Alvar Aalto certainly earned his title as the “father of modern Finnish design” but Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) deserves credit for raising the movement up right. Wirkkala’s designs celebrated nature and spoke to the inherent rugged beauty in 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. Lacking a tradition of lavishness or luxury, Finnish designers were able to embrace the concepts of clean lines and truth to materials, and to combine these with a naturalist craftsman feel.
Wirkkala 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 craft that he would often carve the molds for his pieces by hand. This unusual level of personal skill ensured that the hand of the designer was always hinted at in the final product, and allowed Wirkkala more control over the surfaces and textures of each piece than if he were to simply hand over a stack of flat sketches to be interpreted by the factory foreman.
Elegant carved wood and sophisticated chunky glass may first come to mind when we think of Wirkkala’s greatest contributions to the design world, yet for many years his most widely recognized work was 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 Wirkkala’s time in New York during the mid 1950s, while he was working for industrial designer Raymond Loewy. This was the era of streamlined, motion-inspired design, and Wirkkala looked to the innovative form of the jet, particularly the wing, to inform the collection. In addition to accessorizing the lifestyle of international jet-setting, Wirkkala designed many utilitarian products that do not bear his name, such as 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, Wirkkala 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.
The Finnish landscape was the inspiration behind the Ultima Thule collection, which was comprised of vases, glasses and pitchers cast to look like eternally melting ice. The original molds for the collection were hand carved by Wirkkala in wood, so that the first pouring of hot dripping glass altered the mold as it ran down the sides, creating a distinctive dripping effect.
The Bolle collection made beautiful use of incalmo, the Italian technique that uses two or more colors for blown glass. Wirkkala worked very closely with the master glassblowers of Vinini to perfect these colors and blow the glass as thin as possible. Whether working with wood or fine crystal, using his own hands or directing a master Murano glassblower, Wirkkala was dedicated to making art out of the everyday object.