I always used to think Finnish design contained two key features: pale wooden planks, mostly uncut, and a sense of almost autistic simplicity in furniture design. Big bright white picnic tables and the Ball Chair by Aarnio. That was Finnish design to me. Eero Saarinen fitted in there somewhere, too, but I was never too sure about whether he was Finnish or American, and his collaborations with the Eameses seem too Eamesey to be Finnish. Then there was this other guy, Aalto. Or was there? He was just one of those Finnish designers who had a similar name to Aarnio (Ball Chair guy, keep remembering that), plus his Wikipedia page only shows a buttload of info and a very stern image of him on a stamp.
Which is why I was surprised when I saw some of his designs in a design book at school today and thought to myself "hey, that stuff's pretty nice". Then I looked at it again, and thought "hey, that stuff's wonderful. Check out the lines, the shapes, the simplicity..." and here's a post to satisfy my new love for Aalto (he's still nowhere near the badassery of Jacobsen, don't worry 'bout that).
Recognise these little dudes? Yup, they're the FROSTA stools that have been popping up in IKEA stores for years. I'm not sure whether IKEA have the rights to it or whether FROSTA is just a shameful copy of Aalto's stool, but whatevs. OK, it's simply. Minimalist, even. So simple you think maybe he was being frustratingly constrictive in his design. But that's the beauty of it; he's kept his design so simple that this stool becomes a universal design. It's a stool here, but I've seen it used elsewhere as a little side-table. It becomes part of the background, an unobtrusive addition to the room. It even comes in a version with a coloured top (seat or tabletop? You decide!) to give a little colour accent to what might otherwise be a bland Finnish interior design. Pale wood is the best!
Next up is one of my faves from Aalto (the stool of his is a little too simple for me, I can't help but be reminded of those characterless mass-produced IKEA stools), a teacart (Fn: teewagen) coming atcha from early modernism 1936. 1936, think about that. That's incredibly early for such a simple of minimalism. The undecorated disc wheels and simple bend wood frame, combined with a pale wood and white colour scheme, make this the epitome of Aalto's style for me. I just love the void of indulgence, of flair and of unnecessary details here. It's not my ethic of 'aesthetic flexibility', Aalto wasn't thinking about users adapting and personalising the teacart to their own style, he was thinking about creating something that worked, but that wasn't distracting. Because it didn't need to be distracting for him, it was simply a teacart. What was the point in decoration, in indulgence? Why show the axle on the wheel when you could just paint over a big wooden disc and it'd still be practical?
Aalto once said, "we should work for simple, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street". See, he's not thinking about minimalism as a purpose for his design, but he wants design to fit in, to work with its surroundings and with its users, and the best way to do this is to keep it free of bold stylistic details that could sway a user's judgement. There's no chance for judgement here, unless you have an aversion to plain, neutral white faces and bentwood. I'm not sure what he means by "the little man in the street", maybe he just means that design should be suited to anyone and everyone, further solidifying my point about universal design and aesthetics, whilst the function itself is specific. It's such a shame teacarts are out of fashion at the moment, maybe one day in the future we can again enjoy using such wonderful design without feeling like you're hosting some sort of stuffy 1940s dinner party with the Hamiltons from No. 63.
Aalto was a trendsetter. And, very importantly, I'll never get him confused with Aarnio again - Aalto is so much more than Aarnio, Aalto is minimalism, functionalism, universal design available and attractive to all, reduction of stylistic details, and - still - pale wood. He's not just that grumpy guy on the Finnish stamp.