Originally published in Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World, edited by Nina Stritzler-Levine and Timo Riekko. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2016. 143–173.

From the exhibition: Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World.

I still tend toward the view that … a shop, an exhibition room, a palag branch office, something like that, would provide the ideal basis for action.1

—Nils-Gustav Hahl to Alvar Aalto from Brussels, June 16, 1935

We could also immediately count on importing goods so far unknown to us from companies in Zurich and Paris.2

—Nils-Gustav Hahl to Maire Gullichsen from Helsinki, September 16, 1935

Nils-Gustav Hahl, the art historian and art critic, prepared the groundwork for the founding of Artek with a couple of clever strategies. The fascinating letters (quoted above) that he sent to fellow Artek founders, Maire Gullichsen and Alvar Aalto, in the summer of 1935, and which Göran Schildt later published in his three-volume biography of Aalto, provide evidence of a certain business acumen for a man more readily known as an intellectual. Moreover they offer interesting insights into the foundation myth of this legendary company. In fact, many of the comments about the Artek project in Hahl’s letters require further explanation. For example, in the quote above, what does the term “palag branch office” mean? How do we explain the even more enigmatic “Palag-Esprit Nouveau center,” another term that Schildt cites in a comment on the founding of Artek?3 With “Esprit Nouveau” (New Spirit) Hahl was undoubtedly referring to the eponymous Parisian avant-garde journal that claimed to be “the first review in the world devoted to the aesthetic of our times in all its manifestations.”4 Founded in 1920 by the architect Le Corbusier, the painter Amédée Ozenfant, and the poet Paul Dermée, L’Esprit Nouveau was a landmark interdisciplinary journal that was published until 1925. The broad spectrum of topics and themes reflected the interests of a group of artists, architects, and others in the Parisian avant-garde, among them the painter Fernand Léger, the critic Maurice Raynal, and gallery owners such as Léonce Rosenberg. Later, Hahl introduced the progressive-thinking Finnish patron, artist, and philanthropist Maire Gullichsen, who had been Léger’s student in Paris in 1927, to its aims.

“Palag,” on the other hand, was nothing less than a mystery. Only after a meticulous search of the Aalto and Artek archives, did several product orders and payment reminders surface. The Palag archival evidence refers to a business enterprise based in Zurich that rather remarkably had a company letterhead with a photograph of “Aalto furniture.” According to Schildt, who had likely found the same documents, Palag was “Giedion’s industrial art wholesale company in Zurich.”5 So if L’Esprit Nouveau stood for a new aesthetic that also addressed questions of interior design and of standardization, Palag denoted the practical side of the Artek project—a model and partner for marketing wholesale furniture nationally and internationally. At least this is what one assumes when reading the letters in the archive. The situation appears more complicated, however, when you consider that the renowned art historian Sigfried Giedion, whom Schildt mentions together with Palag in his book, had a longstanding relationship with Aalto that went far beyond commercial matters. He had helped establish Aalto’s international reputation as an architect, as well as becoming a key figure in the promotion of Aalto’s furniture. It is therefore necessary to examine Aalto’s early relationship with Giedion, and then Giedion’s role in the prehistory of Artek—even if, despite Schild’s claim, there is no historical evidence directly linking Giedion to the Palag company.

Sigfried Giedion: The Art Historian as Activist

A Swiss citizen born in Prague, Sigfried Giedion belonged to the same generation as the so-called pioneers of modern architecture: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius.6 Before studying art history in Zurich, Berlin, and Munich, he had already completed professional training as a mechanical engineer in Vienna. Instead of limiting himself to a career in academia, for forty years he substantially contributed to the dissemination of modernism in the arts, focusing primarily on modern architecture. It is not an exaggeration to say that he devoted his life to this cause, serving multiple roles—interpreter, intermediary, critic, and propagandist. In concrete terms he was the volunteer general secretary of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), a key position for this organization of progressive architects founded in 1928. Working from his home at Doldertal 7, now a rather famous address in Zurich, where the administrative offices of CIAM were located, he carried out a series of actions dedicated to the practical struggle for modern architecture. Although he always had a sharp eye on what was happening internationally, Giedion focused on the critical and practical activities associated with promoting modernism in the local context of Zurich. Giedion’s activism ranged from helping to launch Information, the politically and socially progressive journal that was published from 1923 to 1933; to collaborations with the Kunsthaus, the foremost art museum in Zurich; to actively supporting the projects of the Zurich Werkbund and architects in the Swiss branch of CIAM. Furthermore he advocated a new lifestyle, actually living what he preached by building two model apartment blocks in the garden of his Doldertal home with the architects Alfred and Emil Roth and Marcel Breuer.7

Giedion first engaged in a sustained debate about modernism when he visited the Weimar Bauhaus in 1923 on the occasion of the school’s first major exhibition. This is where he met Walter Gropius, as well as László Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer, both of whom soon became two of Giedion’s closest friends. In 1925 he was in contact with Le Corbusier for the first time in conjunction with the Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris. Giedion was present in 1928 at the Château de La Sarraz in Switzerland, home of Hélène de Mandrot, when Le Corbusier, among others, founded CIAM. He remained closely associated with this “multinational lobby for the promotion of modern architecture” until its dissolution in 1956, and his name was often mentioned in conjunction with many of the catchwords: “new architecture,” “modern movement,” “international style,” and “functionalism.”8 While in Frankfurt for the second CIAM congress, Die Wohnung für das Existenzminimum, in 1929, Giedion “discovered” Aalto. This is where Aalto entered the innermost circle of CIAM members, including Gropius and Giedion, among others. From his home in Zurich, Giedion, as author and photographer, literally made the voice of the avant-garde heard internationally. He was a prolific writer on modern architecture, publishing articles in the progressive Parisian magazine Cahiers d’Art, and in the Berlin-based journal Bauwelt, where he wrote about Aalto.9 In 1928, Giedion published Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton, his first attempt to analyze the essential nature of modern architecture.10

Demonstrating his commitment to modern architecture in Zurich, Giedion joined a so-called action group of young architects devoted to tackling the housing problem. Most of them were former students of Karl Moser, an influential architect and professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich: Moser’s son Werner Max Moser and his business partner Emil Roth; Max Ernst Haefeli; Rudolf Steiger; and the engineer and architect Carl Hubacher; as well as the Basel-based architect Hans Schmidt, whose partner Paul Artaria, was the only architect in the group who had not trained at ETH.

Prompted by the 1927 exhibition Die Wohnung (The Dwelling), organized by the Deutscher Werkbund at the Weissenhof housing estate in Stuttgart, with Mies van der Rohe as its director—the largest housing exhibition devoted to modern architecture to date—this group of young representatives of the Swiss Werkbund and CIAM organized the planning and construction of Siedlung Neubühl in Zurich-Wollishofen, another Werkbund-Siedlung (housing estate) not unlike the ones in Brno (1928), Wrocław (Breslau at the time, 1929), Vienna (1932), and Prague (1933). The design brief was to build a housing estate filled with “light, air, and sun.” Giedion articulated its respective principles in his Befreites Wohnen (Living Liberated, 1929), a pamphlet that can be considered another form of propaganda for the cause of modern architecture.11 The Neubühl architects also sought to pave the way for new building laws that would eventually allow “rational” forms of land development in the form of Zeilenbau (a north-to-south row construction that allows every house to receive light).

Giedion’s association with these like-minded CIAM architects seemed almost inevitable. Quite unexpected, however, was his major contribution to finance the initiative along with several of the other project founders in 1929. He continued to provide financial support for modern building projects around Zurich, notably the Zett-Haus, a combined commercial and residential property with a cinema and garage, designed by Hubacher & Steiger between 1930 and 1932. In February 1929, Giedion also participated in the official establishment of the Neubühl Housing Cooperative, the organizational body of the Neubühl Werkbund-Siedlung. He was elected to the board and remained a member until 1939, long after the construction period (1930–32).12 With these projects Giedion demonstrated the depth of his commitment to promoting and realizing the social mission of modern architecture in Switzerland.

But this was not all. Giedion’s activism extended much further than these activities at home. He promoted the project nationally as well as internationally, beginning with the publication of the Neubühl schematic design in 1929, in the architecture journal Das neue Frankfurt. This was an unauthorized propagandistic campaign that met with internal criticism because of “Dr. Giedion’s polemical writing style.”13 Yet the author never tired of praising the positive qualities of the row houses, eventually publishing them in several important venues for modern architecture: the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (1931), the CIAM supplement to the German Bauwelt (1931), and the Dutch De 8 en Opbouw (1932).14

Wohnbedarf: Local–International

In actuality the focus of Giedion’s efforts was on realizing a collection of metal furniture that would be suitable for the Neubühl housing estate because “this group of architects was tired of designing their houses for modern furniture that was either too expensive or simply unavailable in the marketplace.”15 In 1931, together with the Neubühl architect Werner Max Moser and the businessman Rudolf Graber, Giedion founded the Zentralstelle für zeitgemässen Wohnbedarf, still known today as Wohnbedarf AG. It was the first Swiss furnishings store to produce its own line of modern furniture, including light fixtures and lamps, as well as textiles, and its long-term impact on the founding mission of Artek cannot be overstated.16 The program started with designs by the Neubühl architects. Moser himself had plans for a furniture series ready, as did Rudolf Steiger and Max Ernst Haefeli. However, Giedion had far greater ambitions, including establishing an international network of designers. The first sales brochures identified collaborations with a remarkable list of people, including Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Benjamin Merkelbach, Mies van der Rohe, Charlotte Perriand, Gerrit Rietveld, Mart Stam, and what he called, “et al.”—a reference to still other names. In reality none of these collaborations existed, at least not at that moment.17 In September 1931, around twelve thousand visitors traveled to Neubühl to examine the first phase of the housing estate, which included ten fully furnished model houses. Many aspects still seemed improvised, yet the small, light, mobile, and multifunctional Wohnbedarf furnishings were nevertheless very well received. The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung concisely noted, “this is how tables are folded, beds transformed, bookcases disassembled, moved around, and hidden. The new type of furniture is just like a “quick-change artist,” or like a puzzle that through some ingenious tricks can be rearranged and used in many different ways.”18

The Bauhaus-trained artist and architect Max Bill created the graphic identity for Wohnbedarf, including the corporate logo, posters, and the first advertisements, in addition to other printed material. The budget for advertising was simply enormous. From the very beginning, the focus was on more than just the promotion of a limited range of products. Instead the company founders wanted to market a “lifestyle,” as Stanislaus von Moos has observed: “It is symptomatic that Bill’s poster for the housing exhibition in Neubühl … does not show furniture, but rather a site map of the housing estate, stylized into a graphic model and set within green surroundings….The organizer remains anonymous. It expresses New Building or New Objectivity.”19 In 1932, at Giedion’s request, the first Wohnbedarf product catalog was entrusted to Herbert Bayer, formally head of the Dessau Bauhaus department of typography and advertising. Things got even more ambitious when Wohnbedarf moved to a second location on the Talstrasse in Zurich in January 1933, an expanded space designed by Giedion’s intimus, Breuer, instead of the Zurich-based architect Ernst F. Burckhardt who had designed the initial rather modest store. As von Moos has explained, “These names represent a type of guarantee for the enterprise’s membership in the local and international avant-garde, and thus, for that of the buyer, too.”20

Aalto’s “Egg of Columbus”

The relationship between Giedion and Aalto became much closer during 1930 when they met repeatedly at events connected with the promotion of modern architecture. In September, after seeing Giedion at the Stockholm Exhibition early that year, Aalto made his first trip to Switzerland to reinforce his Swiss contacts. Conflicting priorities prevented him from attending the CIAM congress in Brussels two months later. Instead, together with his wife, Aino, he participated in the Minimum Apartment exhibition at the Helsinki Art Hall that opened at the same time. Attracted by the theme of the minimum dwelling that had been the focus of the CIAM congress the year before in Frankfurt, Aalto wrote to Giedion that the Helsinki exhibition was very important: “It is the first blow that we are to deliver.”21

In the meticulously executed exhibition design, the Aaltos showed two approaches to furnishing minimum spaces: first, how cumbersome beds and sofas could be folded; second, how stackable chairs could be used as space savers. After receiving photographs of the exhibition, Giedion was immediately interested and soon pleaded with Aalto to send the stackable chairs (model no. 23) without fail to the opening of the housing exhibition in Neubühl. The chairs can be considered a hybrid model because they had a laminated bentwood seat and back mounted on a metal frame. At the end of March 1931, Giedion wrote to Aalto, “One discovers so few people who possess…the spark. I am so happy that you have a spark. We are not going to hide this light under a bushel.”22 Despite such flattering remarks, the chairs did not arrive in time for the September opening of the Neubühl exhibition. Evidently the furniture on view in Helsinki was already sold (or broken).23 Aalto was not only absent from the Neubühl event, but Wohnbedarf was also unable to sell any furniture by Aalto in its first small store, although his name was listed on the original pamphlet designed by Max Bill. Nevertheless Giedion was persistent. He told Aalto: “it would be sad if one did not commit fully to one of the thoroughbreds in the realm of architecture.” He continued to tempt Aalto and promised that he would “receive all items in a friendly way, and take great care that you are not robbed.”24 In any case, in December 1931, two laminated wood Aalto chairs arrived in Zurich from Finland. Giedion had the seats sawn flush to the edge of the steel frame and had the corners slightly rounded off. At the same time, Embru-Werke AG Rüti, the main supplier of Wohnbedarf, developed a new mounting system in the form of a spacer between the seat and the frame, as well as leather rings meant to prevent the metal frame from scraping the veneer on the lower seat when the chairs were stacked. The Finnish prototype chair had a cushion while Giedion’s Swiss model did not. In the end Embru produced the steel frame for Wohnbedarf; the seat, which was sprayed either red or black on the back side, came from Finland. Giedion asked Aalto for the least expensive solution possible, telling him that “with your sharp eye, please look around for a simple Nordic veneer.”25 Werner Max Moser provided the drawing for the chair and many suggestions for alternatives to the Finnish laminated bentwood seat. The chair that was ultimately sold as Wohnbedarf model 6—with its modified proportions and carefully elaborated details—was in fact an autonomous Finnish-Swiss creation.26 Wohnbedarf’s involvement in the creative process can be seen particularly clearly in the armrests of the same model. At the end of February 1932, Aalto sent Giedion drawings of armrests that folded out from the seat, which had been developed for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium. Such a daring design caused Giedion to be “pleasantly shocked.”27 Since the generous Aalto curves did not fit with Wohnbedarf’s ideas, the hybrid chair was reworked into an even more unusual hybrid version with metal armrests welded to the seat frame. A number of sketches reveal that Giedion himself was involved in this somewhat unfortunate design. However, he used the armrest version as a work chair for the rest of his life. This is further proof of his enthusiasm for Aalto’s design, which he called “the egg of Columbus for restaurants, bars, cafés, etc.”28 In fact, the combination of the “functionalist” tubular steel frame with the “organic” wood seat was perhaps the first representation of what became the hallmark of Aalto’s future furniture-design principles.

Another Wohnbedarf/Aalto project concerned the folding sofa bed (model no. 63) that had also been shown at the Helsinki Minimum Apartment exhibition. This design experienced a comparable metamorphosis. Apart from the hybrid stacking chair, it was the only new Aalto model displayed on January 20, 1933, in the second Wohnbedarf store designed by Marcel Breuer. That this sofa bed, still in production today, had equally little in common with Aalto’s prototype was due to technical improvements as well as to changes in Swiss aesthetic preferences. The metal mesh daringly anchored to the frame under the seat of the Finnish prototype was supported by a metal crossbar in the Wohnbedarf version. Thanks to a specially developed mechanism, both the seat and the back were fully adjustable.29 Herbert Bayer illustrated the Wohnbedarf mechanism that initially was somewhat prone to construction problems very effectively in his catalogue. Both the sofa bed, later complemented by a simpler “Volksmodell” (people’s model, no. 64), and the stacking chair (model no. 6) fit perfectly into Wohnbedarf’s early tubular steel collection. All those models had light, flexible, foldable, stackable, or adjustable metal frames that were destined to overcome the traditional “complete sets” of heavy furniture that reflected bourgeois taste for styles conveying social status.30

The Expansion of Wohnbedarf and Aalto Resilient-Wood Furniture

In 1931, at the same time that Max Bill was working on the advertising campaign, Wohnbedarf had the unusual idea of putting the standard models on a truck that would be driven across Switzerland to convince “well-educated people [sic] and architects” of the advantages of the new furniture.31 Not surprisingly the idea never got off the ground. Then in 1932 the architect Pierre Scheidegger opened a branch of Wohnbedarf in Geneva in the Immeuble Clarté designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. This highly ambitious venture lasted only one year. The expansion strategy proved to be more successful in Basel, where the store that opened in 1932 continues to operate today. A final attempt was a store in Bern that opened in 1933 and closed shortly after. Notwithstanding the failure rate of the Wohnbedarf outposts, with Switzerland well covered, Giedion expanded internationally. He started in Italy, collaborating with A. L. Colombo-mobili razionali Columbus of Milan that acquired sales rights for Wohnbedarf products in 1933. Then he moved on to France, forming a different kind of partnership with Stylclair, a retailer of modern furniture and a gallery devoted to modern art in Lyon owned by Marcel Michaud. Giedion also had the idea of joining forces with Yvonne Zervos, wife of Christian Zervos, widely known as founder of Cahiers d’Art, selling the furniture out of Galerie Cahiers d’Art on the rue du Dragon in Paris; he wanted Le Corbusier to be the architect of the new two-story furniture store.32 This architecturally ambitious project failed, but then in March 1934 Stylclair opened a store in Paris at 43, rue de la Bourse where they sold Aalto and Breuer furniture. Other attempts at opening branches in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and even in Musina, South Africa, were unsuccessful.33

At the same time, Giedion worked to expand the product line with his eye on international designers. A major step came in 1933 when Marcel Breuer won the International Competition of Alliance Aluminum, on whose jury Giedion sat.34 Wohnbedarf launched “the resilient aluminum furniture” line in 1934 with an exhibition accompanied by a catalogue that was again designed by Herbert Bayer. Also in 1933, Embru, together with two other firms, took over the manufacturing and sales rights for the tubular steel furniture manufactured by Thonet AG. Having secured the rights to sell Breuer’s aluminum furniture line, it is not surprising that Giedion would have pursued a comparable relationship with Aalto, whose bentwood furniture he greatly admired and thought would complement the Wohnbedarf product line. However, an unexpected competitor intervened. At the precise moment when Aalto’s architecture office was having unprecedented success with both the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium and Viipuri City Library under way, Aalto sought representation for the bentwood furniture in England, recognizing the importance of the United Kingdom. In 1932, Aalto sent photographs of his furniture to Philip Morton Shand, an Englishman who was a wine connoisseur, journalist, and architecture critic. Shand became immediately enamored with the idea of selling the furniture. While Giedion saw to the popularization of Aalto in Switzerland, Paris, and Berlin, it was Shand who was the key to the English-speaking countries. In the summer of 1933, during the CIAM 4 congress in Athens, Aalto and Shand worked out the details of the legendary exhibition of new wood furniture that would take place in November at Fortnum & Mason, the London department store. This exhibition made history and represented the designer’s breakthrough, all the more so because Shand and his friend and patron Geoffrey Boumphrey later founded Finmar Ltd., a successful distribution company.35

In the hope of expanding its sales network through its connection with Shand, Wohnbedarf sent the folding sofa bed to the London exhibition.36 In the meantime, a sample model of Aalto’s resilient chair had arrived in Zurich. On December 12, 1933, Graber sent a letter to Aalto expressing great hope that “Wohnbedarf would carry out the same sort of thing [referring to the London exhibition] in the spring. As much furniture as possible would have to be displayed with examples of the very interesting construction elements and bentwood experiments.”37 This correspondence started another chapter in what proved to be highly frustrating efforts to obtain Aalto’s participation. In all Graber made twelve attempts, sending letters and telegrams with “a last, forceful” letter to Aalto, together with an invitation to the exhibition planned for the beginning of March 1934 in the Zurich Wohnbedarf store.38 Finally a relatively contrite Aalto promised to expedite all outstanding deliveries while suggesting a later date for the exhibition. Moreover he authorized Wohnbedarf to be the official representative of Aalto bentwood furniture in Switzerland and “Latin Europe.”39

Finally in May 1934, the moment Giedion had been waiting for finally came. Wohnbedarf showed the entire Aalto furniture line along with textiles by Otti Berger, who had trained at the Dessau Bauhaus. The dramatic display in the two-story Wohnbedarf store in Zurich consisted of long lengths of textiles hanging among the Aalto furniture; the upholstered versions were covered in removable and washable fabrics by Berger. Wohnbedarf took out a full-page advertisement in Das Werk magazine, and mailed five hundred invitations to the opening.40 Even more ambitious was hiring Hans Finsler to photograph all of the furniture for a special catalogue with one of Herbert Bayer’s evocative covers and an explanatory text by Sigfried Giedion.41 The exhibition was widely reviewed in local newspapers and journals, and Das Werk published an article, “Furniture Made of Bent Laminated Wood,” in which the construction was described in detail.42

The extensive marketing campaign culminated in Wohnbedarf’s furnishing the Corso Dance Hall on the second floor of the recently renovated Corso Theater complex; Ernst F. Burckhardt used the new Aalto bentwood furniture imported from Finland as well as Wohnbedarf’s earlier Aalto stacking chairs. In addition, at Wohnbedarf’s request, Aalto sent a drawing for a barstool that was probably first produced for this project.43 Although it has long thought to be an Aalto-designed interior, Aalto’s only contribution was the imported furniture; this was also the first time a Wohnbedarf interior was completely furnished with an imported collection.44 The organic forms of the Aalto bentwood furniture complemented the décor that included the mural Pétales et jardin de la nymphe Ancolie (Petals and the Garden of the Nymph Ancolie, 1934) painted by Max Ernst. The interior, with the Ernst mural and Aalto’s furniture covered in the exotic zebra upholstery, had surrealistic undertones, typical of modern interiors in Zurich during the 1930s. For Giedion, the presence of the corresponding “organic” or “irrational” architectural elements became increasingly more important. Conversely, Werner Max Moser showed limited enthusiasm for the Corso Dance Hall. Although he appreciated the overall treatment of the interior space, he objected to Aalto’s furniture which he thought looked heavy despite its small dimensions. When asked if in his opinion the furniture was at least comfortable, he responded “Comfortable? With all due respect, not quite.”45

Economic Crisis—Wohnbedarf and Palag

The excitement that the successes of 1934 generated could not hide the fact that Wohnbedarf was in financial crisis. Giedion’s drive to expand and the resources given to advertising were a serious drain on the company finances. The worldwide Depression as well as the change in taste that brought a decline in interest in metal furniture threatened to deliver the final blow to the company. The stylish chrome-plated steel models with colorful and exotic upholstery had quickly lost their charm. The hope of a cultural revolution from the ground up that had seemed possible in the 1920s had faded. Sales figures revealed limited public demand despite the favorable press. In December 1933, the license for the hybrid stackable chair had to be transferred to the Embru works for lack of demand.46 By 1937, the sales of Aalto bentwood furniture had shrunk to only 0.2 percent of Finnish exports; in 1938 those sales ceased almost entirely.47 In order to remain profitable, the Wohnbedarf AG had to adapt its range of products to the popular taste of the times.

In the fall of 1934, while plans were under way for a November launch of Breuer’s aluminum furniture, the company rivalries came to a head. After attempts to reorganize failed, a final, albeit “friendly,” split occurred on January 14, 1935; Giedion and Moser departed, leaving Wohnbedarf to Rudolf Graber who immediately began consolidating the company.48 While initially trying to maintain customary standards, which meant staying with a modern product line as per the contractual agreement, Graber soon had to make compromises. As he explained, “The regional-traditional style won and our advertising became ineffective.”49

Returning to the question raised about Palag at the beginning of this chapter, it is surprising that while Giedion’s estate contains detailed information on Wohnbedarf, there are no documents about this elusive company. The first correspondence in the Alvar Aalto Museum archive is a letter dated November 3, 1935 on Palag letterhead, addressed to the factory in Turku, that identifies Palag as a “corporation for the sale of modern furniture and curtain materials; carpets and new domestic appliances; sales only to retailers.”50 The logo on this letterhead is a photograph by the acclaimed Finsler from the back cover of the Wohnbedarf catalogue of Aalto furniture. Established on February 25, 1935, Palag entered the Canton of Zurich’s commercial register on March 8 of that year. Schildt’s comment that Palag was “Giedion’s industrial art wholesaling [sic] company,” actually referred to a wholesale company that had nothing to do with Giedion because it was founded after he left Wohnbedarf.51 Paula Sibler was the sole director identified in the Canton register.52 The relationship between Sibler and Graber was documented in a letter she sent Aalto in December 1935: “Dear Herr Aalto, As you know, we are experiencing some difficulties in Palag. I would ask you to be a little patient with us. We will get the matter resolved, and sales in Europe will increase…. I would just like to remind you that we initially experienced tremendous difficulties with your factory, with regard to deadlines and the quality of the delivered items. Just now things are not working for us, that is, with Palag, because we lacked the right salesman. But now I believe that I have found him, and think that things will go smoothly from January onwards.”53 However, by then it was too late for Palag. This small wholesale company declared bankruptcy on December 1, 1936.54

Learning From Wohnbedarf

Although Palag still existed on October 15, 1935, when Aino and Alvar Aalto, Maire Gullichsen, and Nils-Gustav Hahl signed the partnership agreement for Artek, the company’s financial difficulties precluded it from being seen as a long-term model.55 Instead, it was the Swiss “mother” enterprise Wohnbedarf AG that assumed an incomparable role.56 The Artek manifesto, also known as the “Ten Commandments of Artek,” apparently proposed by Hahl and Aalto, reveals many organizational similarities to Wohnbedarf.57 At the center of the Artek mission was a “permanent exhibition” for standard furniture models, lighting, and other “home components,” which resembles the Zurich Wohnbedarf store, where furniture was displayed on the ground floor and a furnished apartment shown on the upper-mezzanine level. The Artek manifesto identifies publishing as part of the mission, specifically a “professional journal,” and, above all, what they called instructive propaganda.58 Even the cooperation that Artek envisioned with the international firms Wohnbedarf AG, Finmar Ltd., Stylclair, and Frölén-Stockholm “for increased worldwide activity” probably derived from the Zurich firm’s expansion policy.59

A key element of the manifesto outlines the ambitions of the Artek gallery that for many years would be in the same location as the store at 29-31 Fabianinkatu, Helsinki. Exactly who conceived of the original program is another question. Although the four core founders likely all participated, Alvar Aalto, Nils Gustav-Hahl, and Maire Gullichsen had the greatest interest in contemporary art. Initially Gullichsen and Hahl shared the responsibility for the daily operation of the Artek gallery. Gullichsen had the progressive vision and financial resources to make the idea a reality; Hahl had academic training as an art historian and was an established art critic. The first exhibition that opened late in 1936 focused on Moroccan rugs. In May 1937 the Artek gallery organized the first of what would be several exhibitions devoted to French paintings, featuring Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque, among others. The year ended with a show of works by Fernand Léger and Alexander Calder.60 The situation was somewhat different in Zurich. Sigfried Giedion and his wife, Carola Giedion-Welcker, were both art historians who played an important role in the cultural life of Zurich. Unlike the founders of Artek, though, they never opened an art gallery. As early as 1929, however, they curated a major exhibition, Abstrakte und surrealistische Malerei und Plastik (Abstract and Surrealistic Painting and Sculpture) at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, the first of many they had a hand in, engaging in the unusual practice of acquiring works for their own impressive collection. Many artists also frequented the Giedion’s Doldertal home, including Max Ernst while working on the Corso Dance Hall project.61

Wohnbedarf also organized housing exhibitions, even after Giedion’s departure. One of the best known was a model apartment in the Doldertal complex, where the Giedions lived, designed by Alfred and Emil Roth together with Marcel Breuer in the spring of 1936, several months after the opening of the Artek store in Helsinki.62 Here they showed furniture by Aalto, Breuer, and Alfred Roth, with a relief sculpture by Jean Arp and a painting by Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930. The different practices brought together in this exhibition conveyed Giedion’s notion of “liberated living.” The frequently published Finsler photographs of this installation, as well as the Doldertal buildings, became emblematic of the continuation of modernism in architecture and design after World War II.

Aino’s Diary

A couple of months before setting up Artek in 1935, the Aaltos visited the Brussels World Fair, a trip that also included Paris, Amsterdam, and Switzerland (with stops in Lugano, Ascona, and Zurich).63 Aalto furniture was prominently displayed in the hall of honor of the Swiss Pavilion, which was designed by the architect Hans Hofmann.64 The visually rich display had two rows of Paimio armchairs (model no. 44) with polished black frames and red leather upholstery. The Pavilion represented Switzerland’s quasi-official annexation of Aalto furniture, a trend that came to a provisional conclusion with the opulent Fashion Hall at the Swiss National Exhibition of 1939.65

Aino’s travel diary reveals her careful analysis of the different places she visited but can also be read as a shopping list for the future Artek store.66 The entries document the remarkable trajectory of her journey from the Metz department store in Amsterdam to the Stylclair gallery and the Galerie Lafayette department store, as well as the Salon des artistes décorateurs, in Paris. There is also a diary entry about visiting the “small apartment” display by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand at the Brussels World Fair.67 In Zurich, the Aaltos were entertained at the neo-baroque Villa Giedion and the ultra-modern home of Silva and Werner Max Moser. They visited Giedion’s nearly completed Doldertal apartments as well as the Neubühl Werkbund housing estate, and the Zett-Haus, where Aino noted Flora Steiger-Crawford’s stacking restaurant stools, “which are stuck using the Aalto system [the cropping of the metal frame].”68 Aino recorded how she discovered Aalto furniture in three Zurich stores in the summer of 1935. In addition, she carefully studied the Indonesian Exhibition in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich where Javanese weaving, braiding, and bast mats were shown. She frequently made notes on textiles and the variety of (pressed) glass products, which she would later focus on in her work. Walter Custer, who in 1934 had worked in Aalto’s atelier as its first Swiss employee, gave Aino the address of Otti Berger, the Bauhaus weaver from Berlin, as well as that of the Peau de Porc store, an important retailer of leather goods on the rue Saint Honoré in Paris.69 That is where they found what are often called ship, colonial, or tropical chairs, which they would later sell at the Artek store in Helsinki. By far the most extensive diary entries are devoted to Wohnbedarf in Zurich; the store was of great interest to both the Aaltos. Aino’s diary entries indicate how they carefully examined the merchandise. She noted prices and placed orders for zebra fabrics and various bast mats. Later, the design of Artek’s first store that opened on the Fabianinkatu in Helsinki early in 1936 would bear a strong resemblance to Breuer’s. Many of the interior details—the metal frames that hung from the ceiling to hold photographs and texts displayed on glass panels; the side walls subdivided by a series of vertical battens; and the mobile partitions covered with bast mats evoke Breuer’s Wohnbedarf design on a smaller scale. Clearly the Wohnbedarf store both informed and complemented Marsio-Aalto’s thinking about the design of and merchandising for the Artek store in Helsinki. Giedion and “his” Wohnbedarf undoubtedly played a major role in the prehistory of Artek. Although Alvar Aalto tired “of functioning as a cog in all of the machinations into which you [i.e. Giedion] have dragged me,” and Giedion became frustrated with his unrealized ambitions for Wohnbedarf, the relationship that he and Aalto cultivated while dealing with furniture and CIAM questions was advantageous to both, mutually enhancing their positions at home and abroad.70 Both Giedion and Aalto were involved in the post-functional “humanization program” of Bauhaus modernism.71 Each in his own way guided modernism beyond the 1930s into the postwar period. Aalto succeeded in first adopting and then transforming the tubular metal Bauhaus furniture associated with functionalism by means of Finnish bentwood technologies creating a new organic sensibility that I would argue is as timeless now as it will continue to be well into the twenty-second century.

© Bard Graduate Center, Arthur Rüegg.

1.Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Decisive Years (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 122. Emphasis by author.

2.Ibid., 123.

3.Göran Schildt, “The Decisive Years,” in Alvar Aalto Furniture, ed. Juhani Pallasmaa (Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1984), 80.

4.L’Esprit Nouveau. Revue internationale d’esthétique 1 (October 1920). Second cover page: “L’Esprit Nouveau est la première revue du monde vraiment consacrée à l’esthétique vivante.”

5.Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Decisive Years, 122. Kevin Davies called Palag “a sister company” of Wohnbedarf, see Kevin Davies, “Finmar and the Furniture of the Future: The Sale of Alvar Aalto’s Plywood Furniture in the UK, 1934–1939,” Journal of Design History 11, no. 2 (1998): 148.

6.Regarding Giedion, see Paul Hofer, ed., Hommage à Giedion. Profile seiner Persönlichkeit (Basel/Stuttgart: Birkhäuser, 1971), and Sokratis Georgiadis, Sigfried Giedion. Eine intellektuelle Biographie (Zurich: gta/Ammann, 1989). In the English-speaking world, Giedion is perhaps best known as an author of classic works on modern architecture and related subjects, such as Space, Time and Architecture (1941), and Mechanization Takes Command (1948). See also Stanislaus von Moos, “Afterword: The Second Discovery of America: Notes on the Prehistory of Mechanization Takes Command (1982)” and “Postscript (2013),” in Mechanization Takes Command (1948; repr., Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2013), 725–766.

7.See Arthur Rüegg, Ein Hauptwerk des Neuen Bauens: Die Doldertalhäuser 1932–1936. Zwei Mehrfamilienhäuser für den gehobenen Mittelstand von Alfred & Emil Roth und Marcel Breuer, with contributions by Alfred Roth and Andres Giedion (Zurich: gta Ausstellungen, 1996).

8.On the “multinational lobby for the promotion of modern architecture,” see Stanislaus von Moos, Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2009), 207. Originally published as Le Corbusier: Elemente einer Synthese (Frauenfeld: Huber Verlag, 1968). See also, Adolf Max Vogt, “Vom Etikett ‘CIAM’ zur Sache selbst,” in CIAM: Dokumente 1928–1939, ed. Martin Steinmann (Basel/Stuttgart: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1979), 6.

9.Sigfried Giedion, “Über finnische Architektur,” Bauwelt 22, no. 25 (1931): 34–35, and “L’immeuble du Turun Sanomat’ à Abo (Finlande),” Cahiers d’Art 6, no. 4 (1931): 217–20.

10.Sigfried Giedion, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferro-Concrete, with an introduction by Sokratis Georgiadis (Santa Monica, CA: The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995). Originally published as Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton (Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1928).

11.Sigfried Giedion, Befreites Wohnen, Schaubücher 14 (Zurich/Leipzig: Orell Füssli, 1929).

12.See Ueli Marbach and Arthur Rüegg, Werkbundsiedlung Neubühl in Zürich-Wollishofen 1928–1932. Ihre Entstehung und Erneuerung (Zurich: gta Verlag, 1990).

13.Minutes of June 5, 1929, from the board meeting of the Neubühl Cooperative from the Archives of the Neubühl Cooperative, Zurich. Giedion’s publication appeared within the article “Bauen in der Schweiz,” Das neue Frankfurt: Internationale Zeitschrift für die Probleme kultureller Neugestaltung 3, no. 6 (1929): 105–112.

14.See the following articles by Sigfried Giedion: “Die Werkbundsiedlung Neubühl,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung 152, September 19, 1931; “Siedlung Neubühl,” Bauwelt 22, no. 45 (1931): 1–16; and “Wohnwjik ‘Neubühl’ te Zurich,” de 8 en Opbouw 3, no. 3 (1932): 23–30.

15.Rudolf Graber, “Vom Entwurf zum serienreifen Möbelstück,” Das Werk 19, no. 11 (1932): 335.

16.The leaflet for the Neubühl Housing Exhibition, September 1931, identifies the firm as “Wohnbedarf AG, Claridenstr. 47, Zurich / The Center for Modern Living.” The establishment of the “‘Wobag’ Corporation for Wohnbedarf Zurich” on May 15, 1931, and the name “Wohnbedarf AG,” as well as the issuance of registered shares on July 16, 1931, are recorded in the commercial register of the Canton of Zurich. For this reason, the founding is often given as July 1931. For more see Friederike Mehlau-Wiebking, Arthur Rüegg, Ruggero Tropeano, Schweizer Typenmöbel 1925–1935. Sigfried Giedion und die Wohnbedarf AG (Zurich: gta Verlag, 1989); and Arthur Rüegg, ed., 75 Jahre Wohnbedarf, Festschrift (Zurich: Wohnbedarf AG, 2006).

17.Max Bill, Leaflets for Wohnbedarf AG Zurich and Basel, 1932, gta archives, ETH Zurich.

18.Chr., “Wohnausstellung Neubühl,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung 152, September 21, 1931.

19.Stanislaus von Moos, Industrieästhetik, Ars Helvetica XI—Die visuelle Kultur der Schweiz (Disentis, Switzerland: Desertina Verlag, 1992), 252.


21.Aalto to Giedion, November 9, 1930, in the archives of Alvar Aalto Museum (hereafter AAM).

22.Giedion to Aalto, March 23, 1931, AAM.

23.Aalto to Giedion, May 1931, AAM. Eino Mäkinen photographed the exhibition and in the process broke one of the hybrid chairs. See Pekka Suhonen, Artek—alku, tausta, kehtis (Helsinki: Artek, 1986), 26–27

24.Giedion to Aalto, September 29, 1931, AAM.

25.Giedion to Aalto, December 30, 1931, AAM.

26.For more detail, see Arthur Rüegg, “‘Nemo Propheta in Patria.’ Alvar Aalto und der Zürcher Wohnbedarf,” in ‘Der Magus des Nordens’: Alvar Aalto und die Schweiz, ed. Teppo Jokinen and Bruno Maurer (Zurich: gta Verlag, 1998), 119–35.

27.Giedion to Aalto, February 26, 1932, gta archives, ETH Zurich.

28.Giedion to Aalto, December 30, 1931, gta archives, ETH Zurich,

29.See Rüegg, “Nemo Propheta in Patria,” 126–27.

30.Regarding the context, see Arthur Rüegg, “From Utopia to Concrete Cases,” in Swiss Furniture and Interiors in the 20th Century, ed. Arthur Rüegg (Basel: Birkhäuser Publishers for Architecture, 2002), 95–117.

31.Wohnbedarf AG business report, probably from September 1931, page 1, gta archives, ETH Zurich. Regarding expansion and advertising strategies, see Friedrike Mehlau-Wiebking, “Aufstieg und Zerfall einer Idee,” in Mehlau-Wiebking, Rüegg, Tropeano, Schweizer Typenmöbel 1925–1935, particularly 98–107.

32.Giedion to Wohnbedarf AG, March 20, 1934, gta archives, ETH Zurich.

33.See Mehlau-Wiebking, Rüegg, and Tropeano, Schweizer Typenmöbel, 100. The information compiled by Friedrike Mehlau-Wiebking is based on material from gta archives, ETH Zurich. Stylclair had several addresses in Paris after Galerie Cahiers d’Art. See Jean-Christophe Stuccilli, “Biographie de Marcel Michaud: La Decouverte est Toute La Vie,” in Le Poids du Monde: Marcel Michaud, ed. Laurence Berthon, Sylvie Ramond, and Jean-Christophe Stuccilli (Paris: Fage Editions, 2011), 24.

34.See Peter Lepel, “Über die Entstehung eines neuen Möbel. Marcel Breuer und der Wettbewerb der Alliance Aluminium Cie., Basel, 1933” (master’s thesis, ETH Zurich, 2009).

35.See Suhonen, Artek, 10–12; and Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Decisive Years, 103–6.

36.Wohnbedarf to Shand, October 2, 1933, and Graber to Shand, December 5, 1933, gta archives, ETH Zurich.

37.Graber to Aalto, December 12, 1933, AAM.

38.Graber to Aalto, December 27, 1933, AAM; “The Situation with the Models” (memorandum, January 1, 1934, gta archives, ETH Zurich).

39.Aalto to Wohnbedarf, Zurich, January 18, 1934, AAM.

40.Das Werk 21, no. 5 (1934): 1.

41.Around 1,600 copies of the catalogue were mailed. The costs came to 1,564.90 Swiss francs. Finsler’s photographs cost 285.40 Swiss francs and Herbert Bayer’s fee came to 243.50 Swiss francs. Source: Walter Custer, Expenses for the Aalto Catalogue, of May 22, 1934, gta archives, ETH Zurich. The full advertising costs for the Aalto exhibition amounted to 2,174.15 Swiss francs. In the store the resilient Moser-Volkssessel (model no. 23) cost 75.00 Swiss francs.

42.N. N., “Möbel aus gebogenem Holz,” Das Werk 21, no. 10 (1934): 301–303. The Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium is featured in the same issue, with a text by Alvar Aalto.

43.Order for the designs: Graber to Aalto, February 24, 1934, AAM; submission of the designs: Aalto to Wohnbedarf, n.d. (March 1934), AAM. Aalto also announced the completion of the furniture for the exhibition.

44.Recent research done in the Alvar Aalto Museum archives and in the gta archives by Timo Riekko and Arthur Rüegg hasn’t produced any sign of Alvar Aalto’s involvement in the Corso project.

45.Moser to Giedion, n.d. (Summer 1934), gta archives, ETH Zurich.

46.Graber to Aalto, December 16, 1933, AAM.

47.See Ásdís Ólafsdóttir, Le mobilier d’Alvar Aalto dans l’espace et dans le temps (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1998), 103.

48.Contract of January 14, 1935 between Giedion, Moser, Garber, and Magdalena Graber-Würgler, gta archives, ETH Zurich.

49.Rudolf Graber, “Wohnbedarf AG—die Geschichte der Wohnbedarf-Werbung,” Separata aus Interieur 9, no. 4 (1963): special edition, page 5, gta archives, ETH Zurich.

50.Sibler to Huonekalu-Ja Rakennustyötehdas Oy, November 3, 1935, AAM.

51.Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Decisive Years, 122.

52.Listed as “Paula Sibler, divorced Fuchs” in the commercial register of the Canton of Zurich, Zurich, Fol. 27369, 1935, copy from the archives of Arthur Rüegg.

53.Graber to Aalto, December 13, 1935, AAM.

54.Sibler to Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas Oy Ab, November 3, 1935, AAM; SIDAM to Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas Oy Ab, December 4, 1935, AAM; Banque de la Société Générale de Belgique to Huonekalu-ja Rakennustyötehdas Oy Ab, March 31, 1936, AAM. The extant correspondence reveals the company’s demise. Yet it is difficult to understand this development when one compares it to the success of Finmar in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Clearly neither the contacts established in the Netherlands and Spain, nor Palag’s licensing agreement with the Belgian Société industrielle d’ameublement S.A. (SIDAM), which included sales rights for Belgium, the Belgian Congo, and Luxemburg, proved to be of any help.

55.See Suhonen, Artek, 5.

56.Aalto’s long familiarity with the Swiss firm, as well as the ongoing correspondence between the two couples, Aino and Alvar Aalto and Carola and Sigfried Giedion-Welcker, testify to this being likely.

57.See the presentation of the English version in Marja-Lisa Parko, “Workshop Recollections,” in Pallasmaa, Alvar Aalto Furniture, 106.



60.See Suhonen, Artek, 84–85.

61.Bruderer, Das neue Sehen: Carola Giedion-Welcker und die Sprache der Moderne (Bern: Benteli Verlag, 2007), 104: “Zervos wanted to make the entire exhibition impossible, but fortunately Giedion thundered, Arp trembled, and Wartmann hissed, and it was not exactly ‘and there was light,’ but there was sculpture and painting…All in all, our world, in which we are happy.” Giedion-Welcker to Breuer, October 17, 1934, Marcel Breuer papers, Archives of American Art, Washington/New York. In addition to the Corso Dance Hall mural, Ernst was asked to design the poster for the exhibiton Abstrakte Malerei und Plastik (Abstract Painting and Sculpture) at the Zurich Kunsthaus and to be a contributor to the


62.See Rüegg, Ein Hauptwerk des Neuen Bauens, 45–47, 100–105.

63.See Jokinen and Maurer, Der Magus des Nordens, 192, 18–21 (photographs by Aino Marsio-Aalto).

64.See Bruno Maurer and Arthur Rüegg, “Alvar Aalto and Switzerland,” in Alvar Aalto: Toward a Human Modernism, ed. Winfried Nerdinger (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1999), 122–123. It is not only Aino’s travel photographs that demonstrate that Aalto had carefully studied the Swiss Pavilion in Brussels, but also Aalto’s similarly conceived façade for a competition entry for the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937.

65.Ibid., 123.

66.Aino Marsio-Aalto, “No. 396” (travel diary 1931–36, private archive, and a photocopy in the AC/AAM).

67.Ibid., 50–52.

68.Ibid., 19.

69.The architecture student Walter Custer had assumed the technical position at Wohnbedarf AG in February 1933. There he met Alvar Aalto, at whose invitation he traveled to Helsinki, by way of the Netherlands and England, in June 1934. He worked as the first Swiss employee at the Aalto workshop until the fall of 1934. After earning his diploma at the ETH Zurich, having studied with Otto Rudolf Salvisberg, he was employed in the office of Werner Max Moser, starting in 1935.

70.Aalto to Giedion, May 1931, AAM.

71.See Bruno Maurer and Teppo Jokinen, “Alvar Aalto und die Schweiz,” in ‘Der Magus des Nordens’: 69–71 (the section “Giedion, Aalto und das ‘Humanisierungsprogramm’ der CIAM”).