There were white surfaces, and light wooden floors. Clean edges and no frills. There were practical tables, durable chairs, and simple lighting. And it was all so Finnish we did not think it was all too marvelous. We shrugged; of course the home we grew up in had several Savoy vases. Of course we ate our kindergarten lunches on the Stool 60 and the table with L-shaped legs. They were designed by a Finn to be used by Finns.
And so it was difficult to set our minds on the wavelength of quiet reverence of the American party that joined us on our tour of Alvar Aalto’s home. What did they see that we did not? I washed my thoughts with images of American homes, focused really hard, and stared squinting at the Tank chair. After some effort I began to catch glimpses of how different the zebra upholstery and the simple curved frame was from everything that was ordinary across the Atlantic. How our fellow tourists saw the boxy, minimalistic shape of the house so extraordinary, and how everything Aalto is both Finnish and resonates so with the Japanese. I blinked – and the magic was broken. I was back in a room that felt homely and familiar.
Aalto is wired into our cultural inheritance, and it surfaces with symptoms of inherited blindness for things others consider singular. Things we consider for granted others collect as design items.
As I stepped back out into the bleary January Saturday I wondered how much we could learn about ourselves if we could only step out of our own cultural contexts? And how much more beautiful and wonder-full the world would suddenly become?