Finnish artist and designer Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) is considered by some to be the “Father of Finnish design.” Trained as a sculptor, he is best known for his clean, modern aesthetic, which became the hallmark of Scandinavian-made decorative and everyday objects. He often employed natural shapes, such as in his icy 1970 interpretation of the Finlandia vodka bottle. Today Wirkkala's works are prized by museums and collectors, fetching increasingly high prices.
At the Forefront of a Design Movement
Tapio Wirkkala began designing beautiful, functional objects in the late 1940s and 1950s, when the Scandinavian design movement that defined much of mid-century applied art was in its infancy. Wirkkala's pieces typically echoed organic shapes and utilized natural materials, adding a modern edge; for example, the wood Wirkkala often employed was laminated industrial plywood. Wirkkala spent much of his life in a log cabin in Lapland in the northernmost part of Finland, where the iciness of the landscape inspired many of his best-known pieces.
Tapio Wirkkala was born on June 2, 1915, to Ilmari and Selma Wirkkala, in the small port city of Hanko in the south of Finland. His father designed monuments, and the young Wirkkala was perhaps inspired by this example. In 1933 Wirkkala entered the Central School of Industrial Design in Helsinki, Finland. He studied sculpture at the school, completing the program in 1936. After graduation, Wirkkala began working as a commercial artist for an advertising agency, strengthening his graphic design skills and competing in design competitions outside of his regular job.
In 1939 Wirkkala's professional career was temporarily suspended by the outbreak of war in Europe. During World War II he served in the Finnish military; however, his artistic career continued throughout the war, when he won two design competitions sponsored by the Finnish army. For the first, he successfully designed a knife using boot leather, antlers, and telephone wire. For the other competition, he followed in the steps of his father, designing a monument, titled Lion, to honor the capture of the Soviet city Petrozavodsk by Finnish forces in 1941. This latter piece is now on display at the Naval College in Helsinki. Wirkkala's prize for these wins was a lengthy leave from the military. While on this leave of absence, Wirkkala met ceramic artist Rut Bryk at a party, and the two married in 1945. The couple would later have two children: a son, Sami, and a daughter, Maaria. Both of Wirkkala's children are themselves involved with the arts, carrying on the family tradition.
World War II was devastating to Finland, and the country was forced to rebuild its postwar economy. The country turned to design as a basis for new development. Writing in the Washington Post, Linda Hales noted that “design— essentially a marriage of art and industry … played off a long tradition of art and craft, which Wirkkala was already busy expressing.” In 1946 Wirkkala began working for the Iittala glassworks in Helsinki; the company later expanded to include other aspects of design, and Wirkkala designed both art glass and commercial pieces that were produced by the company throughout his career. His first major piece for Iittala was Kantarelli (Chanterelle), a glass vase that echoed the shape of the chanterelle mushroom; the piece was exhibited in Milan to much critical praise. Suzanne Slesin commented in the The New York Times that these works “first brought [Wirkkala] international acclaim. The organically shaped pieces came to be thought of as the symbols of the best of Finnish design of the 1950's.” Iittala produced versions of this design through 1960.
Found International Success
In 1947 Wirkkala drew on his skills as a commercial artist to enter a competition sponsored by the Bank of Finland to design new bank notes for the country. His works won both the first and second prizes, and were later produced as currency. A few years later at the 1951 Milan Triennale, a major international design exhibition, Wirkkala again garnered international recognition, this time for his laminated wood serving pieces, where his work won the Grand Prix at the exhibit. One leaf-shaped plywood serving tray caught the eye of Elizabeth Gordon, an editor at the American magazine House Beautiful; the magazine went on to declare the piece “the Most Beautiful Object of 1951.” These nature-inspired serving platters channeled the driving theme of the emerging Scandinavian design movement; Wirkkala's biography in Contemporary Designers stated that Wirkkala “was a product of an age in Scandinavia when the ideal came to be commonly held that ordinary people had a right to a comfortable home that was both functional and esthetically pleasing.”
In 1951 Wirkkala was a co-recipient of the first Frederick Lunning Prize, along with Hans Wegener; the award recognizes outstanding work by Scandinavian designers as selected by their peers. To round out the achievements of this highly successful year for Wirkkala, he was named the artistic director of Helsinki's Central School of Industrial Design; he remained in that position until 1954.
Wirkkala continued to achieve professional and artistic success throughout the ensuing years. On many occasions, Wirkkala or his works served to represent his native land. In addition to the Finnish bank notes of the 1940s, Wirkkala designed four stamps commemorating the 1952 Summer Olympics, which were held in Helsinki. The following year his work appeared in a traveling exhibition put together by the Arts Council of Great Britain. At the Milan Triennale of 1954, Wirkkala not only exhibited but also organized the overall Finnish department of the exhibition, and his work again won a prize. That same year, Wirkkala's work appeared in the United States as part of the traveling “Design in Scandinavia” exhibition. Wirkkala also created the promotional poster and catalogue that supported the exhibition.
In 1955 Wirkkala himself came to the United States to work for a New York City design firm headed by Raymond Loewy. The Smithsonian Institution that year organized a traveling exhibition displaying works by Wirkkala and his wife, a ceramicist. Returning to Europe in 1956, Wirkkala began designing for the respected German design company Rosenthal AG. At about the same time, he established himself as an independent designer. In 1957 he again displayed works at the Milan Triennale, and also won the prestigious Pro Finlandia medal.
Wirkkala helped represent his country on the international stage in 1958, when he organized the Finnish pavilion at Expo 58, popularly known as the World's Fair, in Brussels, Belgium. The artist also exhibited works at this event, winning an award. That same year, some of Wirkkala's works were shown as part of a group exhibition that traveled through parts of South America, including Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay.
A Decorated Career
In 1960 Wirkkala won the Silver Cutlery Prize given by the New York Museum of Contemporary Crafts; his winning work was shown as part of an accompanying exhibition at the museum. He also took top honors at that year's Milan Triennale. Although best known for his glassware, Wirkkala produced other functional pieces. For example, in 1961 he designed a steel and black nylon reinterpretation of the traditional Finnish puukko knife; this piece, manufactured by the respected knife company Hackman, has remained one of his best known designs.
Wirkkala continued to exhibit throughout the 1960s, with significant shows at Amsterdam, Netherlands; Hamburg, Germany; and Kassel, Germany. He also showed at the Milan Triennale in 1964, winning a silver medal. That same year he was recognized by Great Britain's Royal Society of Arts as an Honorary Royal Designer of Industry. In 1965 he created a sculpture that accompanied a jewelry exhibit at Jablonec, Czechoslovakia. During this time, Wirkkala also won numerous awards for his ceramics pieces.
In 1968 the Finnish Cultural Foundation gave Wirkkala an honorary award; the designer also became chairman of the Finnish Government Industrial Arts Commission, a post he held until 1973. That year was also Wirkkala's last time showing at the Milan Triennale. In about 1972, Wirkkala ceased his work designing exhibitions, although he continued to produce artistic pieces.
Throughout his career, Wirkkala designed pieces that reflected the patterns of nature, particularly the shapes and facets of ice. In 1970 he designed a bottle for the Finnish vodka manufacturer Finlandia. Hales noted that “Wirkkala gave it a surface textured like ice, which conveyed all the romance of the Far North.” This piece became perhaps Wirkkala's most recognizable design, and was closely associated with the Finlandia brand for 30 years. In 2000 the company introduced a new design, which some consider to be a lesser artistic work.
Later Years and Legacy
Although Wirkkala became less active during the later 1970s and 1980s, many in the arts communities continued to acknowledge his lifetime of work and furtherance of the Scandinavian design movement. London's Royal College of Art awarded Wirkkala an honorary doctorate in 1971, and the following year he was made an honorary academician in Helsinki. Two Mexican design academies extended honors to Wirkkala in 1982. The Finnish government also made Wirkkala a Knight of the Order of the White Rose, an honorary organization that recognizes meritorious contributions of Finnish nationals.
Wirkkala died on May 19, 1985, at his home in Esbo, Finland, as the result of a heart attack. In 2003 the Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation was established in Helsinki. According to the Foundation's Web site, “The Foundation seeks to pass on the innovative artistic and intellectual legacy of this designer couple to present-day designers.” It holds a large collection of objects and drawings, paintings, and photographs of the works created by Wirkkala and his wife, and boasts many prominent creative and academic individuals on its board of trustees, showing the continued respect and influence of Wirkkala's work more than 20 years after his death. To continue Wirkkala's legacy, the foundation has hosted symposia on topics such as the interconnectivity of design disciplines, the expression of the natural world through art, and the influence of design on culture and society.
Today Wirkkala remains respected as an innovative artist and designer. Many acknowledge his creative influence in the growth and popularity of twentieth-century Scandinavian design; some even call Wirkkala the “Father of Finnish Design.” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Art argued that “Wirkkala combined in his a work a feeling for the stark bleakness of the Lapland wilderness with the beauty of the most modern technology.” The artistic merit of this combination accounts for the esteem in which collectors and design critics hold Wirkkala's work. The continued popularity of his pieces has led to high auction prices. In the twenty-first century, major exhibitions of Wirkkala's work have been staged at design, architecture, and art museums in his native Finland and around the world. Writing in an exhibition catalog that accompanied one of Wirkkala's shows at the Stedelijik Museum, Wil Bertheux suggested, “Let's …be thankful for designers like Wirkkala, who, with love of trade and material, give shape to the everyday things that surround us.”
Contemporary Designers, 3rd ed., St. James Press, 1997.
The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Art, edited by Harold Osborne, Oxford University Press, 1981.
The Stedelijk Museum, Tapio Wirkkala, 1976.
New York Times, May 23, 1985.
Washington Post, May 4, 2003.
“Finnish Designers: Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985), “ Finnish Design, http://www.finnishdesign.fi/designerbio?id=899034 (January 10, 2008).
“Tapio Wirkkala,” http://www.tapio-wirkkala.de/e/index.shtml (January 10, 2008).
“Tapio Wirkkala,” Virtual Finland, http://www.virtual.finland.fi (January 10, 2008).
Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation, http://www.wirkkalabryk.fi (January 9, 2008).