Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was born in Kuortane, Finland. He studied architecture at the Technical University of Helsinki from 1916 to 1921 when he went to work as an exhibition designer, art critic and contributor to the Finnish journal Käsiteollisuus. He turned, professionally, to architecture in 1923 and, starting around 1924, designed several cafés and student centers, as well as dormitory furniture, for his school. He became a member of the Congrès Internationaux D'Architecture Moderne in 1928.
As an architect and designer he was one of the early ambassadors of Finnish design to the rest of the world, designing the Finnish pavilion at the Paris World Exposition in 1937 and the New York World's Fair in 1939. His joint design, with Erik Bryggman, for the 1929 Turku Fair was also instrumental in ushering in an era of functionalism in Finland. Their open plan, which utilized a modular system of prefabricated wood elements, embraced the functionalist ideal of a close connection to the landscape and extensive use of natural, abundant materials. His later furniture designs further support the basic tenets of functionalism-- that industrially mass-produced, inexpensive, practical, well-made, beautiful objects would spread social equality and a culture the masses could participate in and enjoy.
In 1929 he and Otto Korhonen started an experimental plywood workshop in Turku where they fine tuned methods for molding plywood and developed Aalto's trademark innovation in furniture design which has become known as the "bent knee." In this process, for which he obtained a patent throughout most of the world, a piece of solid birch wood, the most abundant natural resource in Finland, is manipulated so that it can be bent at any desired angle. This technique enabled him to create what he felt was "the world's first soft wooden chair." In the early 1930s Aalto designed a tuberculosis sanitorium in Paimio, Finland and, in creating all of the interior furnishings, experimented extensively with these techniques to produce some of his most iconic pieces of furniture.
In 1935, Aalto, his wife Aino Marsio-Aalto with whom he worked closely on furniture and lighting designs, and Harry and Marie Gullichsen founded Artek, a design company. Artek's chief goal was to advertise and sell products designed by Aalto, but their gallery also supported and promoted modern art and the work of designers influenced by Aalto. Several other companies sold Aalto's furniture worldwide, including Finmar Ltd., started by P. Morton Shand in England.
Between 1954 and 1957 an exhibition entitled, "Design in Scandinavia" toured America and cemented the reputation that designers from the Scandinavian countries had been building for themselves as leaders in international design. The Finnish designers garnered praise for their work--primarily in wood and glass-- and Aalto's art glass, particularly his vases, were heavily featured in the show. In 1957 the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Aalto a gold medal.