Located in the heart of Helsinki with views over the rooftops, Savoy Restaurant belongs to the city’s 20th century design heritage. The interior was created by Finnish architects Alvar Aalto and Aino Marsio-Aalto as an antidote to the avantgarde machine-aesthetic of the 1930s. The restaurant is one of the city’s iconic interiors, embodying a great sense of comfort and intimacy.
After restoration by London-based designer Ilse Crawford and her firm Studio Ilse, the original ambience, which had been altered by refurbishments over past decades, has been brought back and polished. Studio Ilse is known for many hotel and restaurant interiors, including the much-copied Soho House in New York. At Savoy, together with her team, she conceived one of the most subtle restoration works, which would be hard to imitate or replicate anywhere else.
The idea of contemporary comfort underpins the interiors designed by Studio Ilse, which is a natural connection to the Aalto design philosophy. Working against the rigid aesthetic of the early Modern Movement, the Aaltos were looking for alternative ideas to enhance modern living environments. Instead of metal, they preferred the warmer qualities and better acoustics found in wood. At Savoy the panelling, and also smaller details, such as ceiling lights behind wooden screens, all add up to the great acoustics, further enhanced by the full carpet in 100% wool replaced during the renovation.
Aalto’s early projects, including their Munkkiniemi home and the Savoy, exemplify the Scandinavian turn of the Modern Movement. As an academic and magazine editor, before setting up her design studio, Crawford has a deep understanding of Aalto’s guiding principles. Her team worked closely with Finnish architect Tapani Mustonen and the Alvar Aalto Foundation, studying all the design documentation, the layouts and the materials. Photographs of the very first design were mainly black-and-white, but from archival descriptions and Aino Marsio-Aalto’s notes, a tonal range of soft browns was detected as the original colour palette for the interior.
The influence of Aino Marsio-Aalto, and how the couple worked together, was a great revelation for Crawford and her team. The textiles and material surfaces are all part of Marsio-Aalto’s design vocabulary, where an emblematic aesthetic sensibility lives on. Until her untimely death in 1949, she was also director of Artek, the furniture company co-founded by the couple.
“We looked at both of them, also their personalities, how they approached the interiors, their use of natural materials, the timber – that was very interesting.” explains Joanna Rowlandson, one of the designers working on the project, “We saw a difference in their working processes: one is very functional and the other is much looser. And that’s so nice about their interiors, you can see a bit of both of their ways of working.”
Mustonen, the chief architect of the restoration, has worked on many Aalto buildings, including the Viipuri Library. Mustonen says there is always something new to learn about Aalto’s way of thinking and why certain architectural solutions were used. The Aaltos were very dynamic and forward-looking already in the 1920s with many international connections with other architects and artists of the Modern Movement. ”The way they thought is evident in the joy and passion in their buildings and interiors. These are easy places to be in,” Mustonen says about the special atmosphere, which is refined and at the same time relaxed.
During the latest restoration, all wooden surfaces were stripped and brought back to show the natural character of wood. ”Aalto spoke how colours should express authentic characteristics of materials. During the 1960s and 1970s renovations all the oak and birch surfaces, all the windows and door frames, had been stained to evoke mahogany”, Mustonen explained. Each era has its own formal and aesthetic logic, which can be detected behind each renovation: “It has been a constant movement”. But now it seems the original design has been firmly recovered.