Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) can be described as one of the icons of Finnish design and a symbol of the international success of postwar Finnish design. He was a versatile designer and artist who could shift fluently between different materials and crossed established professional boundaries: he worked on everything from refrigerators to banknotes and from furniture to striking jewels.
The most important materials for Wirkkala as an artist were wood and glass and he never ceased to explore the possibilities they offer. Wirkkala gained world-wide success in 1951 at the Milan Triennal, Italy, where he received three Grand Prix awards: for the exhibition architecture, for the glass design and for the wooden sculptures. Wirkkala was a self-studied artist in many areas, and also in glass design. In 1946 he designed one of his most famous works, the Kantarelli vase, for Iittala. Wirkkala designed for Iittala many art pieces, most of which were awarded in the 1950s at the Milan Triennal. The Ultima Thule glassware range, created in 1968, is based on the so-called ice glass technique, and the designer himself was involved in developing it at the Iittala glass factory. Ultima Thule was a work commissioned by Finnair, that wanted a glassware range for the new route from Helsinki to New York in 1969. Ultima Thule has become one of Iittala’s most popular glassware ranges and it shows very well Wirkkala’s view according to which simple objects are the ones that require most work. The first mass production glassware range designed by Wirkkala was the Tapio series, which was launched in 1954. Tapio Wirkkala received also important commissions from abroad: in the middle of the 1960s Wirkkala started to design glass objects for Venini Glassworks, in Italy, where he created the Bolle bottles for the Venice Biennale collection in 1966. One of Wirkkala’s most important commissions abroad was the work at the Rosenthal porcelain factory in Germany. From that a freelance relationship started which lasted nearly thirty years and whose most important result is the Paper bag vase (1977), still today one of Rosenthal’s best selling products. Tapio Wirkkala is also renowned for his innovative use of wood in furniture design. The eye-catcher X-frame table was designed by Wirkkala in 1958 and is today manufactured by Artek. Tapio Wirkkala was also a sculptor. He started his career as sculptor in the 1930s, but abandoned the traditional sculpture in the post-war years. At the beginning of the 1950s, alongside with other works, he started to develop an entirely new relationship with sculpture and a new technique to be used. As a result, unique plywood sculptures were created and they combined form and movement in the vibrant, densely lineated surface of light plywood. Wirkkala’s sculptures represented exceptional abstractism and gave to Finnish sculpture art a new direction at a time when the official line preferred monuments and heroic sculptures.