On the 12th floor of 809 United Nations Plaza in New York City, home to IIE headquarters, lies an architectural jewel – the Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. Conference Room, designed by the renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). This facility is one of only four Aalto-designed projects in the United States. With its gently undulating ceiling and walls, its abstract, forest-like sculpture of bent birch wood, its blue porcelain tiles, and its modern yet humanistic lighting, this Aalto interior embodies many of the architect’s most-admired design elements.
The Aalto conference facility was a gift from Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. when the Institute raised the money to build its headquarters building opposite the United Nations over 40 years ago. Mr. Kaufmann had been a student at Taliesin when he suggested Frank Lloyd Wright as the architect for his parents’ country house, Fallingwater, and he later initiated the Good Design exhibition series as a curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Kaufmann had worked with the Institute on exchange programs while teaching architecture and art history at Columbia University, and it was his vision to invite Alvar Aalto to design an interior that represented the character and the scope of the Institute’s ideals.
Commenting on the facility that Aalto designed for the Institute in an essay entitled “Aalto on First Avenue: A brief history of the Finnish master’s lyrical conference suite” in Interior Design magazine (September 1984), Mr. Kaufmann said, “The liberated forms of the wood details … the refinement of the light fixtures … and other features create an atmosphere of exhilarated yet orderly inspiration which can hardly fail to enliven the discussions and pronouncements that take place within their ambience. . . . [The conference suite] carries, I believe, the spirit of a splendidly individual artist into the functioning of a normally and properly bureaucratic organization, one dedicated to serving the freedom of intellectual and artistic exchange world wide.”
The Kaufmann Conference Center is a unique and important example of Alvar Aalto’s work in the United States. The space offers a veritable catalogue of Aalto’s signature contributions to the International style. The Kaufmann Conference Center has served as a lyrical and inspirational backdrop to many of IIE’s most important activities since 1964. The Center has hosted countless expert panels selecting participants for Fulbright Fellowships and other educational exchange programs sending U.S. students around the world and bringing individuals from more than 175 different countries to the United States.
It has served as an exhibition and audition space for artists in all fields – from visual arts to music composition to drama - invited by IIE and eager to share their talents with an international audience. The rooms have been used for IIE board meetings, dinners, and receptions, including events honoring outstanding Americans, such as former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Perhaps most significantly, IIE has used the Kaufmann Conference Room on a regular basis for workshops, roundtables, staff meetings and training sessions focused on how international educational exchange can make the world a better place. These occasions have provided outstanding educators and non-profit leaders with the opportunity and - literally - the space to deliberate on pressing educational exchange needs and to conceive of new programs that will help encourage cooperation and problem-solving among peoples and nations. This is what Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr. envisioned when he asked Aalto to design the rooms in the 1960s.