Tapio Wirkkala

Tapio Wirkkala studied sculpture at the Helsinki Central School of Industrial Design from 1933 until 1936, but he was also a self-studied artist in many areas, including glass design.

TAPIO WIRKKALA (1915-1985)

Wirkkala was born in Hanko Finland in 1915. He born into a family of designers and artists. His father, Ilmari Wirkkala, was a cemetery architect, and his mother Selma was a wood-carver. His sister Helena and brother Tauno were also artists.

Tapio Wirkkala studied sculpture at the Helsinki Central School of Industrial Design from 1933 until 1936, but he was also a self-taught artist in many areas, including glass design.

Wirkkala's work ranges from commercial designs for refrigerators and plastic ketchup bottles, to metalware, glassware, ceramics and plywood in a range of styles. His most prominent success was as a glass designer. In 1946, he designed for the glass factory Iittala where the mass-produced Tapio collection was launched in 1954.

Wirkkala gained worldwide success in 1951 at the Milan Triennial, where he received three Grand Prix awards: for the exhibition architecture, glass design and wooden sculptures. Many of his glass works he designed for Iittala were awarded also later in the 1950s at the Milan Triennial. His immense range also included glassware, stoneware, jewelry, and individual sculptures. He also designed the Finnish markka banknotes which were introduced in 1955. 

Among his most famous mass production work has been the designs for the Finlandia vodka bottle (1970-1999) and for Iittala's Ultima Thule set of kitchen glasses. Both glassware items feature a dripping icicle quality that is said to have technically taken thousands of hours to develop produce the desired effect.

Other important commissions include his work at the Rosenthal porcelain factory in Germany where he worked as a freelance designer for almost 30 years. The most important result of this collaboration was the Paper Bag vase (1977) which is still today one of Rosenthal’s best selling products.

For Wirkkala, the most important materials were wood and glass – he never ceased to explore the possibilities they offer. Tapio Wirkkala was also a furniture designer and a sculptor. While he  started his career as a sculptor in the 1930s, he but all but abandoned the traditional sculpture in the post-war years. In the early 1950s, alongside with other works, he started to develop an entirely new relationship with sculpture exploring techniques and processes, no doubt a result of working many years with large scale producers and manufacturers. The result was a series of unique plywood sculptures which combined form and movement with vibrant, densely striated surfacing of plywood. Wirkkala’s sculptures represented a new kind of abstraction which departed from the Finnish art scene of the times that relied mostly on traditional commissions of monuments and heroic sculptures.

His work is featured in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art NY.