What is Finnish design? Is it all it's cracked up to be or just a myth?
Ever since the 1930s Finnish design has followed two guiding principles: practicality and beauty. As wood, metal, fabrics, leather, clay, glass and plastic were moulded into shape in the thoughts and hands of artists, the results were furniture, garments, kitchen utensils and tableware, machines, tools and many other articles.
Traditional methods of working material are respected, but not so rigidly that the boldness to abandon them cannot be found when they no longer seem to be inspiring creation. One thing that has never been compromised on, however, is solid handicraft skill, whatever material is used. Many artists have produced splendid results with several different materials.
On the international scene, the best-known names in Finnish design have for decades been Aino and Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva. Other artists have left their mark in the shape of their products, even though their names may have been forgotten.
Glass is the most fascinating material that the Finns have formed, and it has earned a world-wide reputation for Finnish design as a whole. "Simple" and "sophisticated" are two words frequently associated with Finnish glass. Since the 1950s it has been compared to Italian, which has been made since the Middle Ages and thus rests on the oldest glassmaking tradition in Europe.
By comparison, Finnish glassmaking is of recent origin: the first glass factory was opened only about three centuries ago and the oldest still in operation, Nuutajärvi-Notsjö, opened its doors a mere 204 years ago.
International exhibitions have made Finnish design and glass well-known around the world, but they have also brought the high standard of our artists to the notice of consumers in their own country. That was especially true of the Milan Triennales in the 1950s. After the hardship and suffering that the second world war had brought and the enormous war indemnity that had had to be paid afterwards, national self-esteem got a much-needed boost when Finnish designers won so many prizes at the Triennales. When they came home with their gold and silver medals and their Grand Prix awards, they were acclaimed in a manner worthy of Olympic victors.
Finnish glass was traditionally either clear or green until the 1950s, when a whole range of colours were added as new tinting techniques were eagerly experimented with in factory laboratories. The 1960s and early 1970s brought a cornucopia of new shapes. Several designers developed new surface decorations and the factories put out new ranges in a constant flow.
Engraved, cut and filigreed glass articles are the pride of manufacturers in several other countries. Many Finnish artists have also designed products of this kind, but alongside blown and moulded glass they have never amounted to anything but a tiny share of output.
Glassmaking requires a lot of energy and the oil crisis in 1973 hit the industry hard. Costs had to be slashed by simplifying forms and cutting out colours. Higher prices impeded sales both in export markets and at home. The big factories rationalised their production, retaining only the most profitable lines. On the other hand, new actors appeared on the glassmaking scene as skilled artisans set up their own little operations, often located close to major highways and doubling as tourist attractions. As they enjoyed a refreshing cup of coffee, visitors could look through a glass partition wall and observe the glassmaking operation - then buy some of the articles to take with them as souvenirs.
Alongside durability and practicality, one of the central aims in designing everyday articles has been a high aesthetic standard. Mass production of utility glassware has gone hand-in-hand with manufacturing art articles in small series. The same artists who have designed inexpensive ranges for everyday use have also been able to present delightful unique pieces from time to time. An open-minded approach to experimentation has enabled glass to gain serious acceptance as a legitimate sculptural material.
All Finnish glass artists cooperate closely with glass blowers, and many of them are quite skilled at this craft themselves. At the big glass factories, however, artists have even their unique pieces blown by master artisans. Since the 1960s the studio glass idea, which means artists blowing objects to their own designs in their own workshops, has spread from the United States to Europe, including Finland.