Alvar Aalto Paimio Sanatorium

 

This small exhibition - described by Designmuseum Danmark as a "pop-up exhibition" - is based around two chairs from the permanent collection - Armchair No 42 and the Paimio Chair - also known as The Ring Chair - designed by Alvar Aalto and both used in the Paimio Sanatorium. The hospital in south-west Finland designed by Aalto was built specifically for the treatment of patients with tuberculosis - and was completed in 1933.

The chairs are displayed with historic photographs and copies of drawings that have been selected to show how important the hospital was and to put those two chairs in context.

Aalto was born in February 1898 so he was four years older than Arne Jacobsen. The exhibition does not compare directly the work of the two architects but there are marked and very important similarities. They grew up and then studied as architects in a period of massive social, political and economic changes in Europe and in a period that saw rapid advances in technology and industrial production that had a huge impact on architecture and furniture design. Political changes were more dramatic for Aalto because Finland only emerged as a nation, independent from both Sweden and Russia, in 1918 after a revolution.

 

Both architects, through the 1920s and through their first commissions, absorbed and readily adapted their designs to building in the relatively new material of concrete and the new techniques of construction that went with that material … so generally buildings with piers in concrete that supported concrete floors and, as a consequence, with freedom to experiment with external and internal walls that were no longer load bearing and with few restrictions in terms of height in buildings that could be constructed quickly.

Crucially, both architects worked on all aspects of a project … so not just the plan and structure of a building but all details of windows, door handles, light fittings and, for both men, designs for furniture.

They each achieved a uniform aesthetic in their buildings, and that was important, but it was also driven by the need for efficiency and an attempt to rationalise construction and manage costs - to produce as much as possible off site and to reduce the number of variations and options for the same reasons … so what became important was how they put together the parts and that was determined by function and not a hierarchy of fittings as in so many public and domestic buildings before the 20th century.

 

Here, in this exhibition, the two chairs show how Aalto was at the forefront of technical developments in furniture manufacture. His grandfather was a forester and taught at the Evo Forest Institute south of Tampere and Aalto himself developed a specific technique of cutting down into a length of squared-off timber, interlayering with thin slips of wood inserted into the cuts and with glue and steam bending and formed the timber for the frame for chairs and tables and other furniture.

He was one of the first designers to exploit and develop the use of plywood which again was bent - rather than used as flat sheets - to create a continuous surface for the seat and back of a chair but he also extended the bend or curve of the plywood to form a rounded support for the head and a rounded support for the back of the legs.

It is important to look carefully to see how the plywood shell of the seat and back and the bent-wood frame are joined together - with lugs or tabs in strategic positions on the edge of the plywood that fit into slots in the frame - and how crossbars link the frame on each side but also support the plywood at critical points.

 

Because of its topography and climate, Finland does not have the variety of native timbers for furniture making and house building that are found in Sweden and Denmark so the form of the chairs is not an odd whim of aesthetics but was necessary to be able to use native rather than imported timber - to do what was possible with native birch - a relatively small tree.

And the design of the chairs - and the distinct features of the building - reflect the nature of the disease treated at the hospital.

Tuberculosis was a contagious disease that effected the lungs but could also infect bones and the nervous system. By the early 20th century it was the cause of death of 7,200 people a year in Finland or about 13% of mortality year on year in the country.

When the hospital opened, treatment was based around providing patients with good nutrition and bed rest in the early stages of the disease and then with sun and fresh air although bright light and noise effected many sufferers badly.

The chairs are relatively low and long so the sitting position is close to reclining and the bent-wood frame and plywood provide a level of flexibility for long periods sitting in the sun or fresh air. The construction in wood was lighter than anything comparable that used tubular steel, so the chairs could be turned easily to be angled towards the sun and they were not upholstered to reduce contamination. Note that the Paimio Chair has narrow horizontal slits cut through the head rest so that air could circulate around the face.

The first private Sanatorium in Finland was opened in 1895 and the first owned by a federation of municipalities opened in 1914 but after passing a Tuberculosis Act in 1929 eight large sanatoriums were constructed with total of 2,500 beds and Paimio was the last to be completed in 1933 for 296 beds for patients from 52 municipalities including the city of Turku with an allocation of 100 beds. Because tuberculosis was contagious, the hospitals were generally set in countryside away from towns … the Sanatorium at Paimio was 20 kilometres east of Turku set in an area of woodland.

With the discovery of anti biotics, it became possible to alleviate and then control the spread of the disease and in 1960 the sanatorium buildings were modified and converted for use as a general hospital.

 

The exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen continues until 21 January 2018

 

note:

comments on this post were received today (19 February 2018) and, because these were interesting and raised some important points, it was worth posting a longer reply that has been posted on Copenhagen architecture & design news as an update

Paimio Sanatorium 1929-33

 

Alvar Aalto Architect volume 5 Paimio Sanatorium 1929-1933, Alvar Aalto Foundation and Alvar Aalto Academy (2014)

 

 

One of twenty eight volumes published by the Alvar Aalto Foundation and the Alvar Aalto Academy to cover the work of the Finnish architect.

The format, with pages set landscape, allows generous space for an attractive layout but also gives an appropriate page size for the reproduction of design drawings for the Sanatorium and its fittings and furniture.

The book is a compilation of separate essays:

Paimio Sanatorium written by Teppo Jokinen, includes some of the preliminary drawings by Aalto that were entered for a competition for the building in 1929 and drawings for the expansion of the scheme, a decision made before construction started, when the city of Turku joined with the original municipalities. To expand the facilities, two extra floors and a roof terrace were added to the main block of rooms for the patients to treat up to 296 patients from 52 municipalities with up to 100 of those beds available for the city of Turku.

The arrangement of blocks on the site has a long but narrow main range with bedrooms and balconies on six floors angled to face south-east and south to benefit most from the sun and so rooms and balconies look out over the forest. A separate block containing administration spaces and a dining room, library and consulting rooms and surgeries was set behind but linked to the main block by an entrance hall with lifts and the main staircase. There was also a boiler house, ancillary buildings and housing for physicians and other staff that are reminiscent of the housing for teaching staff at the Bauhaus in Germany and the housing built for the exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927.

 

It was a complicated building with innovative features including windows with baffled ventilation to ensure fresh air without drafts; heating systems that were designed to ensure air circulation without uncomfortable areas of high heat; a complicated lighting system including shades and baffles - reminiscent of the work by Poul Henningsen in Denmark at the same time - and of course the famous washbasins in each room that were placed on the wall towards the corridor so they could be serviced from outside without disturbing the patients but were also designed to be splash and sound proofed because many suffering from tuberculosis became very sensitive to intrusive sounds. Aalto, and what seems to have been a relatively small office, achieved all this within a tight time frame as the building was ready to take its first patients by 1933.

The essay Paimio Interiors by Kaarina Mikonranta discusses the importance of light and colour in the programme of therapy and looks at everything Aalto designed inside from furniture and light fittings, to the door handles that were designed so that the coats of doctors would not snag as they pushed through the doors. Given that most patients occupied rooms with just two beds then there would have been rather a lot of opening and closing doors through an average day.

Some lighting came from an earlier project - so the pendant lights were shown at the Helsinki Minimum Apartment exhibition in 1930 - but 10 new models were produced Oy Taito Ab.

 

Paimio Sanatorium - repairs and modifications by Ola Laiho is a useful summary of the subsequent changes made to the building and its fittings. Many were undertaken by Aalto or by the partnership that continued after his death. A new operating theatre was added in 1958 and then, after the Sanatorium was converted to a general hospital in 1960, the distinctive balconies and sun deck were converted to interior spaces, with that work completed in 1963, and, perhaps the most obvious change, the glass walls of lifts were replaced with concrete.

Paimio Sanatorium Project Description quotes in full an important summary of the project by Alvar Aalto himself.

To complete the volume, there are photographs compiled by Maija Holma and three essays - Tuberculosis in Finland in early 20th century by Arno Forsius; Early days of the sanatorium (1860-1902) by Anne Marie Chatelet and The Sanatorium in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s by Jean-Bernard Cremnitzer - that are general but set out important context for planning for this type of special hospital that became common throughout Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Danish chairs of the 20th century

 

Over the last couple of months, posts have been added here for just over 60 Danish chairs from the last century with a brief assessment for each that focuses on details of form and construction and, where possible, puts the design into a wider context.

A third of these chairs were designed by Hans Wegner but that reflects the number of chairs he designed and, of course, his importance as a master of innovation who, as a designer, continually pushed the boundaries for what could be done and how and why.

The series was inspired by the chairs in the permanent collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen where a new display was opened just over a year ago. A selection of the chairs is now shown in a well-lit arrangement in a dedicated gallery where the chairs are set, each in its own display case, so it is possible look at the design without distraction and, with the chairs raised up off the floor, it is possible to look closely at how the chairs are constructed and to appreciate the techniques of the carpentry - the way that the separate parts are cut, shaped and fitted together - the finish of the wood, the use of metal for parts of the chair or, with some, the whole frame, the appearance of new materials such as plywood or plastic and, in many of the chairs, the superb quality of the workmanship.

This gallery at the design museum presents to the visitor a key body of research material on open access with extensive labels and information panels but in addition the museum catalogue is available on line so it is also possible to look up furniture in the collection by date, period, maker, dimensions or materials and type and the index also means that it is possible to search for information or images on other furniture by the same designer or the same maker that is not currently on display but is in the collection.

It was also crucial for these recent posts here, on this web site, that last year saw the republication of the four volumes on the cabinetmakers' annual exhibitions - Dansk Mobelkunst Gennem 40 År - published by Lindhardt og Ringhof. Edited by the designer Grete Jalk, these were published first in 1987 and record the exhibitions that were held in Copenhagen each year, from 1927 through to 1966, to show to the public the latest and the very best of Danish furniture.

For the first decade, the exhibitions were held at a number of different venues in Copenhagen but from 1937 through to the last exhibition in 1966 all but one year, when the exhibition was at Charlottenborg, and a year at the Forum - a total of 28 exhibitions were held at the design museum - then called Kunstindustrimuseet. This was remarkable and spot lights the ongoing role of the museum in showing current design - not simply to curate the design of the past - and one reason why the present exhibition Dansk Design Nu - looking at Danish design this century - is so important.


With posts here on 60 chairs, and the intention to add more, then some sort of index was necessary and arranging that by date it also works as a time line for chairs from the 20th century. At the very least, this proves that there was not a clear or straightforward linear progress through those decades so it raises interesting questions about the age of designers or at which point in their career they produced a specific chair and whether, whatever their age, they were pushing boundaries or exploring for themselves a new trend or a new material.

 

The display of chairs in Designmuseum Danmark provides an amazing opportunity to not only look closely at the chairs but the lighting also meant that it is possible to take photographs of details. This recording of details of the joinery and the materials is more and more important as fewer and fewer people learn about timber or working with wood when they are at school and it is not an aspect of design covered in many blogs.

For obvious reasons the measurements of the chairs have been given where possible. It is important to have some way of judging the scale of a design and that is rarely obvious from a photograph and particularly difficult outside the context of a room.

But also, as I looked at more and more of the chairs and looked at the photographs from the cabinetmakers' annual exhibitions it was obvious that it is now difficult to understand these pieces of furniture in anything like an original setting and that becomes more difficult with time as these pieces of furniture move from being everyday objects that people have in their homes and sit on to be what are now valuable collector or museum pieces.

Some of the designers and architects themselves were clearly concerned about the setting of their furniture … from the earliest exhibitions in the late 1920s the cabinetmakers used room settings and much of the furniture was aimed at a specific customer and therefore, to some extent, a known type of room … from a young couple moving into a small, new two-room apartment through to a wealthy middle-class family buying bookshelves and a desk by Klint or chairs for a large terrace or garden … so all designed with at least some idea of the space or the setting where the furniture would be used. Some designers went further. Poul Kjærholm designed with meticulous care the settings of his furniture in exhibitions and shop displays and Finn Juhl chose the colours against which his furniture was shown … producing drawings with colour wash of the room settings for the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition.


This first selection has focused on key chairs of the classic period of modern Danish furniture, so with just 60 not even, at this point, all the most famous chairs but a reasonable selection of different types of chair and different materials and a range of designers. One problem is that it panders to the idea that Danish designers focus on chairs and it reinforces a general misconception that somehow the only period of great design in Denmark was that so called Classic period of the 1950s and 1960s. So the next stage for this web site will be to look at recent chairs, since the turn of the century, and present them in a similar way … looking at form and construction and context … and possibly then to look at other types of Danish furniture in the same way … so sofas and tables might be next.

This should form a growing body of material with a chance to experiment with indexing and cross referencing and posts will be updated to add to entries if more information or better photographs become available or to add more links to archive drawings and historic images.

chair for the museum in Faaborg by Kaare Klint 1914

Now, in many ways, this chair appears to be old fashioned - looking backward to earlier styles of furniture as a reinterpretation of an historic type of chair - but it should be seen to mark or define the start of a distinctly modern approach to furniture design.

Faaborg is on the south coast of the island of Funen - just over 40 kilometres from Odense. A new museum there was founded in June 1910 to display the work of a group of artists known as the Funen painters and in 1912 it was the artists themselves who proposed Carl Petersen to design a new gallery that was to be built along one side of the summer home and garden of Mads Rasmussen … a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune through canned food.

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chair for Dansk Kunsthandel by Kaare Klint 1917

Designmuseum Danmark

 

 

In 1915 the furniture designed by Kaare Klint for the Faaborg Museum on Funen - along with drawings and even a section of tiled floor for the main gallery - were exhibited in Copenhagen in the Danish Museum of Art & Design that was then still in its original building on City Hall Square.

Clearly this was good marketing for Klint then went on to design a number of chairs of the Faaborg type for a number of important and influential clients in Copenhagen.

The original Faaborg Chair from 1914 has cane in the panels of the back and there was a rather heavier looking version of that chair, with solid panels in the back rest with a top rail that flares out in a more marked way, that was made by the cabinetmaker N M Rasmussen in 1916 for Aage Lunn and then in 1917 a version of the chair in Cuban mahogany was made for Dansk Kunsthandel in Copenhagen by N C Jensen Kjær.

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chair for the Thorvaldsen Museum by Kaare Klint 1923

This chair was designed by Kaare Klint in 1923 for the office of the Thorvaldesn Museum in Copenhagen * and made by N C Jensen Kjær. In style, it looks back to the chair that Klint designed for the museum at Faaborg in 1914. 

Made in burl oak, the frame has a distinct, sharply-curved, and high back support. As with the chairs for the museum in Faaborg, both the front and back legs are continued up to support a curved and horizontal rail for a back rest and there are intermediate rails, half way between the seat and the top rail, but with the upper parts here filled with thin curved panels of wood held in channels in the frame - rather than the cane work of the Faaborg Chair.

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Klismosstol / Klismos Chair by Kaj Gottlob 1921

 

Clearly this chair is not a modern chair - not by any stretch of the imagination - but it is important because it shows how styles and forms of furniture from the 19th century continued on well into the 20th century.

The chair was designed in 1921 for the Court House in Fredericksberg … the municipality immediately to the west of Copenhagen … so the commission was for furniture for a major civic building that itself dated from the 19th century and therefore, perhaps, more formal and more solid and more traditional furniture was appropriate but it also shows clearly that it is unwise to try and see the history of design in terms of a rapid and inevitable changing of the guard in a clear-cut way or even as something that everyone at the time just accepted as inevitable.

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a Klismos chair in Designmuseum Danmark from circa 1790 by N A Abildgaard (1743-1809)

detail of chair in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark in Copenhagen

 

Klapstol / Folding Chair JH512 by Hans Wegner 1949

 

Although this is a folding chair it was not designed as a deckchair or even primarily for use outside but it was for a small apartment and was designed to be hung on the wall so it was out of the way until it was needed.

The cross bar below the seat is shaped and has curved cross struts to form a notch to keep the chair steady when it is hung over a single hook.

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CH28 Savbukstol / Sawbuck Chair by Hans Wegner 1951

 Through the 1930s and 1940s and on into the 1950s, designer experimented with not just different materials, so here shaped plywood, but also looked for new and unconventional forms of construction.

Here, Hans Wegner seems to have been inspired by the carpenters sawbuck … what is called in England a saw horse or sometimes simply a trestle. This was a straightforward and usually light bench, often made quickly and crudely with available timber with a length of squared-off wood as a top bar and simple supports at each end - either just two pieces of wood fixed and angled out to form an inverted V or, if it had to support more weight, then cross bars were added between the legs to form an A at each end. These were used on their own or with a pair to support a length of wood as it was sawn or cut to length or two of these could be used together with planks set across to form a temporary table or even a platform when painting a ceiling or hanging wallpaper.

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CH07 - the two-part shell chair by Hans Wegner 1963

early versions of the chair shown at the exhibition on the work of Hans Wegner at Designmuseum Danmark in 2014

 

 Sometimes good design is about designing something better and sometimes it's about designing something different and, without doubt, it was the exploration of what many could see as unconventional styles and forms that drove forward Danish design through the 1960s and 1970s.

This shell chair by Hans Wegner, designed in 1963, could certainly not be described as conventional as it was one of his most sculptural but one of his most starkly simple designs.

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3208 Lilien / The Lily by Arne Jacobsen 1970

Chair 3208 in the collection of Designmuseum Danmark

 3108 - an early version of the chair - was designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1961 but The Lily - or at least a first version of The Lily without arms - was shown at the Scandinavian Furniture Fair in Copenhagen in 1969 and the final form with arms was shown at the furniture fair the following year. The chair was also known as Mågen or The Sea Gull.

Clearly the Lily is related to the other shell chairs in plywood that Jacobsen designed - including The Ant from 1952 and the Series 7 chairs from1955 - but the Lily has a more marked shape with a much narrower waist between the seat and the back that was there to make possible a more pronounced curve of the shell. Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum, in their book on the work of Jacobsen, suggest that this created so much tension in the shell that up to 75% that were made had to be rejected.

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mechanics in wood

the back and the arm rest of a Colonial Chair designed by Ole Wanscher in 1949

 

This is really a simple point about engineering in wood.

There are many factors that influenced modern Danish design and made the furniture of the period specific to the country and contributed to its success.

One key role was that of the cabinetmakers. Their work through the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s was not simply a matter of producing work of a high quality but their skills enabled designers to push materials - specifically their work with wood - in very new directions.

It was the close working relationship between the designers starting with Kaare Klint and his partnership with Rud. Rasmussen and then on of course through the collaboration between Hans Wegner with first Johannes Hansen and then the craftsmen of PP Møbler or Ole Wanscher working with A J Iversen or the work of Finn Juhl made by Niels Vodder.

This was not simply a matter of a maker realising a design: this was about being proud of a skill but having the confidence and the desire to push boundaries and that in fact was what was, essentially, at the heart of the apprenticeship and guild system … its DNA from the middle ages onwards. For cabinetmakers it was about taking the techniques of joining one piece of timber to another and adapting and improving and refining that, along with understanding what wood could and could not do, to make furniture that was, in terms of its mechanics viable.

It might seem inane or at best unnecessary to point out that, however beautiful or amazing the design looks, a chair fails, literally, if it collapses or if it is uncomfortable.

A chair by Finn Juhl shows the designer pushing the materials and the joiners skills to new limits. Other chairs by other designers from the classic period are more subtle but no less amazing. In the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher, designed in 1949, the turned posts of the back rest are just 30mm in diameter and the slats that support the cushion of the back rest are just 8mm thick and gently curved along a total length of 480mm but the slats are housed into the posts and the whole thing takes the weight of someone sitting in the chair and leaning back.

 

longer post and photographs of the Colonial Chair by Ole Wanscher

 

PK22 by Poul Kjærholm 1955

 

Danish furniture from the second half of the 20th century is generally and more immediately associated by most people with wood and, as a consequence, with cabinetmaking or at least with wood-working techniques of the highest quality but actually metal work and engineering were important in the evolution of Danish design and, even in wood, many designs, particularly designs that pushed boundaries, experimented with structure and with joining or joinery that is actually engineering but engineering in wood rather than metal.

The furniture designed by Poul Kjærholm displays the purest and most refined engineering in metal. 

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NV45 / FJ45 by Finn Juhl 1945

Chair NV45 was shown at the Cabinetmakers' Exhibition in 1945 - with other furniture including a desk and sofa designed by Finn Juhl and made by Niels Vodder - in a room setting that was described as a ‘room for a managing director.’

Obviously this was not cheap furniture … a review in Berlingske Tidende noted that the furniture was designed for a deluxe office and added that not only had it been awarded first prize but had been sold in advance to an American customer.

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photographed at Galleri Feldt at Nordre Toldbod in Copenhagen