Designed by Aino and Alvar Aalto, the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki attracts visitors even after eight decades. Now, designer Ilse Crawford has updated the iconic venue preserving the Aaltos’ legacy.
RESTAURANTS AND TRENDS come and go, but the Savoy, which opened 3 June in 1937, has gained legendary status. Despite changes in ownership, its unique interior has remained virtually unchanged for 83 years.
When the Savoy was bought by Financier Group in 2019, the new owners promised to restore the restaurant, designed by Aino and Alvar Aalto, to its former glory. To this end, they enlisted the help of world-renowned British designer, Ilse Crawford.
“We wanted the very best. Ilse Crawford has a deep understanding of the Aaltos’ legacy and recognized that this was about creating an Aalto interior rather than her own," says Saku Tuominen, a shareholder of Financier Group.
Upon seeing the new restaurant interior, the first reaction is surprise: has nothing changed here? It has a cozily elegant and refined 1930s atmosphere, as if recently dusted and freshened up. The original club chairs have been refurbished and re-upholstered, the tables renovated or commissioned according to Aalto‘s drawings, and the time-honored Golden Bell pendants shine in their familiar places.
The interior has a cozily elegant and refined 1930s atmosphere.
Only the large Savoy vases have been removed for the time being, due to the poor condition of some of them. Some of the smaller, most valuable vases are on display under glass in the lobby. The tall, colored Aalto vases set on the tables over the decades have been replaced by small, clear Savoy vases.
Crawford wanted to restore the original 1937 spirit of the venue. She also wanted to highlight the roles played by Aino Aalto and Maire Gullichsen in the Savoy’s creation. As a tribute to Gullichsen, the sofa against the side wall was upholstered in black-and-white stripes and named the Maire sofa. The fabric selection is probably a reference to the zebra pattern used by Aino Aalto for Artek furniture in the 1930s.
The indoor terrace was changed most. Crawford stipulated that ‘This has to go’ as a condition for taking on the design project. This space, which lacked charm, is now more in keeping with the Aalto spirit and the restaurant’s ambience.
The Savoy renovation was completed in cooperation with the Helsinki City Museum, the Alvar Aalto Foundation, Artek and the Ahlströms (the Savoy’s landlords). Architect, Tapani Mustonen, a specialist in the Aaltos’ legacy, watched over the project. He thanks the dozens of conservators and carpenters who showed so much devotion to their work.
The price may be high, but the owners feel that the investment, which will preserve the Aalto's legacy for decades to come, is worth it. "We want the Savoy to become a world-class restaurant and a shrine to the Aaltos," Tuominen says.
“We want the Savoy to become a world-class restaurant and a shrine to the Aaltos.”
Tuominen believes that the secret to the restaurant’s longevity lies in the fact that its design incorporates basic human values. As Aino and Alvar Aalto once wrote in the magazine, Arkkitehti (Finnish Architectural Review):
“The rooms should be viewed when people are present. In such circumstances, the subdued but light surfaces provide a tranquil and relaxing backdrop for people enjoying festive occasions, dishes and drinks at the decorative tables.”
The Savoy restaurant was established in 1937, on the top two floors of the Teollisuuspalatsi building, originally commissioned by A. Ahlström Oy.
Located on the corner of Eteläesplanadi and Kasarmikatu in Helsinki, the building was designed by the architects and brothers, Valter and Bertel Jung, who also designed the Hotel Torni of 1931.
Harry Gullichsen, Managing Director of A. Ahlström Oy, assigned the design of the restaurant to Aino and Alvar Aalto.
The Aaltos had become acquainted with Harry and Maire Gullichsen a couple of years earlier, their friendship and cooperation leading to several key projects such as Artek, which was founded in 1935.
The Aaltos created several new furniture, lighting designs and interior items for the restaurant, manufactured by Artek.
Restaurant Savoy, Eteläesplanadi 14, Helsinki.
Text: Anu Karttunen (Avotakka) Photos: Anton Sucksdorff and Artek
The story was originally published in the Avotakka magazine.