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A Hidden Gem: Alvar Aalto's Stolar Chair

This week I moved into the Courtauld library. Not literally, although the number of hours I’ve spent tucked away in its nooks and crannies totalled up to considerably more than the time spent at home. If it weren’t for looming essay deadlines, however, I wouldn’t have had the chance to absorb and appreciate our star chair this week: Alvar Alto’s Stolar.

Stolar, Alvar Aalto, 1935 Artek

I always notice this chair when entering or exiting the library, making sure to express my dislike of it either in my head or out loud to anyone accompanying me. At first glance, it doesn’t appeal to me at all: the kitsch zebra print cover and oddly shaped wooden frame are reminiscent of ’70s interiors, usually not something I’d protest if it weren’t for the beaten state of one in the Courtauld library, as though it has been used as a stool one too many times. I learnt to ignore it completely, despite walking past the wretched thing almost every day – but my mind was changed permanently after focusing on Alvar Aalto in an essay for my beloved Modern Interior Constellations course with Robin Schuldenfrei.

Prior to my interaction with the chair, I had become somewhat enchanted by Aalto’s designs, particularly after spending a week researching the Vyborg Library, completed in 1935. Thanks to the brilliant invention that is Google Maps, you can take a virtual trip inside the building, something I enjoyed immensely. It solidified one thing for me: Aalto knew how to make a good chair. One of the rooms in the Viipuri Library is filled with wooden stools designed by Aalto’s company, Artek. When stacked on top of one another, the stools resemble rather intricate wooden sculptures, which you might spot on your little digital tour. Researching Aalto’s personality and creative process (I still maintain that we would have been really good friends), I grew fonder of the zebra chairs inside the library, deciding to engage with one properly and test it out myself. To my surprise, the chair is extremely comfortable and pleasant to sit in, its frame arched in a way that supports your back with ease. The seat itself turned out to be much wider than I anticipated, something which goes amiss in images depicting the Stolar or wooden stools. Silly as it may sound, I had missed the simple joy of sitting down comfortably, as most of my week in the Courtauld library entailed entertaining my procrastination through twirling around on my spinning chair in the computer suite.

Since then I cannot just walk past a Stolar indifferently. I have even started to find the zebra print rather endearing; despite its vibrancy – I think the pattern gets lost somewhere between the shelves of books, like a hidden and forgotten treasure among all the bland office furniture so common in the book library. I’m additionally saddened by the lack of appropriate space for the Stolar chairs, as right now they seem principally to occupy the space by the main staircase, instead of fulfilling their main function as a comfortable seat for students. Over my time at the Courtauld I have maybe seen them used once or twice by others and otherwise disregarded – something I had been guilty of myself until recently. It goes without saying that I hope more people give Aalto’s chairs the attention they deserve, or perhaps in general make an effort to notice the small pleasures of daily life, even as trivial as sitting in a nicely crafted bit of design.

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