Finland’s Finest—Meet The Men Of Iittala

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Iconic tabletop company Iittala’s roots go all the way back to 1881, when it was founded as a small village glass workshop outside of Helsinki. Today you’ll find a piece of Iittala in nearly every home in Finland, and in many, many design conscious abodes all over the world. So how does a brand go from rural factory to a global glass powerhouse?

In the early years, the company diligently turned out practical wares for homes throughout the region. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Iittala evolved into the brand we know today, starting with designer collaborations. In the 1950s, Finnish design flourished in parallel with the rapid industrialization of the country, and with it Iittala tapped the country’s rising talent to create innovative, distinctly modern design for the home. From starchitects to masters of stagecraft, Iittala has partnered with some of Finland’s (not to mention the world’s) greatest creative talent. Here’s a quick look into the stories (and the people) behind some of the brand’s best-loved wares:

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Alvar Aalto

Architect Alvar Aalto left an indelible mark on the Finnish landscape—during his lifetime he realized more than 300 of his designs, including factories, apartments, churches, and civic and cultural centers. Credited with pioneering functionalism in Finland, his prolific career was exceptionally varied, evolving from Nordic Classicism to International Style Modernist structures. But even those who haven’t made a trip to Helsinki will almost certainly recognize Aalto’s work. His stools for Artek are practically ubiquitous and his work for Iittala includes one of the company’s most iconic designs. The eponymous Aalto Vase is sometimes said to have been inspired by the topographic curves of Finnish coastline, while some believe that it’s based on Aalto’s drawings of a Sami woman’s dress. What is certain, however, is that since its 1936 debut the vasehas been synonymous with the Iittala brand. Each one is a result of meticulous production methods—it takes seven craftsmen to create one Aalto vase.

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Kaj Franck

Along with Aalto, Kaj Franck is credited as Iittala’s greatest influence. Like his architectural contemporary, Franck espoused a progressive philosophy that defined modern Finnish design. His work shunned ornamentation—everything but a judicious use of color was deemed excessive—in favor of essential shapes stripped down to their most minimal. His most famous work for Iittala, the Teema and Kartio tabletop series represent the elemental forms designed around just three geometrics: a circle, square, and rectangle. Yes, it sounds all very high-minded, but while his work is displayed at museums around the globe, it holds real domestic appeal as well. Beloved for its versatility and practicality, his tabletop makes a timeless statement with its striking simplicity.

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Göran Hongell

Göran Hongell was one of Finland’s finest glass masters of the 20th century, and he largely responsible for imbuing the country’s traditional craft with modern influences. In 1940, he became the first full-time designer hired by a Finnish glass studio, though he had already presented a version of his Aarne glassware in the 1930s. Its distinctly modern shape, with its heavy base and fluted body, was interpreted for every conceivable quaffable: martinis, highballs, champagne, even beer. Each one is an elegant realization of balanced proportions. The design was awarded a gold medal at the 1954 Milan Triennale and has a been an Iittala bestseller ever since.

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Oiva Toikka

It’s not all ice and streamlined silhouettes. Oiva Toikka, a respected glass master as well as a set and costume designer for the stage, defies the austerity that’s often associated with Scandinavian design. The rich biodiversity of Finnish forests and traditional folk art provided fertile ground for his imagination. Toikka is best known for his colorful, one-of-a-kind Bird sculptures (he’s created more than 400 since their 1972 introduction), but his work for Iittala also includes functional glassware that shares that same sense of whimsy. The Kastehelmi collection of tabletop debuted in 1964 and has become one of the brands most recognizable designs. Taking its name from the Finnish word for dewdrops, each pressed glass piece is covered in delicate droplets that catch the light. The result is breathtaking and a bit baroque. What would Franck say? 

Meredith Spencer