Soane’s Pitzhanger Manor has thrown out the Please do not touch notices for its latest exhibition, which urges visitors to contemplate Kolehmainen’s photos of Aalto’s homes from the comfort of the designer’s furniture
Pitzhanger Manor, Sir John Soane’s country residence in Ealing, has always seemed rather empty in contrast to the object-filled Aladdin’s cave of the Soane Museum. What a joy then to see it kitted out with Alvar Aalto’s furniture as part of the new exhibition, Reason & Intuition: Alvar Aalto & Ola Kolehmainen in Soane. Even more so, because this is furniture which we not only can sit on – no prohibitive teasels or pine cones here – but are urged to sample as part of the exhibition experience.
Aalto’s instantly recognisable furniture and lighting seem surprisingly at home within the ornate interior of the historic manor, while in the gallery next door, Finnish artist Ola Kolehmainen’s photographs explore buildings by Aalto as well as Turkish mosques and Italian churches.
Pitzhanger curator Carol Swords was drawn to Aalto because she felt that like Soane – who is after all sometimes referred to as the first modernist – Aalto was interested in a relationship between the house and landscape, as well as the design of the interior from a very humane perspective. In another resonance with Soane, he was also an expert at designing homes to show art.
This exhibition concentrates on the design of Aalto’s private houses, with folders on nine set out in the library for perusal from the comfort of his furniture. The breakfast room features his famous vases, planted up in various ways, as well as Finnish traditional glass. Upstairs, more books on Aalto can be enjoyed while relaxing on his armchairs and sofas within the Chinoiserie setting of the drawing room.
There is an emphasis on the process of making, with the stools showed deconstructed and the timber moulds of the vases displayed. In the studio, contemporary pieces by local crafts students influenced by Aalto are displayed in complete and in progress states.
Swords wanted a contemporary Finnish artist to feature in the gallery to complement the Aalto exhibition, and Ola Kolehmainen was a perfect fit. He had already made a study of Aalto buildings, taking highly abstract colour photos. In the photo of Villa Mairea, for example, he blacked out much of the image except for its reflection in the water and printed it on blue paper. This part of the exhibition includes two images of the cathedral at Siena – which Soane visited and revered – where Kolehmainen has layered together several long-exposure views of the interior as a single negative. There are also some sumptuous large-scale images of mosques including Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where Kolehmainen was delighted to find scaffold to offset the romantic nature of the space. Other pictures are broken into small parts and deliberately reassembled so as to not quite fit, in order to break up the flat surface and make the viewer took at the image three-dimensionally.
After so long in the shadows of Soane’s more famous residence, Pitzhanger Manor is about to come into its own courtesy of grants just awarded totalling nearly £5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council. These will go towards a grand transformation, including the removal of unsympathetic additions and the reinstatement of a grand conservatory. That work won’t be complete until 2018. Meanwhile, Reason & Intuition is a great reason to visit.
Reason & Intuition: Alvar Aalto & Ola Kolehmainen in Soane
Until 24 August
Pitzhanger Manor House & Gallery, Walpole Park, Mattock Lane, Ealing, London