Paavo Tynell's Ethereal Shapes
From a 1940s floor lamp in actress Julianne Moore’s West Village townhouse to a 1950s ceiling light in music manager Scooter Braun’s countryside mansion in Montecito, it is clear that the renowned light fixtures by Finnish designer Paavo Tynell still maintain their allure in the present day. Aptly referred to as “the man who illuminated Finland,” Paavo Tynell is most known and credited for his decorative and functional lighting designs that were inspired by Finland’s surrounding nature.
Born in Helsinki on January 5, 1890, Paavo Tynell’s first job was working as a tinsmith at G.W. Sohlberg in 1906. He ultimately became a blacksmith for jewelry manufacturer Koru Oy, specializing in metal finishes while he completed his studies at what is now known as the Helsinki University of Industrial Arts. By 1913 he had been awarded the title of master craftsman, and his fine skills and artistic flair in metalwork were distinctive enough to land him a teaching job at his university upon graduation. After realizing that there was a growing niche in decorative metalwork in Finland, he founded Taito Oy with his colleagues, which included Gösta Serlachius; artist Emil Wickström; Eric Ehrström; and silversmith Franz Nykänen.
During Taito Oy’s initial years, the company explored various areas of metalwork, including the production of brass railings and metal gates that can still be found around Finland to this day. As advances and innovations in electricity began to take place, the company decided to focus on designing creative lighting solutions for the newly modernized homes across the country. Tynell was at the helm of Taito Oy as the company’s head designer and CEO. Buildings and other architectural marvels were also being constructed left and right, and all turned to Taito Oy for their lighting needs as the company was the first industrial producer of lighting fixtures in Finland. At this time, Alvar Aalto was gaining popularity with his major architectural projects and asked Taito Oy to manufacture all the lighting fixtures, including the Viipuri Library in 1935 and the Savoy Restaurant in 1937.
One of Taito Oy’s lamp designs at the time was the 9602 Floor Lamp, which was most commonly known as the ‘Chinese Hat’ due to its prolific silhouette. Designed for the Hotel Aulanko in 1938, the lamp featured an elegant stem that was covered in rattan and a polished brass base. Characterized by an elegant aspenslat shade that flared out dramatically, the juxtaposition of natural rattan against a conventional metal was a refreshing and unique design. Another noteworthy piece was the 5321 table lamp, which consisted of a stylish brass shade in the shape of a seashell and a rattan-wrapped stem. Also known as the ‘Shell Lamp,’ this design attested to Tynell’s remarkable ability to fuse organic elements with the modernist aesthetic that was prevalent at the time. Taito Oy continued to be the leading authority in Finland up until the 1950s and made lighting for the country’s public spaces, such as the Helsinki Central Railway Station and the House of Parliament.
1947 proved to be a great year for Paavo Tynell, which not only marked his marriage to glass designer Helena Turpeinen, but would be the beginning of his success in the United States due to the opening of Finland House in Manhattan. Formed by the Finnish American Trading Corporation, Finland House aimed to promote Finnish arts and crafts within its unique space that comprised of the Finnish Art Shop, a gallery-showroom, as well as an adjacent restaurant. Located around the corner from the Waldorf Astoria, the two-building structure was divided among five floors and everything from the furniture to the interior décor was imported to highlight Finland’s culture. Tynell was tasked in providing all the light fixtures for the restaurant, which provided him the unique opportunity to have his designs displayed on a permanent basis. Finland House was very successful and appealed a lot to the American market as Finnish products were the complete opposite of post-war modernist designs. There was also a need for light fixtures that would bathe rooms in a nice light while acting as decorative objects. Tynell’s designs were the stylish solutions to this problem as they were testaments to his “lifelong effort to blend the harmony of lighting with the harmony of living,” as expressed through a Finland House catalog from the late 1940s.
It is important to note that although Tynell’s designs were advertised and sold exclusively under Finland House’s name, all of them were considered Taito Oy products and were produced in Helsinki. The trademark TT, which stood for Taito-Tynell, was made for international clients at some point. His designs at the Finnish Art Shop proved to be very popular and were met with immediate success. They were revered and raved about, with a review from the New York Times declaring: “For sheer decorative effect it would be hard to match the fixtures designed by Paavo Tynell…”
One of the most popular designs shown during the opening of Finland House was the Model A 1965 Pendant, which was commonly dubbed as the ‘Counterbalance Ceiling Lamp.’ Its most notable element was its lift mechanism that allowed the shade to be lifted and lowered to the client’s desired height, which the New York Times referred to as “the most useful contribution to the American interior.” A truly innovative design with a useful two-in-one feature, soft light was illuminated through the shade’s pierced triangular perforations; a style that would exemplify Tynell’s aesthetic. He was also a pioneer for creating ambient lighting that immediately made a space more relaxing and inviting, and the Starry Sky Lamp (Model 9068) was a nod to this. First produced in 1946, the lamp was made in three varying sizes and featured Tynell’s signature pierced brass perforations on a square-shaped base with a metal grid bottom. A feature by Life Magazine in 1960 shed a positive light on his designs and illustrated him as “…an innovator, designing lamps that eliminate the need for space-consuming tables by hoisting lights into the air.”
With ethereal shapes of delicate snowflakes suspended above a perforated brass shape, the Snowflake Chandelier (Model 9065) was more akin to a work of art than a lighting fixture. Advertised by the Finland House as a “romantic fantasy in light and shadow… masterpiece of dramatic lighting,” the chandelier paid homage to Tynell’s inherently Finnish design approach that was predominantly inspired by nature and utilized organic materials. Besides snowflakes, other nature-inspired objects such as flowers and leaves were also depicted in sculptural forms. Originally produced in 1947, the chandelier was a sophisticated play on light and shadow, with a review by the New York Times describing it as: “a most astonishing one… It looks…more like a piece of mobile sculpture, since brass screen flower petals are suspended above the perforated brass bowl that holds the lights.”
Aside from designing for Taito Oy, Tynell also maintained his own design business for private commissions. A significant one occurred in 1951, when Tynell was asked to design one of the light fixtures for the Secretary-General’s office in the United Nations Building. The design he used was Model 9060, which had won first place in the lighting category of the American Institution of Decorators’ Home Furnishing competition during the previous year and was depicted as “a handsome ceiling fixture of pierced brass executed in his elegant style.”
In spite of Tynell’s international financial success, Idman Oy, another Finnish lighting manufacturer, was able to take over the majority of shares for Taito Oy by 1953. Though Tynell was against it, both lighting companies ultimately merged their factories together in an effort to focus on mass production. After nearly a decade of promoting the best that post-war Finland had to offer, the Finland House property was sold in 1957 and was later demolished. Yet as a result of the rapt attention that Tynell’s pieces received in the United States, he stayed busy throughout his career through collaborations with another American company called Lightolier, as well as steady freelance work that consisted of custom designs for private clients until his passing in 1973.
Tynell’s success is not just indebted to the exciting and innovative elements in his designs. Prior to each piece’s production, he acted as his own critic by testing out each lighting fixture in his own home to gauge its usefulness and features. He made sure that each design passed with high standards in terms of quality control and design, as The Los Angeles Times reported in 1965: “As a result of trips to this country to study lighting needs, he has been directly responsible for starting the contemporary trend of pierced brass lighting fixtures, introduced the pull-down fixtures and has now designed track ceiling fixtures which can be pulled across the room to give light where needed…All of these fixtures…were evolved to fill lighting requirements not only in design but from the standing points of utility and budget, too.” It is to these effects that the immeasurable impact that Paavo Tynell made to modern lighting is still very much evident in the present day.