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To live and learn
Not until her retirement did Märta Lagus-Waller have the opportunity to finish her university studies. Once she got into studying, she even took the licentiate degree at 83.

Arja-Leena Paavola

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Today, prolonged study times are regarded as being quite a problem. Most often the reason is working while studying and the desire to gain life experience. Märta Lagus-Waller, Licentiate of Philosophy, was young during the Second World War, when life was in many ways more serious than today. Like so many others of her generation, her studies were cut short by the war. After the war, marriage, children and economic hardship postponed the studies further.

“After my husband was wounded in the war, I had to provide for the family and took up a position as the secretary to a chief executive of a bank. My route to work went past the University and for years kept alive the idea of continuing my studies. The right moment, however, did not come until I retired in the 1980s. I had remarried and my new husband thought me studying would be fine and even encouraged me,” says Lagus-Waller.

Instead of languages, which she had studied as a young girl, she gradually became interested in art, which she had become familiar with through her work. In the 1970s, banks and companies began to invest in art and also bought art as gifts. “My last boss in particular was interested in art, and sometimes I would visit galleries for him in search of an acquisition. I noticed then how fascin-ating the field was and realised that I wanted to know more about it.”

Getting to know information technology

Lagus-Waller began by studying art history at the Open University. One day she decided to go to the University to ask if it would be possible to become enrolled at the University again. The people at the Office for Academic Affairs asked if she still had her old study credit book. She found it, and suddenly she was a university student. Art history, however, is a popular subject and consequently admission is not easy, so Lagus-Waller began by studying philosophy and, after passing a proficiency test, was finally able to study what she wanted. Instead of visual art, her original interest, architecture, and housing architecture in particular, proved to be her thing.

However, many things had changed since Lagus-Waller’s days at the University as a young woman. One such change was computers, the use of which had not become widespread during her career in the bank. “That was the first thing I had to learn. My husband’s daughter gave me a computer and I took courses. The world of information technology was completely new to me, but I have adapted to everything quite well. I even learned to use the Internet, which was immensely useful when I was working on my research. Of course there has also been some problems,” says Lagus-Waller with a laugh.

After completing her Master’s degree in five years, it was time to think about postgraduate studies. It was a time when forgotten Finnish women architects were beginning to be redis-covered and Renja Suominen-Kokkonen, whose 1993 doctoral dissertation had touched upon the work of architect and designer Elna Kiljander, recommended it as a topic for Lagus-Waller.

Elna Kiljander, who graduated as an architect in 1915, was trained in the prevailing spirit of classicism. Visiting the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, she became acquainted with functionalism, which was a decisive experience, leading her to adopt the functionalist style in her work. “Kiljander specialised in housing architecture in particular, and the improvement of living conditions. In her early career, she designed model kitchens for a women’s home economics organisation, the Martha Association, but she also designed luxury items for the rich. She was particularly interested in improving the status of women and making their work easier. After the death of her father, her family had moved from Sortavala in eastern Finland to the capital, Helsinki, where they had had to live in rather poor conditions, so she knew first hand, what poor housing was.”

Model flats and design

Kiljander’s career has an interesting link to Finnish political history. She became friends with Miina Sillanpää, one of the leading figures in the working class movement, who later became Finland’s first female Minister. Lagus-Waller says that the friendship first surprised her, as the women had been on opposite sides in the 1918 Finnish Civil War. They were, however, capable of fruitful co-operation and in 1935, for example, Sillanpää commissioned Kiljander to design a model for a functional working-class home. The aim was to design a flat so well that everything a family needed would fit into a small space. At the time, cupboard beds, for instance, represented the height of functionalism and space saving.

Kiljander’s most important work is the Ensi-Koti home for unmarried mothers and their children, the first of its kind in Finland. It was also commissioned by Sillanpää. Lagus-Waller has given much thought to the ideological significance of such homes to Kiljander, who had become a single mother after a brief marriage. Women’s issues were clearly important to her. “On the other hand, it was also a welcome job professionally,” says Lagus-Waller.

In 1934, Kiljander established an interior design business called Oy Koti-Hemmet Ab (‘Home Ltd’), which was a precursor of a kind to the famous Artek. “As a matter of fact, it is difficult to distinguish furniture designed by Kiljander from that designed by Alvar Aalto, nine years her junior. However, I will not speculate who came first. Kiljander’s business, however, was rather short-lived and I have a strong suspicion that it was swindled from her in the 1940s when it went bankrupt. I have carefully gone through the business’s official documents and suddenly the owner’s name disappears and the names of two strange gentlemen appear. One of the gentlemen came to the bankruptcy proceedings straight from prison, where he was serving a sentence for another crime,” Lagus-Waller reveals.

A hard life for women

The changes during Lagus-Waller’s lifetime have been enormous. “Many things have gone in the right direction. For instance, when I had my third child in 1948, banks for the first time granted you three months of maternity leave. It was a completely new development, which also caused some resentment among the older women, many of whom were unmarried. Today, women are much more independent, but that can be hard, too, when working outside the home is often a necessity. I had domestic help on whom I was completely dependent and still my life felt as if I were balancing on a tightrope. However, more and more demands have been placed on women, so the development has not all been for the good.”

Earlier, Lagus-Waller was almost the only married woman in her circle who worked outside the home, and, as such, was quite a rare species. “After my work ceased to be an economic necessity, going to work seemed even stranger. However, I could not see myself as an elegant housewife and wanted to remain independent. My own mother also worked, she was an actress, and her mother was an independent businesswoman. My grandmother’s mother lived in St. Petersburg, and after she was widowed, she provided for herself and her children as a telegraph operator, using the high tech of the time. Perhaps it is all in my genes,” says Lagus-Waller and laughs.

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