Emery L. Norton is a graphic designer and editor who writes under the false name C.M. Ellen.

1    Graphic Design

Focus: publications, exhibition graphics and websites with an emphasis on concept and typography.

2    Writing

Almost Improv: Interview with Filmmaker Gary Burns, Autumn 2018; on the occasion of screening “Kitchen Party” (1997), for Selim Projects. 

The Midden: Press Release, Autumn 2018; for Garret Publications

Try To Act As If You Don’t Know, Autumn 2018; review of the publication “OASE #100: Karel Martens and the Architecture of the Journal”, for Arkkitehti (Finnish Architectural Review)

A Table With Three Legs, Summer 2018; conceptual reading of Alvar Aalto’s Stool 60, for “The Lives of Others” exhibition catalogue at Factory Gallery in Seoul 

From Without to About to Something Else, Summer 2018; S’lim Zine #6 editorial, for Selim Projects 

Footnotes For The Reader: Interview with Leevi Lehto, Summer 2018; accompanying the preface to “Alussa oli Kääntäminen: 2000-luvun poetiikkaa” (In the Beginning Was Translation: A 21st Century Poetics), for S’lim Zine #6

A Vacuum Cleaner Is For Cleaning Except When It Is Not, Spring 2017; short fiction making up the artistic component of the MA thesis from Aalto Univeristy, under the mentorship of Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey 

Portraits Probably, Spring 2016; workshop at Design Museum Helsinki on the ocassion of the exhibition “Daniel Palillo”, for Helsinki New and Pre Helsinki  

Contact: e-mail, phone, text message, instagram

Design news: typesetting the book of essays “Salt in the Wound: Encounters with Comtemporary Artists Across Europe” by curator Jurriaan Benschop, for Garret Publications; collaborative redesign of the magazine “Arkkitehti”,  for the Finnish Architectural Review; exhibition graphics and publication on Minna Canth, for Teatterimuseo.

Non-design news: Copyediting the recipes of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Antto Melasniemi (Bastard Brothers) for their forthcoming cookbook (2019); Editing a forthcoming serial publication that pairs archival interviews with newly commissioned texts (ongoing until Spring 2020), for Design Museum Helsinki.

News regarding relevant leisure activities, a.k.a. hobbies, a.k.a. personal research: a wordbook on translation titled “Abandon Abandon” and a perpetual calendar based on the work of Russian graphic artist R. Naiden.

Old news: Master of Arts graduate from Aalto University under the mentorship of Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey; national recognition from the Graphic Designers of Canada, the Design Exchange: Canada’s Design Museum and Grafia’s Vuoden Huiput.

Header icon: the top of the page is a revolving space with a dual function; it displays work (either discarded drafts or excerpts from published projects) and it adds navigation to the site (linking to *this* page on mobile and to the top of the design page on desktop). Currently on display is a drawing from p.21 of the publication “Yearbook of Exhibitions 2016–17: Harald Herlin Learning Centre”.


“It doesn’t, in our contemporary world, so much matter where you begin the examination of a subject, so long as you keep on until you get round again to your starting point. As it were, you start on a sphere, or a cube; you must keep on until you have seen it from all sides. Or if you think of your subject as a stool or table, you must keep on until it has three legs and will stand up, or four legs and won’t tip over too easily.”1
Imagine that the Finnish design system is a table standing on four legs. The entire infrastructure is supported equally by four pillars and each of them representing part of the industry – education, memory, profession and promotion. Playing a bit of the game ‘telephone’ here, the metaphor was heard from Professor Pekka Korvenmaa – during an open discussion at Design Museum Helsinki2– who allegedly heard it from Antti Nurmesniemi. A story’s origin, you could argue, is almost always up for debate but Korvenmaa, having written the book Finnish Design: A Concise History, had secured his reputation some years ago with a mass of reliable source material. As the professor reached the end of his opening remarks the audience was left sitting on the edge of their seat: “if one leg falls, the table falls down…”.

Now tell me if you have heard this one before. The most cherished product in the history of design, designed even by one of the industry’s most household names, is a table with three legs. Under these circumstances, the table could be called a leading example of the design system that produced it. And as a framework, the table could be used as a tool for examining that very system.

If we imagine the Finnish design system now with only three legs, naturally a few questions arise. Which of the pillars would support it? Did the designer take issue with one of the four pillars? And is there enough evidence suggesting it be removed? Furthermore, was this manoeuvre the result of a master plan, was it a practical joke taken out on industry or was it merely a critical comment in concrete form?

Alvar Aalto designed the table with three legs in 1933 – and then called it a stool. Clearly, he was not going to outright say that the thing was a metaphor for a troubled design system. But surely there was something behind this business about the table being a table and not a table. If you were in the business of selling furniture, you would say that the stool is “equally suitable as a seat, a table, storage unit, or display surface”. And if that same business, say, sold to a similar company with a similar logo even, you might add that the stool is “equally at home in public buildings, cultural institutions and educational facilities as well as in private homes” (artek.fi). If you were a designer in the first Modern era of architecture and design, you would call it versatile. Which means the table was step-on-able, sit-on-able and stackable – without any sign of it being fall down-able.3

If the table was to topple industry by removing one of its legs then it would do so in the most roundabout fashion. In many ways the table improved industry including the lives of others who supported it. The stackability would save space, ultimately in a public building, cultural institution or educational facility. In the private home too, stackability spread to every room: if you could sit on it, sleep in it or drink out of it, you could stack it. Above else was a narrative claiming that modern design represented the interests of everyday people. In a 1930 issue of Domus magazine, Aalto wrote that a good space to work in is “one from which all unnecessary space has been removed”. Referring here to “minimum” apartments, the emphasis was on the home worker and no longer on the collector of decorative furniture and other luxuries.

Before designing the table with three legs, Aalto had been serving the Finnish public for some years. He completed the Worker’s Club in Jyväskylä and the Agricultural Cooperative in Turku (alongside colleague and newlywed Aino Aalto) from his first private architectural office. At the time, his work drew on a variety of historical influences that today is called Neoclassical. It soon showed signs of shifting from “Normal Classicism” to “Light Classicism”.4 Namely, this meant moving away from heavy forms and decorative details. In the late 1920s, he subscribed to the radical new thinking of Rationalism for its heightened consideration of production and materiality. In Rationalist circles, tubular metal was the leading attraction because it afforded many things: it was lightweight, it could bend to create new shapes, it had a springiness that translated to comfort, and it was easy to keep clean (hygiene being a public interest at the time). Critics of rational design, however, were largely concerned with the feeling of cosiness. By the early ’30s, there was some evidence that Aalto too had warmed to similar concerns.5 Basically, tubular steel (see early furniture from Marcel Breuer) reflected too much light, too much sound and conducted too much heat. His reflection on rational design lead to a new movement called Functionalism but by no means was it based on a new ideal. Instead of rejecting rational design, he put forth a real effort to expand its definition. A Functionalist was a Rationalist, now with a heightened consideration of humanity; modern design had become “humanly rational”.

The table with three legs debuted in the autumn of ’33 at an “exhibition of ideas” in London. When assembled it stood 44 cm tall with a circular top measuring 35 cm in diameter.6 The standardized legs were also displayed in relief to illustrate their design and production (collaborating with the manufacturer Otto Korhonen). The exhibition advocated two of the leading narratives in modern design. One is the quest for new forms; here being presented as the experimental discovery of a new bentwood technique. The second, actually a rare affordance in modern furniture was the price. Everyone could afford a table with one less leg. And according to The Architectural Review who hosted the exhibition, people were wary of modern things that were “expensive because they are modern, modern because they are snob, and snob because they are expensive”.7 With economies scuffling and new austerity measures about to siren across Europe, it is no surprise that the table was something of a blessing.

Aalto was an architect before he was a designer – often quoted for saying that a leg is but the column’s sister. His furniture and lighting were always conceived of within a given setting. Which means that the table too, was influenced by its surrounding. Considering its versatility, the setting may have been a public building and a cultural institution, or an educational facility and, say, the entire Finnish design system. Before becoming an architect he was a comic and a critic. There are signs of it throughout this career from little-known writings and cartooning to signature pieces sold around the world.8 As his biographer Göran Schildt puts it, there was “something of a comical curiosity” in his work.9 While studying at the Helsinki University of Technology, he drew caricatures of popular classmates in the student paper Ylioppilaslehti. For the Swedish humour magazine, Kerberos, he contributed captioned cartoons and seven articles under the pseudonym “Ping”. Before long he became the applied arts critic for Iltalehti newspaper and other dailies across the country. He covered, as expected, trade fairs and handicraft exhibitions but also wrote speculative matters on architecture and urban planning.10 As a critic, his career peaked in 1922 when he published 31 articles. During the rest of his career, he wrote occasionally for trade journals in Finland and abroad.11 Schildt saw criticism as a positive force in Aalto’s work, suggesting that the designer was a keen contributor to the surrounding design system but also a hopeful one. Finally, our examination of the Finnish design system turns to the table’s metaphorical pillars. Under the guise of Aalto’s three-legged design, one of the supports had to go. Which of the legs it was – education, memory, profession, or promotion – is what remains to be seen.

At the centenary celebration of his high school in Jyväskylä Aalto expressed disconcert with the subject of schools. “Education cannot be educated,”12 he said in 1958. Jyväskylä is something of an epicentre for education in Finland. It is also the city where Aalto spent most of his youth, where he opened his first architectural office and where he settled later in life. He witnessed throughout his life a form of education that emphasized practical instruction. Not enough emphasis was placed on the kinds of knowledge, that he thought, could indirectly affect culture. The worry was that technology and design were kept distant from art and culture and that unbalanced curricula were to blame.

Aalto saw great potential in how certain curricula could offer alternative perspectives (foreign language studies being his preferred example). There is an anecdote from Aalto’s teaching days – presumably while he was the visiting professor at MIT in Cambridge for three months of the year, from 1940–48, during which time he established and directed an architectural laboratory for experimental building known as the Building Lab – that speaks to the divide of technology and culture. His student was delivering a diploma presentation that involved the design of a children’s hospital. They showed an advanced level of planning and thorough calculations, including the angle in which light might enter through the window. They took into account a variety of user scenarios resulting in spatial plans tailored for different age groups. And after they delivered the methods in building and technical requirements, Aalto asked the student about one possibility that they seemed to ignore: “how would the building and the young patients in it react if a lion jumped through the window? Would the dimension be appropriate even in this eventuality?”.13 For Aalto, the question was how to instil in students that the two sides were integral to each other and not separate entities.  

An emphasis placed on culture’s literary past was another reason technology and culture appeared separate. By preserving the culture through spoken and printed words, the domain belonged largely to poets and writers and not those contributing to its materiality. Aalto wished to challenge the perception that applied arts, fine art and practical work were less important than the country’s literary work. Even after receiving some global recognition these “matter based” practices within art and culture had yet to affect the local psyche and would remain the domain of technology. Included in this struggle were many disciplines: architecture, urban planning, fine art, handicraft, engineering, technical work, and even cuisine. What was missing was a cultural programme dedicated to the memories of tomorrow.

Finnish museums had played a monumental role in preserving culture’s past but it wasn’t until 1956 that there was one dedicated to Aalto’s principle art form. Though not one of its founding members on paper, his effort was crucial in setting up the Museum of Finnish Architecture. Together with members of the Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA), he devised a programmatic vision and secured property from the City of Helsinki for its first and only location. His vision was strongly influenced by the Museum of Modern Art in New York where in 1938 he had a solo exhibition (only the second architect after Le Corbusier to be invited there). The programme at MoMA was founded on the premise of building new memories. The Finnish museum too would aim their focus on the future rather than simply preserving old stories. Aalto’s idea of the museum14 was something of a forum; an “institute of interaction” where contemporary problems in Finnish architecture could be addressed over a series of exhibitions with guest speakers, relevant texts, and printed matter for the public to take home. Building achievements from around the country, including small towns, would also be put on display to promote new standards in construction.

To defend the interests of professional craftspeople working in pre-independent Finland, a group formed by the name Piirto (1911). Among other firsts, they established Veistokoulun, the institute now named the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University. After a year, the group’s name changed to Ornamo: the Finnish Association of Ornamental Artists and stayed that way until 1966. Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto had a certain sensitivity towards names: playing with pseudonyms and at least one curious competition entry. Ornamo played with their name two more times changing it to Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo and in 2018, Ornamo Art and Design Finland. Surviving these changes is the root word ornament and with it, you might suppose, the heritage of ornamental artists. Considering that late Classicism had already been characterized by its lack of ornament,15 one can only speculate how a Rationalist-cum-Functionalist would object to the name. The peak of Aalto’s productivity as a critic, curiously enough, happens to coincide with the year he was a board member of Ornamo (1921–22). Whether this period of doubt had anything to do with what he saw behind association doors is up for debate. More would suggest that he gravitated toward the challenges at SAFA (at least initially); helping to establish the Museum of Finnish Architecture but also offices for Standardization and Town Planning.

A few months before Aalto took his three-legged design to London, another successful exhibition of Finnish design debuted at the Milan Triennial. A pavilion was organized and paid for by the Finnish Society for Arts and Crafts16 who are also credited with being the first to promote the discipline in and outside of the country. They hosted the 1881 exhibition of applied arts in Helsinki and sponsored Finland’s representation at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. It is plausible that Aalto’s table was not ready in time for Milan’s monumental event (one that would help launch a number of Finnish design careers). More has it that his preoccupation with the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) lead him that summer to their conference on board the SS Patis II sailing from Marseille to Athens. Equally plausible, is that the designer of “monumental art” and the group of arts and crafts people never saw eye to eye. When Aalto later designed the Finnish pavilion at the World’s Fair in 1937, society members openly complained that the applied art pieces on display were overshadowed (quite literally) by the exhibition’s architecture.

In London, Aalto’s exhibition was orchestrated by the English architecture critic P. Morton Shand. After meeting Aalto at the previous conference of CIAM in 1928 he saw great commercial potential in the designer’s modern ideas. Encouraged by the table’s positive reception, Shand (that same year fighting bankruptcy and co-founding the Modern Architectural Research Group) set up the company Finmar to manage imports and sales for Aalto’s furniture in Britain, the US and Australia. The same “exhibition of ideas” went to Zurich and the table gained considerable exposure from a number of architectural journals covering the event. Demand for the table, now selling like mad in the UK17 and a few European countries, far surpassed production capabilities. However, overshadowing the delays in supply was Aalto’s blasé attitude towards the reception. During this time he never replied to letters and the “bohemian” was threatened by companies, including Finmar, to cut off business ties completely.

When Aalto welcomed the guests at his exhibition in London, he opened with the only two english words he knew: good-bye. Much later when his English had improved enough to give a lecture,18 now at the Architectural Association school in London, he returned to those opening remarks: “In 1933 modern, progressive, constructive architecture was so simple. You could almost explain it with good-bye”.19 Another way to say it is that any name or narrative could be used to sell it. And another way: modern design provided more room to interpret those names and narratives. A modern table was never “a final product” but something the user would complete themselves.20 If Aalto’s three-legged design was intended to be a seat, a table and otherwise then maybe with good-bye he was intending to say even more with what he was trying to say.

With help from his biographer, we can confirm that “concrete experiments” were the only way Aalto could be convinced of a valuable idea.21 The table with three legs was an experiment as such, embodying many theories, each with an ability to affect industry: versatility, stackability, affordability, and sensibility. Above others, he placed versatility and a variant which he called flexibility. In a pamphlet titled Architecture and Standards, he uses the example of language to suggest the idea of flexible practice: “As the author uses a certain vocabulary to create a work, so [too] the designer of buildings creates a work from a variety of elements”.22

Looking at the Finnish design system, as Aalto did over the course of his career, we can see that he took issue with different aspects of the industry. His greatest concern may not have been education, memory, profession or promotion alone, but the sum of their pillars. Let us imagine then something else: a modern, progressive and constructive Finnish design system supported by three pillars at a time. Instead of rejecting part of the design system it expands the definition; removing unnecessary space allows room for flexibility and new combinations. For instance, a system based on education-memory-promotion one day and profession-promotion-education another.

Our examination has lead us round again to the same Finnish design system – only now the system sounds more like a programme. And if the programme starts sounding a bit like the game telephone, at least we now know that “cherished design”, “practical joke”, and “critical comment” are equally suitable outcomes.

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (Routledge, London, 1934), 29.

The discussion was hosted by a group called Nomad Agency/Archive of Emergent Studies (NÆS) as part of a research initiate and temporary exhibition in the Museum’s permanent collection. February, 2017.

Leena Svinhufvud, the Educational Curator at Design Museum Helsinki, recalled in conversation that when she was growing up the stool was often called “muijan tappaja” (a derogatory version of “lady killer”) because it could easily tip over if one such lady of the home was not careful.

Igor Herler, “Early Furniture and Interior Design” in Alvar Aalto Furniture, ed. Juhani Pallasmaa (Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki 1984), 37.

From the lecture “Rationalismen och människan” at the Swedish Society of Industrial Design in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, ed. Göran Schildt (Otava Publishing Company, Helsinki, 1997, 90.

Today variations of the design include 1) a side table with the same height but wider top (48 cm), 2) three more tables with the standard height of 74 cm and various widths (60, 75, 100, and 125 cm) and 3) a stool with four legs.
Göran Schildt, “The Decisive Years”, in Alvar Aalto Furniture, ed. Juhani Pallasmaa (Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki, 1984), 80.

The most curious example is the Aalto vase that won 1st prize in the 1936 Karhula-Iittala glass design competition. Aalto gave his entry the unmarketable name “The Eskimo Woman’s Leather Breeches” (from Swedish, Eskimåkvinnans skinnbyxa) for reasons unknown. However, one expert in the field, Markus Aaltonen, suggests that Aalto himself once quipped that the name refers to a pair of ladies underwear found strewn on the floor. www.yle.fi/uutiset/3-7366965
Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 17.

See “Urban Culture” (1924), “Temple Baths on Jyväskylä Ridge” (1925), “Architecture in the Landscape of Central Finland” (1925), in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words.

Outside of Finland Aalto contributed to Casabella, Domus, Bauwelt, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, The Technology Review and Arkitektur och samhälle.

“What is Culture”, in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 15.

“Art and Technology”, in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 175.

“Aims as SAFA Chairman” in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 161.

Igor Herler, “Early Furniture and Interior Design” in Alvar Aalto Furniture, 22.

The name, which comes from the Finnish, Suomen Taideteollisuusyhdistys sometimes appears in English as “Finnish Society of Crafts and Design”.

According to Kaarina Mikonranta, the United Kingdom made up 80 percent of furniture exports from Finland by the mid 1930s. Alvar Aalto: Designer, (Alvar Aalto Museum 2002), 80.

“Finland Wonderland” in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 184. 

In the Finnish language, hello and good-bye can sound and look the same. For example, you can say “moikka” both to open and close a conversation. And more commonly, “moi” to open and “moikka” or “moi moi” (bye-bye) to close. Not to mention other variations.

“Rationalismen och människan”, in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 91.

Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 76.

“The Flexible Stair”, in Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, 164.