design classic: Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto

Stool 60.jpg

This is a deceptively simple piece of furniture. It is too easy to glance at it and think - OK nice but surely I’ve seen lots of things much like this in IKEA or Habitat. Well the first amazing thing about the stool is that it was designed 80 years ago. Place this stool in the context of the political situation of the period and in the context of the houses that most of our grand parents or great grand parents lived in and it begins to look rather more remarkable.

In fact, the stool was designed in 1933 as part of a major architectural competition that Aalto won to build a new library in Viipuri, then the second largest city in Finland. The stool was designed for the lecture theatre and was therefore designed to be light and strong. They have three legs, rather than four, so they stack easily and of course are stable. All qualities that make the stool still, 80 years later, such a functional and flexible piece of furniture. I have two of the stools as bed-side tables, but, as they are the same height as the seat of a standard chair, they double as extra seating around the dining table when needed.

A few weeks ago I visited the house at 2 Willow Walk in Hampstead that was designed and built by the architect Ernö Goldfinger for himself and his family and completed in 1939. It is now run and opened to the public by the National Trust. There, in the main bathroom, was an Aalto stool. Chipped and stained but clearly much loved and presumably an early purchase by the family.

Aalto first exhibited his furniture in London in 1933 and setting up of the production company Artek, just two years later, was a direct response to the growing and International demand for his furniture. Certainly Aalto appreciated the importance of industrial-scale production to bring good design at a reasonable price to ordinary people but it is interesting for us today that he was also, at times, ambivalent about mass production. He certainly appreciated the importance of the craft tradition in Finland and understood timber as a construction material - his grandfather was the chief instructor at the Evo Forestry Institute in Lammi - and he understood what was possible with the inherent qualities of that material. In the design of the stool Aalto exploited the possibilities of using layered and bent wood and that is why it is strong and light.

In 1935, in a lecture to the annual meeting of the Swedish Crafts Association he explained some of the design principles that informed his work. There he said: 

“A standardized object should not be a finished product, but on the contrary be made so that man and all the individual laws controlling him supplement its form. Only objects embodying some degree of neutrality can be used to alleviate standardization’s constraint on the individual, and the positive sides of standardization thus used for the good of culture.” 

Twenty years later, in a lecture to the Architect’s Association of Vienna in 1955, he  suggested that even at that stage in his career he felt that: 

 “Form is a mystery which eludes definition but makes man feel good in a way unlike mere social aid.”

To understand why good design should be cherished, I recommend watching the short film about the stool and Artek that was made earlier in the year by the design magazine Monocle. It raises important issues about the relationship between good design and sustainable design that we all need to consider.

Artek, to mark the anniversary, have issued the stool in it’s original colours although it is still available in a natural finish and in the various painted versions.