The Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto is recognized as one of the leading figures in the field of 20th Century Modernism. Like his Danish colleague Arne Jacobsen, Aalto combined architecture and design and his work covers a wide span; from large-scale architectural projects, furniture design and light fittings to glassware, textiles and jewellery. In this post we will focus on his lamps.
It was characteristic of Aalto’s understanding of architecture that furniture and lighting were an integral part of the building and therefore no less important than the architectural frame itself. He regarded the experience of architecture as an all-encompassing matter, meaning that furniture or lighting alien to Aalto’s line of thought would disturb the over-all picture. Most of Aalto’s lamps were thus originally made in connection with specific architectural projects and only later went into series production.
The present example, the Golden Bell Lamp A330S, was designed for the Savoy Restaurant in Helsinki in 1937. The lamp is made out of one single piece of brass. The cone of light is restricted by the narrow opening, but combines with the lower perforated ring to create a luminous crown, resulting in a unique atmosphere generated by two kinds of light. The closed form of this lamp served as a prototype for several of Aalto’s later designs, among them the pendant A330 from the 1950s.
The pendant A110, also known as the Hand Grenade, is another example. It was developed in 1951 when Aalto worked on a building for the Finnish Engineering Society in Helsinki. The lamp is characterized by a simple, geometrical form, consisting of two brass cylinders that direct the light straight downwards. The outside is painted while the inside is unpainted brass, giving off an especially warm light.
Aalto was very aware of how much artificial light influences the human psyche and the daily activities, especially in a cold and dark northern climate and he insistently regarded lamps as sources of light defining our use and experience of space. In 1935, lecturing at the Swedish Society for Industrial Design, he said: “Design tricks may lead to piquant effects (lamps that look nice when lit etc.), but we cannot base our lighting design in the age of electricity on such dilettantism. Instead we must extend our rational work to cover a wider range of demands connected with these problems. In addition to technical and general physiological properties, we must rationally study the detailed needs of the health of the individual.”
In his lighting design, Aalto was very preoccupied by creating the right mood, giving the electric light of his interiors a specific character defined by him and suited to the requirements and space in question. It is said, that his interiors were thus sometimes even more interesting in electric light than in daylight.
Aalto aimed at original and unique solutions and even though he opposed “design tricks” his lighting designs hold an artistic quality of their own. Characterized by its asymmetrical conical grille, the floor lamp A805, also known as the Angel’s Wing, is one of his more sculptural designs, in which the aesthetics clearly come into view. The lamp was originally made for the National Pensions Institute in Helsinki, built in the years 1952-1957. Like most of Aalto’s lighting designs, it has achieved a classical aura no longer bound to time or place.