Beyond IKEA: A Look At Scandinavian Design via Alvar Aalto’s Oregon Library

We are all fairly familiar with modern Scandinavian design aesthetics, thanks to the popular furniture store, IKEA. Scandinavian design combines beauty, function, and affordability. You don’t even have to look past my little dining table: the beauty is in the the design and the clean, light color of the wood; the function is in the leaves that almost double its size as needed. (Affordability? Thanks to IKEA, and my brother who helped me haul and build it.)

IMG_1879.JPGModern Scandinavian design emerged after WWII and is recognized for minimalism and functionality. Like the Arts & Crafts and Modern movements in Europe and the United States, Scandinavian design included things as small as vases and as large as libraries, often designed by the same people. Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) of Finland was this, exactly: he designed everything from glassware to buildings. Alvar’s architecture is considered Modern, and indeed, the work done by Scandinavian architects influenced (and was influenced by) the Modern movement. However, Aalto brings a sensibility and beauty to his architecture that reflects a sense of place (the low-light northern latitudes) just as clearly as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style houses reflect the expansive grasslands of the Midwest.

The Mount Angel Abbey is perched atop a verdant hill in west-central Oregon. In the early 1960s, the library director approached Aalto in request for a library design and, taken by the location and the task, Aalto accepted at a nominal fee. The most stunning quality of the library is its arrangement of spaces and use of natural lighting. In Oregon, as in Scandinavian countries, natural light can be hard to come by in the winter and rainy months. The arcs of windows let light through to even the most central spaces in the building, making the library an inviting space even in the middle of winter.

IMG_1877.JPGNext time you step back to consider a building, I hope you will consider its relationship to its environment. Some glass skyscrapers, with their internal air systems and windows that don’t open, think they can be built anywhere in the world. But many other buildings, from historic to modern-day, have characteristics that make use of their surroundings. Covered porches after shade and breezes in hot climes; carefully placed windows offer light in locations where it is a commodity. This is what Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as “organic architecture.”

Want a little more information?

The Alvar Aalto Museum offers a biography of Aalto and more.

The Mount Angel Abbey has a short history of the library as well as digital versions of the library plans.

Quick credits: thanks to the above sources and IKEA (always). The original of the Viipuri photo, below, can be found here. All other photos are my own.

Featured photo (top): Alvar Aalto’s library at Mount Angel Abbey.

Aalto’s Viipuri Library in Finland, photo ca. 1930 (credit above)

9 thoughts on “Beyond IKEA: A Look At Scandinavian Design via Alvar Aalto’s Oregon Library

      1. Yes it is amazing space. In Finland we have gorgeous wooden churches and old. Helsinki, the capital, is full of beautiful architecture. Welcome to visit my blog in four languages and to find Finland thru my 20000 photos.

        Have a nice day!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!! There so many great libraries with roots in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The Seattle Public Library was designed by a Dutch firm, the light inside is amazing!


  1. Nice profile and images. Did you see that there was a book about his libraries released in 2018? Simply called Alvar Aalto Libraries. If you haven’t, highly recommend it. Authors: Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen;, Jari Jetsonen, Teija Isohauta


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