One of the great modernist examples of a gesamtkunstwerk – a ‘total work of art’ – Alvar and Aino Aalto's Restaurant Savoy in Helsinki has reopened following a light-touch reworking by Studioilse
Restaurant interiors that pass the test of time are rare, especially when it comes to today’s high-stakes, low-profit-margins hospitality industry. They tend to be swept away when a new owner or head chef want to stamp their mark, or when their attention-grabbing decor quickly starts to date.
Helsinki’s Restaurant Savoy survives because of its design, rather than in spite of it. Created in 1937 by Artek’s Alvar and Aino Aalto – then at the forefront of the modernist movement – it still occupies the same top two floors of a building overlooking Esplanade Park in the heart of the city. It has come through the decades with its original features in tact, but in late 2019, Ilse Crawford of Studioilse was commissioned to renovate and restore the interiors: 80-plus years of wear and tear, and some subtle but cumulative changes, had created a departure from the couple’s original vision.
Savoy needed a bit of repair and a bit of love, but it didn’t need reinventing
“Our work takes its cue from the original 1937 Aalto interior, taking the restaurant back to its original while refreshing it for today,” says Crawford. “Savoy needed a bit of repair and a bit of love, but it didn’t need reinventing.” Her, work, which was undertaken with Artek, the Helsinki City Museum and the Alvar Aalto Foundation, has just been unveiled.
Archive photography shows the restaurant with tendrils of trailing plants tumbling through an angled timber screen that tops a white-painted brick wall, and an outdoor terrace with rattan furniture and integrated overhead lighting poised at the end of each table. Studioilse’s work was informed by this imagery, with the layout having been tweaked to reflect the original proportions. All the original structures and joinery have been restored, and the sofas and chairs have been reupholstered in a palette of soft neutral shades.
With its use of high-quality materials and attention given to diners’ comfort, Restaurant Savoy is the embodiment of Alvar and Aino Aalto’s philosophy of functional but friendly design. However, its influence stretches far beyond Helsinki, thanks to the enduring commercial success of the individual products within it, including the Savoy glass vase, still made by Iittala, whose sinuous rim shape encouraged flowers to nonchalantly arc towards diners, a rather informal concept in the stiff restaurant world of the time.
Aside from the vase, the other fixtures and fittings were created by Artek, including the A330S Golden Bell light, a compact bell-shaped pendant in polished brass, with a perforated rim that diffuses the light within. A wall-light version of the Golden Bell, as well as another metal pendant, the A201, which was first designed in the 1950s, have made their way into the reworked interior. For the reopening, Artek has also created a new oak and leather version of its 611 chair (a design from 1929) for the restaurant’s terraces, which is available in a limited edition to buy at Artek’s stores in Helsinki and Tokyo. If you find yourself in Helsinki buying chairs, though, it would be rude not to visit the restaurant too, still serving its French-accented Finnish cuisine to discerning diners nearly 85 years after opening.