With a dynamic and varied career spanning over seventy years, the Aaltos are arguably the most prominent Finnish modernist architects. From interior design, furniture, architecture and even urban scale planning, the Aaltos built over 200 buildings in the twentieth century, both in Finland and abroad. Architect Alvar Aalto worked in symphony with his partners-Aino Marsio Aalto, his first wife and professional partner until her death in 1949 and Elsa-Kaisa Mäkiniemi (Elissa Aalto), his second wife from 1952. Though these women worked in tandem with Alvar throughout their life as collaborators, co-managers and independent designers, their contributions remain in the shadows. Until recently their professional careers stayed in the background and their work remained unacknowledged. However, they were both key figures of the modernist movement and pioneers of Finnish architecture. We hope that by highlighting both their work and personal story, we can retell a more accurate, complete version of history and give women architects their due recognition. 

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Aino Aalto (1894-1949)_©Alvar Aalto Foundation
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Elissa Aalto_©Alvar Aalto Foundation
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Aino and Alvar_©Alvar Aalto Foundation

Aino Aalto: The Functionalist

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Aino Marsio was born in Helsinki and grew up in a Proletarian family. The atmosphere in which she grew up shaped her natural modesty and interest in minimalism. She studied and graduated in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Helsinki. At the time, there was no professional separation between architecture, interior design and furniture design, so her studies covered all these areas. While studying, she also worked as a carpenter and building apprentice, an experience that greatly influenced her later work. After working for Oiva Kallio in Helsinki and Walhroos in Jyväskylä, she moved to Alvar Aalto’s studio, and the two were married six months later. From then on, they worked as a team, with Aino acting as co-director of the office. The Aaltos travelled Europe extensively and were greatly influenced by their travels. For instance, influences of their Italian trip are seen in the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club, Aalto’s first masonry building. Though it is hard to distinguish the contributions of Aino and Alvar, since the two worked collaboratively, Aino was involved in several significant projects like the New York world fair pavilion, Villa Flora and the award-winning Milan Triennial.

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Aino and Alvar at the New York World Fair’s pavilion_©Eino Mäkinen, Alvar Aalto Foundation
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Villa Mairea_©Finnish Design Shop

Style and Design Influences

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Aino and Alvar Aalto in the studio of the Aalto House_©Alvar Aalto Foundation

After working in Jyväskylä for three years, the couple moved to Turku. The Functionalist movement was gaining momentum, and Aino was particularly interested in the ideals of the Modern Movement. She emphasized practical issues, the use of natural material and mass production. She was primarily focused on small scale projects to improve everyday life. She was the more rational of the two, her work influenced by thinkers like Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos and Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. By 1929, the Aaltos became acquainted with several advocates for the new architecture through CIAM, including Carola and Siegfried Giedion and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy- Bauhaus teacher and art exponent. Alvar and Aino Aalto also founded Artek, a furniture company with industrialists Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl, who inspired them to be more daring and experimental with their work. Aino developed the company and designed award-winning furniture, including her glass tumbler collection in 1932. The Villa Mairea and house in Noormarkku are examples of some of the couple’s best joint work.

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Aino and Alvar Aalto_©Maija Holma, Alvar Aalto Foundation

 Elissa Aalto: The Experimentalist

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Alvar and Elissa Aalto during Cross of the Plains Church construction works_©Eino Mäkinen, Alvar Aalto Foundation

The outbreak of the Second World War brought about changes in architecture in Europe. Alvar began to search for new approaches focused on rebuilding, prefabricated housing and master planning. In addition, Aino’s death in 1949 deeply shocked him, and he sought comfort in travel and work. Aino had been responsible for everything to do with interiors and furniture, and her death brought a new depth and monumentalism to his architecture.

In 1952, he married Elsa Kaisa (Elissa) Mäkiniemi, who had recently graduated in architecture from the Helsinki University of Technology, and joined the office of Alvar Aalto in the same year. The two worked collaboratively, and she was involved in all the competition projects, alteration and restoration of Aalto buildings, and also managing the office after Alvar’s death in 1976. During her career, Elissa was in charge of several projects like the Säynätsalo Town Hall, Muuratsalo experimental house, Aalto Theatre in Essen and Maison Louis Carré.

Säynätsalo Town Hall_©Alvar Aalto Foundation

She also made several independent designs, including the SOS Children’s Village in Tapiola. The 1960s and 70s were complex and dynamic, marked by splayed, diagonal shapes and overlapping volumes. During this time, functional regionalism was spreading in Europe, and Aalto’s designs became more place-based, blending modernist elements with the external landscape and incorporating local brick elements and smooth irregular surfaces. 

Through their careers, the work of the Aaltos strikes a balance between romanticism and pragmatism, humanism and materialism. The understanding of people and the complexity and diversity of nature make their work significant even today.

References:

  • López-Rodero, Myriam. “Women Architects in the Shadow: Aino Marsio-Aalto.” (2017).
  • Nevaluoma, Kari-Otso. “Aino Aalto – the Strict Functionalist.” Design Stories, July 28, 2018. https://www.finnishdesignshop.com/design-stories/classic/aino-aalto-the-strict-functionalist.
  • Shah, Devanshi. “Iconic House: Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland by Aino and Alvar Aalto.” Architectural Digest India. Architectural Digest India, May 23, 2018. https://www.architecturaldigest.in/content/iconic-house-villa-mairea-finland-aalto/.
  • Wainwright, Oliver. “’I Have Picked People up on the Street’: the Secret Life of Architect Alvar Aalto.” The Guardian, March 21, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/mar/21/secret-life-architect-alvar-aalto.
  • Weston, Richard. Alvar Aalto. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.
Author

Zoeanna is an architecture student, currently pursuing her bachelor of architecture. In her free time, she can be found curled up in a corner with a cup of coffee and a good book. She loves travelling, sketching, doing yoga, daydreaming and exploring new ideas through writing.

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