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Alvar Aalto Designer

review

Alvar Aalto Museum, 2002. 240pp. £35

Although he insisted that he only created furniture and objects 'as part of an architectural entity', Alvar Aalto was one of the last century's most successful and prolific designers, writes Richard Weston.Many of his pieces are still in production - Artek has manufactured more than a million items of furniture alone - and few would dispute this book's claim that the iconic 1937 Savoy Vase may well be the most popular piece of glass ever made.

Surprisingly, prior to this exemplary study, the burgeoning Aalto literature offered no detailed account of the full range of his designs. The essays are comprehensive and informative without being revelatory, and cover Aalto's international reception - he stormed Britain courtesy of a 1933 furniture exhibition at Fortnum and Mason - and, separately, his achievements as a designer of furniture, light fittings and glass. To anyone unfamiliar with Göran Schildt's book on Aalto's furniture, his 1920s work will offer plenty of surprises, while the familiar designs are presented using much unfamiliar material, including fascinating sketches and working drawings. The illustrations are copious and consistently fine, presenting the pieces both as objects and in the 'architectural entities' for which they were conceived. There are also comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogues of the furniture and glass, and short, but welcome, picture essays on the manufacturing processes involved.

A few illustrations will doubtless be too House and Garden for our black-and-white minimalists, but therein lies the key to Aalto's success.

Although highly individual, and as much dependent on technological innovation as their more overtly Machine Age counterparts, Aalto's designs are, to quote Juhani Pallasmaa's brief but typically thoughtful introduction, 'relaxed and inclusive'. They are arguably the nearest thing we have to that most elusive of Modernist ideals, a modern vernacular, and no Aalto fan will want to be without this superb record.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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