Tapio Wirkkala, the father of Finnish design
From creating banknotes for the Bank of Finland to designing exquisite glass vases echoing the undisturbed glacial landscapes of Finland, there’s probably no other artist more able to successfully dabble in as many art forms as Tapio Wirkkala did. Credited as one of Finland’s most influential figures, Wirkkala’s versatility was unparalleled and he showed no limits in his creative boundaries, with some of his most famous designs including the iconic Finlandia bottle and large wall sculptures made from wood.
Perhaps success was always inevitable for Wirkkala. Born in 1915 in Hanko, South Finland but later raised in Helsinki, his father Ilmari was an artist and a stone cutter who created the Hanko Freedom Monument; it is said that even Wirkkala’s younger siblings had inherited Ilmari’s artistic talents. At a young age he had already shown immense talent in drawing skills and by 1933, Wirkkala took up ornamental sculpture at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he would ultimately become its director. At this time, he had also started working in commercial art, including winning a contest for the postage stamp design for the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, which were canceled due to the war but would later take place in 1952. As for his personal life, Wirkkala married the ceramist Rut Bryk in 1945, with their son Sami born in 1948 and their daughter Maaria born in 1954.
Frequently spoken of in the same revered tones reserved for artists such as Alvar Aalto, Wirkkala’s role in putting Finland on the map as the leader for modern style was undoubtedly impactful. Due to Finland’s alliance with Germany during the earlier years of the war, the country was obliged to pay heavy reparations to the Soviet Union. A mentality that focused on simplicity and practicality prevailed over Finland, as well as expansions in metal and engineering companies in order to achieve economic prosperity. Art and design, which have always been at the backbone of every country’s national identity, were areas that were especially brought to light at the time. Iittala, a popular glassmaker company, held a design competition involving the decoration of engraved glass in 1946, wherein the first prize was jointly won by Wirkkala and Kaj Franck. After the contest, Wirkkala went on to work as a glass designer for Iittala and proceeded to craft over 400 designs for the company throughout their decades-long partnership, cementing both parties’ names as modern pioneers in Finnish design.
The 1950s was a thriving period for Finnish art and design and is the decade commonly considered as the beginning of Finland’s golden age, with Wirkkala at the forefront of this peak. His first design for Iittala, Kantarelli, was a glass vase inspired by the chanterelle mushrooms found all over Finland. Characterized by its wide and flared rim and engraved vertical lines, the vase was mouthblown using the wheel-engraved technique. Unique and undeniably elegant, it became an icon of Scandinavian design after it won the prestigious Grand Prix award at the Milan Triennale in 1951, alongside one of his other designs, the Leaf Dish. Crafted from laminated birch and plywood, Wirkkala got his idea for the leaf-shaped wood platter after he visited Soinne et Ki, a company that constructed plywood used for airplane propellers. After seeing that the laminated plywood’s striped edges reminded him of a tree stump’s growth, he was inspired to take an organic design approach through plywood. Leaf Dish was also given the “most beautiful object of the year” award by the American magazine House Beautiful, which helped make his name widely recognized across the United States. Around this time, there were also several exhibits across major cities in the States that focused primarily on Scandinavian designs, with Wirkkala’s works predominantly displayed. A review by the New York Times on a 1952 exhibit at Georg Jensen briefly discussed the Leaf Dish, which had become so popular that it was made into a series: “Mr. Wirkkala… creates wooden blocks by gluing togethering layer on layer of wood, carefully balancing dark and light streaks. From these blocks he scoops rounded, swirling shapes that can be regarded simply as decorative objects or put to more functional use to hold nuts, cookies or a fruit arrangement.”
Wirkkala was appointed as the artistic director for IIttala in 1954, and in the same year he designed his first drinking glassware collection named Tapio, which retained a simple and minimal aesthetic with a distinctive air bubble at the foot of the glass. By the mid 1950s, Wirkkala’s name was highly regarded and it was a common practice for design companies to hire prominent artists at the time. Wirkkala’s portfolio expanded during this period as he worked for several companies including Rosenthal, a German porcelain brand known for their tableware; Asko, a Finnish furniture house; Kultakeskus, one of Finland’s largest metal companies; and Airam, a Finnish manufacturer of lamps and light fixtures.
His contribution to Rosenthal included several tableware collections as well as porcelain vases and other decorative objects. One of Wirkkala’s most successful and popular lines for Rosenthal was the Variation tableware service, which comprised of timeless and classic pieces inspired by Ancient Greece, with the textures of the saucers and bowls reminiscent of the columns seen in Greek temples. Meanwhile, he designed the WIR lightbulb for Airam in 1959, which completely renewed the traditional lamp design and earned him yet another award at the Milan Triennale. The WIR bulb, shaped like a sleek oval and accompanied by a simple black lamp cord, was a multi-purpose design that was suitable for any setting and could be used with or without a shade.
Seeking inspiration from nature had always been a strong starting point and reference in Wirkkala’s earliest designs. In 1959, he bought a summer cottage in Lapland, Finland, which would heavily influence his work from there on. While he began to work between his Helsinki studio and his workshop in Lapland, he found that besides being a quite refuge away from the city, Lapland’s harsh yet breathtaking landscape afforded him more opportunities to observe everyday scenes such as the rippling of water or the movement of a bird’s wings while flapping away. A lot of his prominent works were directly inspired by his love for Lapland, as seen in his bronze and silver pieces for Kultakeskus. Hand-hammered and produced in limited quantities, these included household items such as candlesticks and pitchers with textures and surfaces akin to the fluidity of running water. His passion for working with various metals did not end there as he ventured into jewelry making, which started when he made custom pieces for his wife. Working with the jeweler Nils Westerback, he designed statement jewelry rendered in gold and gold-plated metals such as bronze. Though this only lasted for a short period, some of the very rare pieces include the ‘Silver Moon’ necklace and ‘Half Moon’ pendant, which are believed to be inspired from the Space Age trend of the late 1960s.
Wirkkala once stated: “I believe that material is aiming at something according to its own unwritten laws… and the designer’s job is to direct its movement to this goal.” Always keen to explore more materials and learn how to work with them, he also designed a selection of common household items for the Strömfors company, which were all made from plastic. While plastic was not a new material, it was only around this time that plastic was deemed strong and durable enough for everyday use. His designs included plastic ketchup bottles and shampoo bottles that could also be used as toys. In 1965, Wirkkala went back to working with glass as he was asked to join Venini, a company in Venice known for their Murano glasses. His most prolific work there were his Bolle pieces, which were vibrant-colored bottles in different sizes that utilized the ‘Incalmo’ technique, wherein two different types of blown glass are combined.
One of the most significant events in Wirrkala’s career was in 1969, when Finnair requested him to design their cutlery, china and glassware for the airline’s inaugural flight from Helsinki to New York. He had always been interested by the surface of ice and wanted to give travelers a piece of Finland’s backdrop. The result was the Ultima Thule, a collection of glassware inspired by the melting of ice. The surface was achieved by carving into an uneven graphite mold, then refining the glass-blowing technique to make an ice-like texture on the glass. The glasses became so popular and well-revered that they extended into an Ultima Thule line comprised of glasses in varying sizes, as well as bowls and a pitcher. In 1998, Finnair celebrated its 75th anniversary and relaunched the glasses in their business class cabin.
Up until his untimely death in 1985, Tapio Wirkkala did not stop working and crafting new designs. Today, his designs can be found everywhere from private households in Finland to permanent collections in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His extensive range of work that encompassed different genres and art forms has indisputably earned him the right to be referred to as the father of Finnish design.