ALVAR AALTO ‘PENSION’ ARMCHAIR 406 FOR ARTEK
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The timeless 406 armchair designed by Alvar Aalto in 1939 for Finnish furniture manufacturer ARTEK. A modernist classic characterized by comfort and simplicity and affectionately referred to as the Pension Chair because it allows its occupant to enjoy “retirement.” The flexible wood of the cantilevered, bent birch frame and the breathable linen webbing and solid birch cross-rails provide form-fitting suspension. A popular feature in Scandinavian homes, its light and airy design complements a wide range of interior styles. An early example of the modernist aesthetic. (Aalto’s invention of bent plywood furniture had a profound impact on the aesthetics of Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson.)
The linen webbing is easily replaceable, adding to the chair's longevity. The armrests are formed from a single piece of birch plywood that is split in two, ensuring that the chair remains perfectly balanced as it ages. 406 is represented in MoMA’s design collection. A pair is available, priced individually.
ALVAR AALTO (1898–1976) was the preeminent Finnish architect and designer of his generation, and he deserves an immense share of the credit for bringing Scandinavian modernism to a prominent place in the global arena. In both his buildings and his furnishings—which range from chairs, tables, and lighting to table- and glassware—Aalto’s sensitivity to the natural world and organic forms and materials tempered the hardness of rationalist design.
Born in 1898 in Kuortane, in the South Ostrobothnia region of Finland, Aalto began to make his mark in the design world shortly after qualifying as an architect at Helsinki Polytechnic in 1921. He initially set up practice in Jyväskylä in central Finland, today the home of an eponymous museum. His initial work closely followed the tenets of Nordic Classicism, the predominant style of the time. He married his first wife, fellow architect Aino Marsio (1894–1949), in 1924, and, in the late ’20s and early ’30s the couple traveled frequently throughout Europe, familiarizing themselves with Modernism’s latest trends, in particular the International Style, with its emphasis on volume over mass, the use of lightweight, mass-produced, industrial materials, and the wholesale rejection of ornament and color.
Aalto’s career ran in parallel with Finland’s rapid economic growth and industrialization during the first half of the previous century. An early phase of his work—and the most purely Functionalist—led to an international breakthrough with the design of the Paimio Sanatorium (1929–1933). This important Modernist milestone followed many of the prescriptions of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus School. From the late ’30s onwards, Aalto’s architectural expression was increasingly enriched by the use of biomorphic form and natural materials. It progressively embraced a radical freedom in the handling of space, as embodied by the legendary Villa Mairea (1938–1939), the guest house and rural retreat that he designed for Maire and Harry Gullichsen, whose boldly cantilevered balconies and an undulating basement story echoing a neighboring stream show the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Aalto gave more and more priority to the psychological and sensual aspects of design—through means such as color, the sensitive modulation of light and sound, and materials, especially wood.
It was characteristic of Aalto to treat each building as a complete work of art—right down to the furnishings and light fixtures. Furniture designs evolved organically from his architecture, as did those for textiles and glassware, and his innovations in form and line were important to the very history of design. Indeed, Aalto first achieved fame in Continental Europe as a furniture designer, and only later as an architect.
From the 1950s onwards, Aalto’s architectural practice was employed principally in the design of public buildings, such as the Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948–1952), the Jyväskylä Institute of Pedagogics, now the University of Jyväskylä (1951–1957), and the House of Culture in Helsinki (1952–1956). Various urban design master plans represented larger projects than these, of course; the most notable schemes that were realized were city centers in Seinäjoki (1956–1965/87), Rovaniemi (1963–1976/88), and the partly-built administrative and cultural center in Jyväskylä (1970–1982). During the same period, Aalto focused increasingly on work abroad, and several private and public buildings outside of Finland were built to his specifications.
Aalto’s unique aesthetic helped to define Finnish design as well as introduce it to a global audience. Its hallmarks include a harmonious relationship with nature, functionalism combined with beauty, excellent attention to detail, and an ingenious use of materials. Aalto’s designs were already being exhibited internationally as early as the 1930s, including at MoMA in New York City. When Aalto premiered his Savoy Vase at the 1930 New York World’s Fair—so-called for the luxe Helsinki restaurant for which it was designed—it instantly caused a sensation with its dynamic wavy design. The legendary vase is one of the world's most famous glass objects.
After World War II, Aalto continued to develop his design vocabulary and his exploration of materials in such major works as the Baker House, Senior Dormitory for MIT (1946–49), marked by its unconventional undulating façade, and the Town Hall in Säynätsalo (1948–52), which features an enclosed courtyard inspired by Italian Renaissance piazze. First wife Aino died of cancer in 1949, and, in 1952, Aalto married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi (1922–1994).
Alvar Aalto forged a remarkable synthesis of romantic and pragmatic ideas during his lifetime, and his work reflected a deep desire to humanize architecture through unorthodox handling of form and materials—at once rational and intuitive. His inspirations ranged from the birch and pine forests of his native country to the classical and Renaissance architecture of the Mediterranean. He died in Helsinki in 1976.
Architecture cannot save the world, but it may serve as a good example. – ALVAR AALTO
ARTEK was founded in Helsinki in 1935 by husband-and-wife architects and designers Alvar (1898–1976) and Aino Aalto (1894–1949), along with collector and art patron Maire Gullichsen (1907–1990) and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl (1904–1941). The four chose the non-Finnish neologism ARTEK to manifest their desire to combine art and technology—with technology here understood to include science and industrial production methods and art seen as extending beyond the fine arts to architecture and design. It was the founder of Bauhaus himself, architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969), who coined the motto “art and technology—a new unity.” A main tenet of the International Style movement is echoed herein, to wit: the emphasis on technical expertise and quality of materials over against historical-based or frivolous ornamentation.
The Aaltos were the creative force behind ARTEK. The firm’s original aims were to promote the Aaltos’ furniture and glassware, to keep up standards of quality in their production, and, not incidentally, to generally advocate for “a modern culture of living”—through exhibitions and other educational means. The studio was set up ostensibly to assist Alvar’s architects with interior designs for his buildings. ARTEK’s in-house designers include Ben af Schultén (b. 1939) who became the firm’s Design Director in 1976. Since Alvar Aalto died in 1976, ARTEK has sold objects by other Finnish designers, such as Juha Leiviskä (1935–2023), Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914–1999), and Eero Aarnio (b. 1932). ARTEK currently operates three stores: main and “2nd-Cycle” showrooms in Helsinki (the latter for used products) and a store in Tokyo.
Designer – ALVAR AALTO
Design Period/Year – 1939
Maker – ARTEK
Production Period/Year – 1950s
Origin – FINLAND
Styles/Movements – BAUHAUS; MODERN; SCANDINAVIAN
Materials – BIRCH, LINEN
Colors – BLACK, ALMOND
Condition – Excellent vintage condition. Minor traces of wear consistent with age and use.
Dimensions – 23 ¾" W × 28 ½" D × 34 ½" H
Seat Dimensions – 23 ¼" W × 19" D × 15" H
Arm Height – 21 ¼"
Number of Seats – 1