When Matt met Aalto
Matt Sykes is an Australian designer with a passion for all things Nordic. During his travels in Scandinavia he came across his hero, Alvar Aalto, on the back shelf of a Finnish grocery store, crammed between cleaning products. Today, Matt shares his experience in a delightful cultural essay.
It’s the middle of winter and I’m visiting Finland for Christmas.
We leave the house in search for food, wearing leather gloves, big coats and pink rosy cheeks. After successfully navigating windy snow-covered roads and passing icy lakes, we park our car in front of an unassuming building, a grocery store. We walk inside and a very warm and friendly shopkeeper greets us.
I had come to expect the unexpected in Finnish grocery stores, the last one we visited had piles of fireworks for sale in preparation for New Year’s Eve. Coming from Australia where selling fireworks is strictly prohibited, this was like seeing cigarettes for sale in a candy store.
My hosts went about their business while I was left to explore this cultural wonderland. And then it happened. There it was, sitting on the shelf, so quietly, so modestly, nestled in between the insect spray and laundry detergent – an Aalto vase.
Despite their utilitarian utopian ideals, few designers could claim to have created a product that is so common but still retains the integrity of its beauty. The Aalto vase was packaged in a small box, branded with photos of birch forests and the iconic Iittala logo. If my memory serves me correctly, it even came in two sizes. How could something so internationally celebrated end up competing for shelf space with cleaning products?
The depth to which Finnish design culture infiltrates the lives of its people is profound. Design is not the elite; it is the everyday, because it is an expression of national identity.
There is however another force that runs deeper in the spirit of Finland, her forests and lakes. This is exemplified by the concept of ‘every man’s right’, that is, every person is free to hunt and forage the country’s vast natural landscapes. In fact, these are ‘cultural’ places that have sustained and inspired generation after generation of forest people.
Designers like Aalto – and of course other classics like Marimekko and Kalevala – draw on this spiritual heritage as a constant reference in their work. You could even say that as long as Finns are walking in their forests and sailing in their lakes, design will thrive.
My first encounter with an Aalto vase came while trawling through library books as an architecture student. To my naïve mind that’s where it belonged, somewhere special, out of harm’s reach. Then, years later, discovering this precious gem hidden in the backwaters of a remote grocery store was nothing short of a revelation. It made me question the whole origin of design, and the designer. Alvar Aalto is still my design hero but now for different reasons. He was able to reflect the identity of his homeland, crafting an object so pure that it would play a part in the lives of his people for generations to come.