Known as the Armchair 41 ‘Paimio’, this iconic chair takes on greater significance when seen in the context in which it was designed – for the Paimio Sanatorium in southwest Finland.
This birchwood armchair was designed by Alvar Aalto, who, with his wife Aino, won the commission for the sanitorium in 1928, including its interiors and furnishings. The Paimio chair not only responds to the Sanatorium’s clean and minimalist lines but, importantly, to the need of patients suffering from tuberculosis to help their breathing. The Paimio Sanitorium is also surrounded by birch forests that informed the chair’s material.
As part of a patient’s treatment, they were required to spend numerous hours on the rooftop terrace, placed on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a fur-lined sleeping bag (the chilly air was considered essential in their recovery). So, it must have been a huge relief to come indoors and recline on one of the Paimio chairs in the communal lounge, which contained a piano (music was also considered important for a patient’s recovery).
Designed in 1931, this iconic chair is made of birch plywood, with the plywood seat extending at both ends of the seat to form a headrest at one end and a place to rest one’s legs at the other. Aalto’s design is made from laminated plywood, with the timber armrests forming a continuous loop. It was one of the most popular designs sold and produced by Artek when it was established in 1935, which sold several other furniture and lighting designs by the Aaltos. The Armchair 41 Paimio can be found in museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The iconic chair not only made waves worldwide but also inspired another great design duo Charles and Ray Eames in the 1930s who also experimented with making plywood furniture.
Architect John Henry has one of the largest collections of contemporary furniture in Australia. His focus is on local and international designers, primarily furniture designed by architects. In the mix, comprising a couple of thousand chairs is the Paimio Chair. And being an architect, it was natural that his chair features the black birch seat. “I think this chair, like the design for Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair, is ‘less is more’,” John says, who sees a similar pared-back approach with the Paimio armchair. This chair also beautifully captures Alvar Aalto’s architecture, with his sinuous modernist buildings showing a softer side to the many hard-edged modernist designs produced from the 1930s onwards. “Whether you see these sinuous lines in one of his buildings or one of Alvar Aalto’s chairs, they’re a pleasure to the eye,” he says.
John sees the Paimio Chair as a great sculpture to be appreciated in the round. However, unlike sculpture, the chair is ‘functional’. “I’ve always preferred chairs rather than sculpture which is generally to look at. But with a chair, such as the Paimio, it’s highly functional and despite the absence of cushions or padding, is extremely comfortable,” says John.
While some chairs go in and out of fashion, the Paimio Chair has resisted fads. It remains an iconic and well-loved addition to a living area or even a bedroom. And when one hears the back story of this chair, it makes one realise that health and well-being can start with a simple plywood armchair.