Young Finnish architects Alvar and Aino Aalto were considering a design directive far ahead of their time back in 1929: wellness. Alvar—who worked closely with his wife—had won a commission to create a tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio, Finland (a project that would usher their name onto the world stage), and they would craft every detail, from door handles to sinks to seating, to benefit body and mind.
One chair in particular—the bent-plywood Armchair 41, nicknamed the Paimio, which was lined up in long rows in the common room—gained praise outside the sanatorium when it was shown at Milan’s 1933 Triennale. A collaboration with manufacturer Otto Korhonen, it featured a seat that gently curled at head and foot, positioning patients at an angle to promote easy breathing. (For healthy individuals, it was also just plain comfortable.) Instead of using a tubular steel base, the Aaltos opted for something more organic—two closed-frame, bent-wood armrests supported the seat. Another version, Armchair 42, sported a cantilevered base. Both lacked upholstery, which meant little maintenance was required.
“The Paimio encapsulates everything that is Aalto—mastery of the curve,” says Andrew Duncanson, of Stockholm’s Modernity gallery. At press time, he had one Paimio-era original as well as a rare version in curly birch. The originals, which were painted black, were first produced in beech and later in birch by Korhonen’s factory. When Artek was founded in 1935, it took up production; today, new versions cost $4,785.
Fans have ranged from artist Donald Judd, who lived with two versions in his New York City home, to the late Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, who kept one in Paris. “The Aaltos’ version of modernism transcends the International Style, which had much harder edges,” says Lee F. Mindel, of AD100 firm SheltonMindel, who has used Armchair 41 in projects and lives with one in Southampton. He speculates: “In Finland—a country without a monarchy—nature really was their king.” hivemodern.com
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest