No one who has watched sand transformed by heat into glass can have failed to be amazed, and when that glass is then shaped according to the ideas of some of Finland’s leading creatives, the results seem almost magical. The country has a 300-year history of glassmaking, a rich heritage whose legacy can be admired daily in the shops and design museums of Helsinki and beyond.
Among the names to look out for is that of Iittala. Its roots date back to 1881, when a glass factory was established in a village of the same name in the south of the country. It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that a new wave of designers began to take the company in a strikingly modern, and distinctively Finnish, direction. As Siru Nori, international PR manager at Iittala, explains, ‘Pioneers such as Alvar Aalto, Aino Aalto and Kaj Franck led the development of the brand. Their belief was that objects should always be designed with thought, and made available to everyone. It was their thinking that set the foundation for the Iittala design philosophy: to push the boundaries and to give people beauty and function.’
One of Iittala’s most famous products is the Aalto vase, whose rippling, free-form design still looks as avant-garde today as when it was first issued 80 years ago, especially in its 2016 anniversary colours of emerald green and soft grey. These mouth-blown vases are not, however, the oldest members of Iittala’s portfolio. That accolade goes to the Aino Aalto tumbler, created in 1932 and inspired by the rings created by a rock thrown into water.
Names to know
Iittala’s association with many of the 20th-century’s most progressive names in design – not just the Aaltos and Kaj Franck, but also Tapio Wirkkala, and later Oiva Toikka and Timo Sarpaneva – has left a lasting impression on its product range. The desire to focus on durable products designed to bring enjoyment to everyday life lies behind both Toikka’s tactile Kastehelmi collection, which remains one of Iittala’s most popular despite being launched in 1964, as well as more recent pieces such as Ilkka Suppanen’s colourful Kaasa candle holders.
‘Iittala design does not shout at you, but in a simplified, elegant way, it fits the surrounding environment in many countries, many lifestyles and many life stages,’ says Nori. ‘We believe in lasting design that feels at home in all times.’
Simple yet beautiful
It’s a similar story at Muurla, where co-owner Julia Uoti explains the brand’s simple yet practical design ethos. ‘A lot of our ideas are drawn from unspoiled Nordic nature,’ she says. ‘The philosophy is to strive to create functional yet beautiful items for people and their homes.’
Uoti’s grandfather and an associate founded their glassworks in the small settlement of Muurla, about halfway between Helsinki and Finland’s former capital of Turku, in 1974. There they produced small decorative items, some of which are still in production. Since then, the company has expanded its repertoire considerably. The past five years has seen the addition of a range of colourful enamelware – enamel being a form of glass – along with wooden trays featuring images of Finnish wildlife.
Breaking the mould
Muurla’s covetable selection of glassware, mouth-blown, pressed and moulded, now includes everything from etched double-walled tumblers designed for hot drinks to candlesticks and tealight holders to help brighten long winter nights. ‘My favourite piece is probably the flower ball,’ says Uoti. ‘It has a simple, yet functional design, since it takes care of the watering of plants for you on its own. This is pretty close to our core philosophy: simple and functional, yet nice to look at.’
It’s a description that could be applied to all of Muurla’s products, such as the classic Eva vase, with its organic crumpled look, which has been in production for around 30 years. Then there are longstanding collaborations with designers such as Jouko Rajalahti, whose striking figurines of waxwings inspired Toikka’s birds for Iittala, and Ristomatti Ratia, whose Nostalgie series is both wonderfully romantic and dishwasher safe.
Looking to the future
Not that Muurla is stuck in the past by any means, and its in-house designers, working closely with the production side of the business, continue to innovate. Among its newest pieces are the Rag Rug carafe and glasses decorated with a print from cutting-edge Finnish designer Teuvo Loman; the new but timelessly sleek O pitcher, in grey or white; and the Veneer vase with its ‘belt’ of pale wood. ‘We want to offer stylish, functional and high-quality items made, as much as possible, using Finnish materials,’ says Uoti.
It’s a perfect echo of Iittala’s championing of ‘timeless design that will never be thrown away’. And in our ever-busier and more complicated world, that quest for simple, enduring quality increasingly strikes a chord.