BRIGHTEST star among the bright young architects of the 1930s was a dour-looking, dynamic Finn named Alvar Aalto. His TB sanatorium at Paimio, Finland, with its cantilevered decks, was a landmark in the new international style. Almost singlehanded he had made wood a "modern material," used it in a dazzling variety of ways—an undulating ceiling for a library in Viipuri, an undulating wall for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair—and the tastemakers of the era all sat in Aalto's curved plywood chairs. But as the glass-and-steel revolution sparked by...

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