Paimio was a sanatorium. It was also a chair. A very special kind of chair that inspired Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen to take up bentwood as a technique after they visited Alvar Aalto’s architectural masterpiece and were blown away by the furniture inside.
Before the widespread use of antibiotics during the Second World War, the only known cure for tuberculosis, was rest, clean air and sunshine; therapy that often took a couple of years.
So when architect Alvar Aalto won the commission to design a tuberculosis hospital in Paimio, south-west Finland he wanted the building and its furniture to be as much a contributor to the healing process as the treatment from its doctors and nurses.
With Aalto’s “medical instrument” came a huge roof terrace where patients would be taken in
their beds as part of their daily routine to enjoy fresh air and views of the forest. A south-facing balcony was added to the end of each floor to give the bedridden as much sunlight as possible.
Paths with water features wound around the grounds to encourage able patients to take walks.
With his wife Aino he designed lighting fixtures and clocks, even door handles that would not catch on the doctors’ lab-coat sleeves as they were prone to do.
By using wood, he gave the cantilever many of his contemporaries were working on in metal, a less clinical look.
With Otto Korhonen he was able to develop a new construction process for laminated birch or beech that made furniture more flexible.
Designed to sit the tuberculosis patient up at just the right angle to help them breathe, the Paimio Armchair features two loops of beech (later birch) fused together to form arms, legs and floor runners and a slither of layered and laminated wood balancing delicately in the middle.
Aalto had Korhonen use heat and pressure to loop the layers of glued veneer into scrolls top and bottom to strengthen the places that generally get more wear and tear. These acted like springs, allowing a certain bounce.
“Though buoyant as a spring cushion, the seat back is virtually unbreakable,”, Aalto said at the time.
Proof that Aalto pushed his lamination to the limit, a year later backrest slits were introduced to the design to release the stress from pressing.
With the slits, the curve became even more flexible, which also made it easier to attach the handrails.
Indeed, without the slits the chair could end up crooked, according to Korhonen’s great-grandson Joonas who still runs Artek’s A-factory.
Whichever Paimio chair you prefer, you cannot help but marvel at Aalto’s sculptural tour de force that inspired some of the greatest designers of the twentieth century and set the standard for integrated holistic medicine.