
Artek’s operations included a comprehensive interior design business, and a drawing office was set up to handle the design work. Artek also took on propaganda on behalf of ‘rational living and furnishing’.
In addition, its territory also covered the organisation of art and design exhibitions. Artek is still a lively international company today.
Theme and variations
Alvar Aalto had a phenomenal ability to produce variations on earlier designs and inventions. The invention by Aalto and Korhonen of a process for bending solid wood gave rise to a sister version of stool no. 60 in 1934, a bar stool (64), and soon after that, a shop chair furnished with a low backrest, nowadays known as ‘work chair K65’.
The leg construction of the Y-leg stool, which emerged in 1946, is also based on an invention for bending solid wood. In this, two slender L-legs are chamfered on opposite corners and fixed together at right angles. The legs are joined together with distance pieces to form a frame on which the seating material is stretched. There are many variations on this: it can be cloth webbing or woven leather, linen fabric, leather or rattan.
The third type of furniture leg (1954) is, in fact, a bunch of very slender L-legs. Because of its shape, it acquired the name ‘fan-leg’ or ‘X-leg’. It was no longer a question of furniture for the everyman. These pieces of furniture are made largely by hand and the seats and table-tops are in leather or fine hardwoods. These fan-legged stools are ideally suited as furniture for Aalto’s more imposing buildings.
The bent-wood reliefs designed by Alvar Aalto were originally made as dressing for exhibitions of Aalto furniture. Their primary purpose was to show exhibition visitors the structure and construction methods used in the furniture that was on show. The first time the reliefs are known to have been on show was in London in 1933, at the Wood Only exhibition.
Some of these reliefs were only made in an edition of one, but new editions were made of some of the others later on. Some twenty original versions of these reliefs, also referred to as ‘wood-bending experiments’, have been traced.
If an object is popular, beautiful, or sought after, people begin to imitate and copy it. This has happened with stool no. 60 but the genuine article can always be differentiated from the copies.
Today, over one million of the stools have been made in the Huonekalutehdas Korhonen factory in Finland.
Year 2013 was the 80th anniversary of stool no. 60. Alvar Aalto Museum celebrated the anniversary with exhibition A Stool Makes History from 16 May to 8 September.
Text — Kaarina Mikonranta, Chief Curator
Exhibition team — Alvar Aalto Museum personnel