Olivia Mathilda “Wivi” Lönn was born on 5 May 1872 in Tampere to a working-class family of four children. Lönn’s father Emanuel Wilhelm Lönn was a brewer, and the family lived in Tampere in a villa owned by the brewery. After Emanuel Wilhelm Lönn’s death in 1888, the family moved to the Amuri working-class district. Wivi Lönn’s mother Mathilda Lönn ran a boarding house in the family home to support her family.
Wivi Lönn was talented in mathematics and eager for education. Unfortunately, due to her family’s financial difficulties, she had to quit high school studies in 1890. However, in 1891 she was able to enrol at Technical School of Tampere to study construction, as an only woman in her class. After finishing her master builder studies, she moved to Helsinki in 1892 and enrolled at the Polytechnical School of Helsinki to study architecture. At the time women needed separate permission for higher education. In 1896 Wivi Lönn got her diploma of architecture as a fourth female architect in Finland.
After finishing her studies, Lönn received a travelling grant for a study trip. In 1898 she made a month-long trip in Europe, during which she also visited Scotland. The Glasgow Style and especially the stone architecture had a significant influence on her work. Lönn’s first individual design work, the Finnish Girl School of Tampere was completed later that same year.
Lönn won the architecture competition of the Tampere Central Fire Station in 1906. It was the first competition in Finland won by a female architect. The years 1911–1918 Lönn lived in Jyväskylä, in a villa she had designed for herself. Her villa is one of the earliest private homes that female architects’ have designed for their own use. Lönn’s most productive years were the first two decades of the 20th century. Her works mainly represent the Art Nouveau style.
Wivi Lönn was known for alliances with other female professionals. In the 1910s and 1920s, she collaborated with the first female commercial counsellor in Finland, Hanna Parviainen. Commissioned by Parviainen, Lönn designed several buildings for the Parviainen plywood factory. Lönn and Parviainen developed a close friendship and travelled together in central and Southern Europe, even by car, which was unusual for women at the time. Lönn collaborated with women’s associations, such as the YWCA of Finland, throughout her career. Later in her life she lived in Helsinki in an apartment building she had designed with architect Aili-Salli Ahde for the YWCA.
Wivi Lönn was an important role model for the younger generations of female architects. In 1942, a group of female architects, among them Aino Marsio-Aalto, Aili-Salli Ahde and Elsi Borg, arranged Wivi Lönn’s 70th birthday party in Helsinki. All the female architects in Finland – approximately 100 architects and architecture students – were invited. Over 40 of them were able to attend the party. They decided to establish a club of female architects, and named it ‘Architecta’. The aim of the club was to educate members on professional questions and support each other. Wivi Lönn was appointed as their first honorary member. Architecta is one of the oldest associations of female architects in the world.
Wivi Lönn died at the age of 94, on 27 December 1966 in Helsinki. She is buried in Kalevankangas cemetery in Tampere.