Elissa Aalto worked in Aalto’s office at a time when several competitions and sizeable public commissions were underway. She worked hard as one of the office’s architects and was soon put in charge of a number of major building projects, such as Säynätsalo Town Hall and Maison Louis Carré.
The newly-wed Alvar and Elissa designed the Muuratsalo Experimental House to be their summer residence. As Alvar Aalto grew older, Elissa’s role in the office as the conveyor of Aalto’s ideas was accentuated. After Aalto’s death, Elissa ran the office, carrying to completion several unfinished projects, such as Seinäjoki Civic Centre, the Aalto Theatre in Essen, and Riola Church. Several complementary construction and renovation projects on completed Aalto buildings were also carried out under Elissa’s leadership.
Elissa Aalto also made independent architecture designs: of which we can mention Villa Hauta-aho (1982–83) in Seinäjoki and the SOS Children’s Village in Tapiola, Espoo (1960–70). She also designed textile patterns such as H55, shown at the Helsingborg Exhibition in 1955, which was in Artek’s range.
Implementing Alvar Aalto’s architecture designs and fostering his intellectual heritage formed Elissa Aalto’s major life’s work. She worked actively on behalf of the Vyborg Library restoration project and took part in the discussion about conserving Aalto’s buildings.
Elissa was a long-term resident of the Aalto House on Riihitie road in Helsinki and also continued to spend summers in the Muuratsalo Experimental House right up to the end of her life. In her will, Elissa Aalto left the Experimental House in the care of the Alvar Aalto Museum, under the ownership of the City of Jyväskylä, and as a place for museum audiences to visit. It was on Elissa’s initiative that Studio Aalto was sold to the Alvar Aalto Foundation in 1984.
Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) qualified as an architect from Helsinki Institute of Technology (later Helsinki University of Technology and now part of the Aalto University) in 1921. He set up his first architectural practice in Jyväskylä. His early works followed the tenets of Nordic Classicism, the predominant style at that time. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he made a number of journeys to Europe on which he and his wife Aino Marsio, also an architect, became familiar with the latest trends in Modernism, the International Style.
The pure Functionalist phase in Aalto’s work lasted for several years. It enabled him to make an international breakthrough, largely because of Paimio Sanatorium (1929-1933), an important Functionalist milestone. Aalto had adopted the principals of user-friendly, functional design in his architecture. From the late 1930s onwards, the architectural expression of Aalto’s buildings became enriched by the use of organic forms, natural materials and increasing freedom in the handling of space.
From the 1950s onwards, Aalto’s architectural practice was employed principally on the design of public buildings, such as Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948-1952), the Jyväskylä Institute of Pedagogics, now the University of Jyväskylä (1951-1957), and the House of Culture in Helsinki (1952-1956). His urban design master plans represent larger projects than the buildings mentioned above, the most notable schemes that were built being Seinäjoki city centre (1956-1965/87), Rovaniemi city centre (1963-1976/88) and the partly built Jyväskylä administrative and cultural centre (1970-1982).
From the early 1950s onwards, Alvar Aalto’s work focused more and more on countries outside Finland, so that a number of buildings both private and public were built to his designs abroad. Some of his best-known works include Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland (1937–1939), the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, Baker House, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (1947–1948), Helsinki University of Technology, Espoo, Finland (1949–1966), The Experimental House, Muuratsalo, Finland (1953) or Essen opera house, Essen, Germany (1959–1988).