Alvar Aalto certainly earned his title of “father of modern Finnish design” but Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) deserves credit for raising it up right. His designs celebrated nature and spoke to the inherent rugged beauty its forms. He championed a type of design that was “democratic” because he was, creating soulful, well-crafted, usable objects that never sacrificed functionality for beauty.
Bauhaus brought the world mass-produced modernism, but it was post-war Finland that was ready to carry the torch. Never having had a tradition of lavishness or luxury materials, Finnish designers embraced the concept of clean lines and truth to materials, and combined it with a naturalist craftsman feel.
Tapio was trained as a decorative carver and sculptor, graduating in 1936 from the Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki. He was so adept in his art, that he would often carve the molds for his pieces by hand, including the ones made of metal. This unusual level of personal skill ensured that the hand of the designer was evident in the final product, and allowed him more control over the surfaces and textures of each piece than if he were simply handing over a stack of flat sketches to be interpreted by the factory foreman.
Today, when design consumers think of Tapio Wirkkala we think of elegantly carved wood and sophisticated chunky glass, but for many years his most widely recognized design contributions were the table service for Finnair and the Finlandia Vodka bottle.
The collection for Finnair, particularly the cutlery and the eggcup, were no doubt inspired by Tapio’s time in New York working for Raymond Loewy. This was the era of streamlined, motion-inspired design, and Tapio looked to the innovative form of the jet, particularly the wing, to inform the collection. In addition to accessorizing the heyday of international jet-setting, Tapio designed many, many utilitarian products that do not bear his name: plastic toilet seats, wall sockets, light bulbs, and ketchup bottles. This legacy of careful design paid to everyday objects is perhaps what endears him most to the Finnish people and makes him unique among internationally lauded designers.
As much as he influenced the design of everyday things, Tapio was best known as a glass designer. Among his most memorable collections were Ultima Thule for Littala, a Finnish company, and Bolle for the Italian glass house, Vinini .
Ultima Thule was inspired by the Finnish landscape, with vases, glasses and pitchers cast with the look of eternally melting ice. The original molds for the collection were hand carved by Tapio in wood, so that the first pouring of hot dripping glass altered the mold as it ran down the sides, making the distinctive dripping effect.
The Bolle collection makes beautiful use of incalmo, the Italian technique that uses two or more colors for blown glass. Tapio worked very closely with the master glassblowers at Vinini to perfect the colors and blow the glass as thinly as possible.
Whether working with plastic or fine crystal, his own hands or directing a master Murano glassblower, Tappio Wirkkala was dedicated to making art. High-brow or low, sleek or crafty, he always produced something delightful.