Making waves: 80 years of Alvar Aalto’s pioneering wood bending technique
This year, Finnish design firm Artek turns 80, and the brand is celebrating in style, adding vibrant new upholstery colourways to its classic ’Domus’ chair, and relocating to a spacious new flagship in Helsinki. Longstanding collaborators Iittala have got in on the anniversary action, adding a commemorative grey-scale edition to its time-honoured ’Alvar Aalto’ vase collection. Artek even took time out of its busy birthday year to co-create some nifty nesting trays for Hotel Wallpaper*.
If that wasn’t enough, Artek are set to launch a range of new finishes for the iconic ’L-leg’ chairs – from leathers to lacquers and linoleum. As they riff on a classic, we look back on the chair’s conception, in 1933, when Artek was but a fledgling idea in the mind of a group of Finnish idealists. It’s our small way of raising a glass to 80 years of exemplary design.
The ’L-leg’ came into being thanks to Alvar Aalto’s adventures in wood bending techniques, which were a new phenomena in the 1930s. With the help of furniture manufacturer Otto Korhonen, Aalto developed a combination of cutting and steaming local Birch wood in order for it to become malleable.
Since then, the technique has remained pretty much the same: after being soaked in water, multiple vertical saw cuts are made in the end of a piece of wood a few millimeters apart – the deeper the cut, the bigger the bend. Then, thin strips of veneer are inserted into these slits and glued, increasing the stability of the finished component.
Aalto had an inkling he was on to a good thing with the ’L-leg’ – early on he referred to it as ’the little sister of the architectural column’. Originally designed for ’Stool 60’, it soon established itself as an anchor for the wider Artek collection. The beauty of the thing is its versatility – the ’L-leg’ can be used as the basis for any number of seats, stools and tables. It has quite literally propped up hundreds of variations since it was patented in the 1930s. The technique has also spawned bending experiments in other materials, like steel, as we saw last year in Artek’s ’Kaari’ (or ’arch’) collaboration with the Bouroullecs.
Aesthetically, these curves have become a defining feature of Artek’s designs – flicking through a 2016 catalogue, the memory of Aalto’s early bending experiments can be seen in every contemporary curve. But the ’L-leg’ also represents Artek’s ethos: fusing emerging technologies with art, in order to be true ambassadors and pioneers of Nordic design.