Learn about Café Aalto, the long-established, well-loved Finnish café, with owner Marco Saracino, who lets us in on the origin of the name, how Café Aalto earned its reputation, and why Kyoto was chosen to host the café’s first overseas branch.
- Interview with Marco Saracino
- Interview by Yoshinao Yamada
- Photographs by Yasushi Nagai
A Finnish “architect’s café” beloved for decades
The year 1986 saw the opening of a café bearing the name of architect Alvar Aalto inside the Academic Bookstore in Helsinki, Finland. Over the ensuing decades, Café Aalto has grown to become a local institution, frequented by lovers of both books and architecture. We interviewed owner Marco Saracino to find out why this café means so much to so many people.
The main outlet of the Academic Bookstore, one of Finland’s most prestigious booksellers, stands along the Keskuskatu street in central Helsinki. Translating to “central street” and starting from the city’s central railway station, Keskuskatu is only two blocks long but plays host to both the Stockmann department store, founded in 1862 and the largest institution of its kind in the Nordics, and the flagship store of Artek, a renowned Finnish furniture manufacturer.
Café Aalto is located in a corner of the Academic Bookstore and is named after Alvar Aalto, the architect who was responsible for designing both the interior of the store itself and the Kirjatalo building which it occupies. Aalto, who at the time had already designed Rautatalo, another building in the same city block, used copper plates for the bookstore’s façade in order to have it blend in with the neighboring structures. Inside, triangular skylights were installed to let natural light in, and ample amounts of white Carrara marble was used to have the surfaces spread light throughout the bookstore.
Café Aalto opened in November 1986. “I took over ownership of the café from my parents in 2009,” says Marco Saracino. “My mother used to run several cafés, and secured the rights to open one in the Academic Bookstore after the idea was floated between the late 1970s and the early ’80s. I was born in 1983, so you could say I grew up with Café Aalto. My older brother used to help out in the café, but I was really young back then – they tell me I once ran around naked in there [laughs]. Café Aalto has been featured by media outlets from many different countries, but I feel a particularly strong connection with Japan. I’ve wanted to open a café there for a while, and have finally made that dream a reality.”
Judging by its name, one may think that Café Aalto was also designed by Aalto himself. That is, however, not the case: the café opened seven years after the architect’s death and is the work of Roy Mantari, a one-time colleague of Aalto. The name and interiors were approved by Elissa Aalto, Alvar’s second wife and an architect in her own right, who continued to run the Aalto office after her husband’s passing.
For the opening of Café Aalto in Kyoto, furniture modeled on that used in the Helsinki café was reproduced with the consent of the Aalto Foundation, which manages the architect’s intellectual legacy. Readers may wonder how, in the first place, original Aalto furniture made it to a café opened after the architect’s death. In fact, the furniture was moved to Café Aalto from the neighboring Rautatalo building.
“The furniture we have today was originally used at Café Colombia in Rautatalo next door,” explains Saracino. “But that building switched owners, the café closed, and its furniture was put up for auction. To prevent the pieces from being scattered, Stockmann bought the entire batch and donated it to the Aalto Foundation. The foundation let us use Aalto’s tables and chairs in the café, where we are taking good care of them.”
Besides conducting regular maintenance, Saracino and his staff are using the furniture as was intended when it was designed. As the originals are limited in number, they could not be sent to Kyoto.
“When the plan to open a café in Japan came up, I started by visiting the Aalto Foundation,” recalls Saracino, “to receive permission to use the name and to reproduce the furniture. We hired a Helsinki-based design agency to create prototype 3D models of the furniture based on actual measurements. While proceeding with our plans, we came upon the original drawings too, and used both those and the 3D models to start production. The table designs are simple but, on the chairs, all four legs have different shapes. They’re very detailed – even the angles at which you attach the legs to the chair differ – so the process was quite difficult.”
Rautatalo used to house a showroom for Artek, the famous furniture brand established by Aalto and his friends, so the building has a strong connection with Aalto. Artek moved to a different location for a while, but is since 2016 located in the building between Kirjatalo and Rautatalo. In fact, it was this very structure that Aalto sought to harmonize his buildings with when designing Kirjatalo and Rautatalo. It is the work of Eliel Saarinen, the man behind Helsinki Central Railway Station and the person who inspired Aalto to become an architect. That history is how Café Aalto became an essential place to visit in Helsinki for anyone looking to follow in Aalto’s footsteps.
Café Aalto has in recent years attracted many fans of the Japanese movie “Kamome Diner,” in which Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) and Midori (Hairi Katagiri) meet each other at the café. Notably, the film’s release in Korea a few years ago led to an increase in visitors from that country. While the characters in “Kamome Diner” only drink coffee at Café Aalto, real-life customers can look forward to a varied menu of Finnish specialties. When asked for a recommendation, Saracino gives us three: the cinnamon roll, the salmon soup, and the blueberry pie.
“Those three are timeless Finnish favorites,” he says. “We update the recipes little by little over time, and have run several trials to make sure that the rolls, soup, and pie served at the Japanese branch taste exactly like they do in Finland. We served the same menu in June 2019, months before the opening of Café Aalto in Kyoto, at a café adjacent to Spiral in Tokyo, where Fujiwo Ishimoto (a leading Finland-based designer who worked with Marimekko for decades and is currently designing ceramics for Arabia) was holding an exhibition. Everyone loved it! I am also a certified sommelier, so I hope to add wine to our menu at some point.”
Café Aalto has displayed art on its walls throughout its history, and also hosts exhibitions and other events. Having been popular for such a long time, it has developed its own specific clientele.
“We are located inside a bookstore, so our clientele may be a bit older than at other cafés,” says Saracino. “Many of our customers like to travel, so you hear them talking about their experiences in various countries. The Academic Bookstore has long been at the center of Finnish culture, so we have had not only authors and artists but also executives of leading Finnish companies and even presidents stop by after their visit to the bookstore.”
Lastly, here’s Marco Saracino message to guests visiting Café Aalto in Japan: “Hotels and cafés named after Aalto exist all over the world, including in Japan. We are different in that we have the official approval of the Aalto Foundation and have respected Aalto’s legacy throughout our history, which we are very proud of. Kyoto is a place that puts a lot of emphasis on tradition. In order to become accepted as part of a tradition, we have to study and protect it. I hope that Café Aalto will blend in with the Kyoto cityscape while acting as a place where you can enjoy the time, space, and flavors of Finland.”