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Aino Aalto

review - Edited by Ulla Kinnunen. Alvar Aalto Museum, 2004. 232pp. £45

Like its companion volume, Alvar Aalto: Designer (AJ 27.2.03), this book is sponsored by Artek and the glassmaker Iittala and contains a beautifully produced account of the work of Aalto's first wife, Aino Marsio, writes Richard Weston. Born four years before her husband, in 1894, Aino began working for Aalto early in 1924 and married him in October of the same year.

The nature and extent of Aino's contribution to Aalto's work has frequently been debated, and this book provides a fairly conclusive answer, albeit not the one its authors intend. With the exception of the well-known pressed-glass designs featured on the cover, which won a Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale of 1936, almost nothing she designed independently comes close to the originality and refinement that Aalto sustained throughout most of his long career.

Aino was clearly not without talent - she designed some decent furniture (notably for the Villa Mairea), was managing director of Artek for many years, arranged interiors with a fine eye, and, following a few tips from László Moholy-Nagy about the artful angling of the camera, became a dab hand at the 'New Photography'. But there is a world of difference between talent and genius, and no amount of special pleading about the fact that 'their working methods were marked by absolute equality' and that projects were 'jointly signed' will convince me that history has been unkind in assigning to Alvar the creative credit for the work of the partnership, which was cut short by Aino's death from cancer in 1949.

Despite its dubious central thesis, however, this book is a welcome addition to the shelves. The extensive and uncritical documentation of Aino's furniture is excessive, but there is a wealth of previously unpublished archival images - photographs and drawings - as well as interesting biographical information. Among this I would not, however, include the discussions of her appearance, dress sense and jewellery, the inclusion of which struck me as both condescending and, given the gently feminist undertow of the texts, surprising.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University

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