I spoke with Mirkku Kullberg, CEO Artek, Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann, Executive Vice President Artek USA, Inc., and Ville Kokkonen, Design Director Artek to find out more about the history of this iconic chair.
In 1929, while designing the Paimio Sanatorium in Turku, Finland, which was housing Tuberculosis patients in a time without medication to cure this disease, Aalto noted that it was essential to create a dialogue between the furnishings and the interior. The only way to cure it was to rest and inhale the fresh air from the pine forest that surrounded the Sanatorium, so patients needed comfortable chairs in which to do so.
Thus, the Paimio chair was created. It’s designed to lean back slightly to open the chest and inhale the maximum amount of air. The cuts in the back are for ventilation. These chairs were on the balcony of each room and patients would sit many hours in the chair each day and just inhale the fresh pine air.
Aalto was a big advocate for good design that promotes wellbeing, so it was important for him to ensure the functionality of the hospital beyond its exterior.
Ville Kokkonen says “Good hygiene and the use of aesthetics and light to create a calm setting made Paimio Sanatorium an exception environment in the post-war world. The potential of new design was later used in Aalto’s ‘standardisation philosophy’, which translated into industrial manufacture of high-quality inexpensive Finnish furniture for a broader body of consumers. In Paimio Sanatorium, Armchair 41 was used in the chapel room and in some corridors.”
Eventually, the Paimio chair became a part of Aalto’s furniture collection that Artek took into production and it was shown in international exhibitions. All the main exhibitions in 1930s were successful and pushed Artek forward into the international market.
But what makes it such a classic? Simone Vingerhoets-Ziesmann says “It outlived its times. Just looking at the chair without having the knowledge about the history one wouldn’t be able to determine the year the Paimio chair was designed.”
The use of the bent wood, Kokkonen explains, is also key. “Like all Aalto’s icons from 30s, the most important factor was the use of wood in modern design. Bent wood, extremely simple forms and pure and strong structures. Armchair 41 was, and is, a showpiece of bending technique. All Aalto pieces are still unique and distinctive because of these facts. Armchair 41 is one of the most photographed chairs of all time (according to international museums).”
But the most important and critical design characteristic that makes this chair a classic isn’t in the aesthetics; Kullberg puts it very simply: “Because it is a very comfortable chair.” Amen to that.