Tapio Wirkkala (1915 – 1985) was a Finnish, multi-disciplinary designer of objects in glass, porcelain, silver and laminated wood, all inspired by forms from nature. He remains Finland’s best known designer and sculptor. He also worked in exhibition and graphic design. In fact, his designs, with minor alterations, were on Finnish banknotes from 1955 – 1981, and were then the longest used series of banknotes in the country’s history.
Among Wirkkala’s most famous works are the design for the Finlandia vodka bottle (1970-2000) and for Iittala’s Ultima Thule set of kitchen glasses. Both of these glassware items feature a dripping icicle look. Littala’s popular glassware took thousands of hours to develop the glassblowing technique that produces the effect on the glassware. It’s important to note that Wirkkala did much of his initial design work using a traditional Finnish carving knife, called, the puukko.
Tapio Wirkkala was born in Hanko in South Finland and, with his family, moved to Helsinki in the 1920s. Wirkkala’s drawing skills were noticed early on in his primary school education. He later studied ornamental sculpture at the Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1933 to 1936.
He began his working career as a commercial artist and, during these years, won, among other contests, a design competition held for a postage stamp to commemorate the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, ultimately cancelled because of the onset of World War II.
The war interrupted Wirkkala’s work, but he did participate in several crafts competitions for servicemen. During the war, he sculpted a monument that featured the heraldic lion of Finland and honored the conquest of Petrozavodsk in Russian Karelia by Finnish troops in 1941. This work is presently at the Suomenlinna Fortress in Helsinki.
After winning first and second prizes for a design competition for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Wirkkala’s outstanding industrial designs won top prizes at the Milan Biennales during the 1950s.
A glass design competition held by the Iittala glassworks in 1946 is thought to be the event that set Tapio Wirkkala’s career in motion. The first prize went jointly to him and Kaj Franck. Highlights of his work from the period include the Kantarelli (Chanterelle) vase and other engraved art glass items.
In 1955 and 1956, Wirkkala worked in Raymond Loewy’s New York office and learned about industrial design and mass production. Loewy introduced him to Philip Rosenthal, who invited Wirkkala to design for the Rosenthal factory.
In 1956, Wirkkala began work as artistic director of ‘A-studio,’ the design office of the A. Ahlström Corporation. That office designed products for Iittala, Strömfors, the Eura paper mills, and the Karhula container glass factory. At the same time, Wirkkala began his professional collaborations with the Asko furniture factory, the Upo Appliance Company, and Airam lamp manufacturers.
In 1956, Wirkkala also designed the 275th anniversary exhibition of the Finnish glass industry and a commemorative glass for the occasion. The Smithsonian Institution staged a joint touring exhibition of work by Rut Bryk and Tapio Wirkkala from 1956 –1958.
Wirkkala designed the Finnish department of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and won first prize for Habitation 2000, a competition on future urban development. The Kalvola memorial to the war dead, completed by Wirkkala in 1958, was one of Finland’s earliest abstract works of public sculpture.
In 1959, Wirkkala bought a summer residence in Inari in Lapland. This area became a source of inspiration for many of the artist’s objects. These include the Paadarin jää (Ice of Paadar) glassware collection that received the Grand Prix in Milan in 1960.
In the 1960s, he created bracelets for Westerback Oy that featured highly textured surfaces hammered in 14k gold. The negative spaces of his link bracelets look like craters on the surface of a corrugated planet.
Wirkkala’s gold pendants were modern interpretations of Viking and Lapp masks with dangling chains. Experimenting with moving parts, his “Silver Moon” concentric circle earrings and pendants were produced by Kultakeskus Oy in 1970.
Wirkkala designed many utilitarian products that do not bear his name including plastic toilet seats, wall sockets, light bulbs, and ketchup bottles. His legacy of careful design to everyday objects is perhaps what endears him most to the Finnish people and makes him unique among internationally lauded designers.
In 1966, Wirkkala established his own studio, Design Tapio Wirkkala and produced his first colored glass objects for the Venini glassworks. In the late 1960s, he created a unique collection of jewelry, which were originally designed for his wife.
His output was immense: designing glassware, stoneware, jewelry, and furniture for mass production, as well as individual sculptures in several disciplines.
Tapio Wirkkala received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in 1971 and the following year the honorary Finnish title of academician.
In 1972, Wirkkala held a solo exhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London and designed an exhibition of Finnish glass for the Stedelijk Museum, where he also had a solo exhibition in the following year. In 1973 Wirkkala was invited to participate in the São Paulo Biennial.
In 1975, participants in the Helsinki CSCE summit were given a bowl designed by Tapio Wirkkala and made by the Kultakeskus Company. That same year, he began collaborating with the TANE Orfebres silver factory in Mexico and designed jewelry and tableware items for them.
Tapio Wirkkala was a designer whose works shattered the boundaries among arts, crafts and the visual arts. He was also an encouraging teacher who created an impressive range of work in a wide range of materials. He died 19 May 1985.
“The artist gets his fulfillment in the shape he has achieved and in overcoming the technical problems involved.” – Tapio Wirkkala.