DREAMS OF GLASS FLY INTO THE WORLD – Finland Paradise For Glass Lovers

6 02 2010

By Rebecca Libermann

„And since you know you cannot see yourself,

so well as by reflection,

I, your glass,

will modestly discover to yourself,

that of yourself which you yet know not of. „

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

Before Take-Off: Oiva Toikka’s White Whooper Swan, Iittala © Rebecca Libermann

Glass is a wonderful stuff, sturdy and at the same time perishable, malleable and equally unbendable,  for ever fascinating in all its formations and transformations, mirroring our dreams and expressing our flights of phantasy.

In 2010, Oiva Toikka (born 1931) known for his glass birds, soars again. The Design Museum in Helsinki will celebrate his career of 50 years as a glass designer for Iittala and offers 30 May – 19 September 2010 a major retrospective of his work. Reason enough to look at Finland the paradise of glass.

Finlandia Vodka Bottle designed by Wirkkala (1970-2000)

Which are Finland’s best-known glass objects in the world. Right! Tapio Wirkkala’s Finlandia Vodka bottle and Alvar Aalto’s wavy „Savoy vase“ from the 1930’s, still manufactured in ever-changing forms, materials, techniques and colours by Iittala.

The “Aalto vase” as it’s now called, rumored to be inspired by the shape of Aalto’s wife Aino’s undies lying on the floor, is as popular and versatile as ever.

Designed for the luxury Savoy restaurant in Helsinki and the Paris World Fair 1936,the vase launched Finnish glass on to the international scene, where it staid on until now, taking to the sky with the ever-expanding menagerie of birds by the Finnish glass artist Oiva Toikka and the Italian designer Giorgio Vigna.

Aalto Vase

Finland entered the International stage of glass design relatively late. But it managed better than some of the older, traditional glass producing countries to marry art with functionality, turning art objects into articles of daily use or household goods into sculptures. Maybe it was because Finnish glass designers where not weighted down by centuries of tradition, and very probably the fact that they were multi- disciplinary designers and artist’s played a role, too.

Aalto Flower

What’s more, Finnish glass artists took the material glass, played and experimented with it, sometimes even re-invented it. and  influenced other glass artists all over the world.

Sarpaneva vase

Over the years, glass like Finland’s wood and high-tech became practically part of the country’s national identity. Designer and brand names like Aino and Alvar Aalto, Kaj Franck, Timo Sarpaneva, Tapio Wirkkala and Oiva Toikka are ranking in Finland as in many parts of the world, even today, as high as Finnish icon composer Jean Sibelius, communication giant Nokia or Linux inventor Linus Torwalds, if not higher.  Though in  Finland, a household might very well go without music or computer, but definitely never without some Finnish designer glass.

Wirkkala Bottles

Most of the glass is nowadays manufactured by Iittala, which is practically synonym with Finnish glass design.

Glass has been produced in Finland since the 15th Century, and when Iittala started in 1881 in the town of Iittala in South-Eastern Finland, there were still around 20 glass works left. While in other countries glass art was produced in small studios of the glass artists themselves, Finland’s glass art objects were made almost solely in the major glass works, at least until the last decades. But this has been also one of the main reasons for the success of Finnish glass design.

Broken Dreams - Only perfect birds survive, (Broken Dreams) Nuutajärvi factory/Iittala© Rebecca Libermann

The glass works provided the artists with the security and the freedom to develop their style. They arranged competitions through which young artists received recognition for their work and promoted them on the international scene via the Triennials and World Fairs.

Aino Aalto, Iittala

As to Finnish glassware, its continuing success, from its Golden Years in the 1950’s onward, is due not only to its stylishness and functionalism, but also its timelessness, its rebellion against  throw-away-ism. It’s easy to combine a plate from the 1930’s with a bowl from the 1960’s and a water-glass from the year 2010.  It still matches in colors and form, and, stacked together, it even can form something like a sculpture. But the often-suggested simplicity of Finnish design is deceiving. Often, up to a decade goes into designing the set.

And, as different as all the glass designers are and as abstract their art, nature is a pervasive element in their design. Elements such as ice, wind, water, tree-bark, the contours of a lake, a flower, a mushroom, a fish or a bird appear over and over in Finnish glass art and design, not seldom contrasted by strong and colourful decorations, in particular in glass by Nuutajärvi.

On The Road: Giorgio Vigna’s Red Circoli, Nuutajärvi glass works, Iittala © Rebecca Libermann

Iittala Glassworks, today the Iittala Group, founded in 1881, has played a very important role in the development of the glass industry. Today, it is one of the leading glass factories in Northern Europe producing both glass art and household glass. To the company belongs also the former independent glass factories Humppila and Nuutajärvi, founded already in 1793, the oldest factory still in operation in Finland.

The Nuutajärvi Glass Village is located in the old, picturesque municipality Urjala, about 150 km north of Helsinki. Small studios of art glass designers, a glass school, a glass museum and the Nuutajärvi glass factory are found here, and from here the big, varied flock of flamboyant glass birds by Oiva Toikka and Giorgio Vigna travel to collectors all over the world. Master glassblowers create these collectible works of art by hand, making each bird unique.

A Bird Gets Born: Glass blower at Nuutajärvi glass works © Rebecca Libermann

In 2010, Toikka  will celebrate his career of 50 years as a designer for Iittala and the Design Museum’ in Helsinki will celebrate this playful spirit in Finnish design with a major retrospective.

Toikka Lollipop

Oiva Toikka, “a man of beguiling contradictions”, is one of the most distinguished and prolific names in modern Finnish glass. His imaginative, rich and bold glass art deviates from the streamlined aesthetic of Nordic design. “OivaToikka is a Finnish artist of immense creative talent, vision and versatility, the creator of elaborate compositions and installations, even for theatre and opera stage. Throughout a varied artistic career spanning over half a century, Toikka has worked in glass and ceramics, and has designed stage sets and costumes for the stage, and even textiles for Marimekko”, writes British art historian Jack Dawson in his new book on Oiva Toikka.

Oiva Toikka is known as somebody who has always followed his own path. His colourful and rich idiom of form has gained many admirers, both in Finland and abroad. As an artist and designer, Toikka is a perpetual seeker and experimenter. He began his collaboration with Arabia-Nuutajärvi-Iittala in 1956–1959 with stylized animal sculptures that he created at the Arabia factory’s Art Department. In 1963, Toikka began his work in glass that has continued to the present-day. Alongside ceramics and glass, Oiva Toikka has designed, among other works, textiles, opera sets and costumes, and plastic products.

Oiva Toikka Summer stint

The exhibition at Design Museum presents Toikka’s extensive oeuvre, from his early ceramic sculpture of the 1950s to present-day objects of glass and plastics.

Oiva Toikka uses glass like a painter uses his palette exploring colour, transparency and opacity of glass. Best known to the public are  Toikka’s birds which the glass artist started to design 37 years ago. Since then, every year, Toikka and the skilled glassblowers of Nuutajärvi have breathed life into yet new species of handmade, individual, partly numbered birds and annual eggs. Over the years, hundreds of different types have been created.

Oiva Toikka’s ideas spring from nature and from the artist’s abundant imagination. Toikka’s birds fly around the world, from Finland to the United States and from Central Europe all the way to Japan.

Oiva Toikka at work, Nuutajärvi glass works © Rebecca Libermann

“He possesses one of the richest visual vocabularies in contemporary glass art and is still on a continued voyage of discovery that frequently takes him into uncharted territories…Toikka’s work can be described in many ways – idiosyncratic, extravagant, eccentric, fantastical, colourful, problematic, and, paradoxically, at times whimsical and highly entertaining”, says Jack Dawson,  senior lecturer of the University of Sunderland.

Oiva Toikka and Giorgio Vigna 2007 at Nuutajärvi glass works© Rebecca Libermann

While Toikka is continuing with his new birds collection, Iittala has introduced yet an other new generation of birds in 2007, created by the Italian artist and jewellery designer Giorgio Vigna who works for instance in Murano, Venice, where earlier also the Finnish glass artists Sapaneva and Wirkkala had come to work.

Giorgio Vigna glass bird

“The strength of the birds lies in their primal, elemental drop shape”, explains Vigna his compact, linear bird sculptures, and adds: “These birds are like abstract creatures descended into our world from a land full of dreams and imagination”.


For more information about Oiva Toikka, the artist, there is a wonderful 181 pages book in English out, Oiva Toikka Glass and Design and an other one by Päivi Jantunen Birds . In it, author Jack Dawson explains, how Toikka differs from his contemporaries Sarpaneva, Wirkkala and Franck, and shows Toikka’s inspirations and aesthetic vision. It’s a fascinating story for aficionados of 20th century Finnish design.

Perhaps best of all are the over 150 color photos and illustrations of Toikka’s breathtaking one-off pieces, exhibitions, and glass installations. Jack Dawson, author of this book, is senior lecturer in the history of art and design, University of Sunderland, United Kingdom, where his primary research interests are 20th century international and Scandinavian glass and contemporary applied arts. He is author of Finnish Post-War Glass 1945–1996 (1996) and 75 Years of Swedish Glass Art (2000). The book is published by WSOY, Finland.

There is a new publication on Oiva Toikka, issued in 2010 by the Design Museum, Helsinki, to accompany the exhibition celebrating his 50th year in glass: Oiva Toikka, Moments of Ingenuity. It complements Jack Dawson’s comprehensive, earlier monograph: Oiva Toikka, Glass and Design.

Also worth buying is Celebrating Finnish Glass – Iittala 125, a book published in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of Iittala by the Finnish Design Museum. The book not only covers Iittala’s history, but that of Finnish glass design. It is a journey back to the roots of familiar and less familiar glass treasures found in all around Finland. The delightful book, which contains many pictures, has 272 pages and is published in English, ISBN 952-9878-47-8.

Glass Museum Nuutajärvi with many works by Kaj Franck © Rebecca Libermann

The Nuutajärvi museum is a treasure trove for people searching for old glass and art glass. You can trace the history of the Glass Village since it was founded in 1793. The beautiful museum was designed by Professor Kaj Franck. The museum is open in July from Tuesday to Sunday 12-17.

Wirkkala Bottles

The Finnish Glass Museum in Riihimäki, around 80 km north of Helsinki, is a must for glass lovers. It is a specialist museum focusing on glass design and the history of glass. The museum has operated since 1981 in a renovated defunct glass factory of the former Riihimäki Glassworks, where also classical concerts are held. The renovation was designed by Tapio Wirkkala. The museum presents the history of glass dating back over 4,000 years and the 300-year history of Finland’s glass industry. The permanent collections consist mostly of Finnish household, design and art glass from the 18th – 21th century.

From 11 March to 1 August the museum presents the exhibition Finnish Flass Life 6 – Finnish Glass 2005-2009.

The Finnish Design Museum’s comprehensive and varied collections sheds light on the history and development of Finnish design. The collection comprises over 35,000 objects, 40 000 drawings and 100 000 images. It is also complimented by a registry of over 1 000 designers.

The permanent exhibition of the museum is supported by temporary Finnish and international thematic exhibitions on historical and contemporary design. The museum shows the development of industrial art, artistic handicraft and industrial design from the second half of the 19th century to the present day.

The Iittala Glass Museum is today part of Helsinki’s Design Museum. Only 1-1/2 hours outside of Helsinki you will find the timeless Aalto vase being produced along with other signature glass. The history of Iittala glass is on display with works of such great glass artists as Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva.

Coyright Rebecca Libermann

Glassy View Out, Nuutajärvi museum © Rebecca Libermann