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In focus: The Aalto Vase

It looks as striking today as it did when it was launched almost 80 years ago. Stephen Doig talks to Finnish glassware specialist Iittala about the story of its most iconic product

Stephen Doig

Feature

by Stephen Doig

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With its fluid curves and graceful lines, it’s a piece of design that looks thoroughly 21st-century modern. That’s why it’s so staggering to learn that Iittala’s beautiful Aalto vase is some 78 years old, having been created in 1936 by the Finnish design masters Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino Marsio. Going on to become a Scandinavian icon, the Aalto vase is regarded as a key piece in the development of a distinctive Finnish style during the 20th century. And it’s a testament to the timeless nature of the vase that today, in a rainbow array of colours, it still looks contemporary and relevant.

‘I think the key to the Aalto’s success is the fact it’s remained completely timeless,’ says Nina Colliander, communications manager for Iittala. The company’s first small glassworks was established in 1881 by Petrus Magnus Abrahamsson in the small Finnish town of the same name, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that Iittala was inspired to produce the artistic pieces for which it has since become known.

In 1936, the renowned architect, designer and sculptor Alvar Aalto submitted a design for a vase, created with his wife, into a competition being run by Iittala to find pieces to display at the Paris world expo the following year. It won, and soon there was one on every table at Helsinki’s elegant Savoy restaurant, for which Aalto had created custom fittings. This link earned the design its original title, the Savoy vase, but gradually it came to be known by the name of its creator. ‘At the time, that shape and the clear form were very striking and revolutionary. No one had created anything like it,’ comments Colliander.

The vase’s unique, flowing shape was, according to Colliander, inspired by a native Finnish tradition. ‘Aalto looked to the shape of the skirt worn by Sami women. Sami people are indigenous to northern Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden and Finland – and Aalto was inspired the shape of their long leather skirts.’ The initial prototype of the vase used a method of allowing the glass to expand while it was being blown to create the series of wavy lines. ‘It was displayed at the 1937 Paris World Fair – and it’s been produced every year since. Every spring we introduce the vase in a different colour, but the shape and the methods involved in making it remain the same.’

It takes seven craftspeople a full 30 hours to create an Aalto vase, in a delicate process that Colliander refers to as ‘a carefully choreographed dance, each gesture and assignment working together to make the piece’. The process – 12 stages in all – starts in the original factory in Iittala, where a mixture of sand, sodium and calcium carbonate is heated to 1,100 degrees Celsius to create molten glass. The glass mass is then shaped on to a blow pipe using a wooden paddle, and textured using cardboard and a wooden block. Next the piece is inserted into a mould to be blown in the distinctive Aalto shape. Finally, it’s slowly cooled, cut and polished – every step completed by hand.

The process remains virtually the same as when the vase was created so many years ago. ‘It has really become an icon of Finnish design and of our brand,’ says Colliander. ‘We’re proud to have created something that sits alongside world-leading design pieces and still looks as beautiful today as it did when it was created.’

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