hallway chair 51 for the paimio sanitorium, alvar aalto, 1932

Alvar Aalto Hallway chair 51 from the rear

In 1929 the Aaltos (Alvar – and Aino noted for being an ‘assistant’ on this project) won first prize for the design of a tuberculosis sanitorium in Paimio, Finland. After seeing their proposal the Paimio Construction Committee decided to order the production of Aalto’s proposed furniture. This was the first project in which Aalto had designed the building and absolutely everything inside it: the furniture, sinks, shelving, bathrooms, wardrobes, beds, door handles and everything you can name. It was their chance to put into effect their philosophy of integrated design.

Paimio Sanitorium Foodhall

This project was also noted as being one of the first where colour was used for its “medical role”. Aalto consulted with physicians as he planned the space, which was also unheard of at the time. The most common instance of colour playing part in the recovery of tuberculosis patients was the mellow green ceilings which were easy on the eyes of those lying in bed resting. Soothing greens and whites were used throughout, and bright colours were intermittent on the ward, with yellow rubber flooring on the stairs to promote brightness. Sunshine and air were thought to have been the key factors to curing TB.

Paimio Sanitorium wardrobe Alvar Aalto

The Hallway Chair 51, as it is known, first made its appearance at the Sanitorium around 1932 when the project was completed – although it was designed with the initial application in 1929. It sat in the hallways (hence the name), next to patients beds, and  throughout the building.

Recently we acquired a pair of Chair 51s. Our thoughts are that these armchairs have come directly from the Sanitorium, not commercially produced ones. The stretchers, sitting between the front and rear legs, are lower down than the later version (as pictured). Perhaps it was altered from the initial design to sit underneath the seat for extra support. Also, being parallel to the arms means that the chairs could be stacked higher for retail and shipping.

Hallway chair 51 in the Paimio Sanitorium foyer

Whilst peeling away red and white layers of paint to find what was original, research showed us that the orangey-red was in fact the true colour. When we received the chairs from Finland, it was clear that the previous owner had attempted to strip the paint from one of them. For this one we had a restorer strip what was remaining in attempts to retain the last layer. The other had been left with its overpainted red seat/back and black frame.

Other experimental theories on colour suggest that orange increases oxygen flow to the brain – and hence why there were pockets of orange in the sanitorium, including some of the furniture. Eino Kauria, who lead the  colour and paintwork on the project, made plan drawings of the final colour scheme of the building showing that at least one large room and three smaller rooms on the B Wing were of a similar orange – as well as the iron railings, balconies and terraces on the exterior.

We kept what we could of this chair – and hopefully more of the colour will be preserved underneath the overpainted one when it comes to restoring it.

Thank you to Peter Wells for his restoration work.


Alvar Aalto: Designer, Pirkko Tuukkanen, Alvar Aalto Museum, Heslinki, 2007


http://www.alvaraalto.fi/paimio/ :

Colour Research pt I and II, Elina Riksman, 2016

Conservation Management Plan, 2016


Red and black hallway chair 51, 1932