Tapio Wirkkala - The Soul of Finland

Born in Hanko, 1915-1985, a costal town in Southern Finland, Tapio Wirkkala is known as the versatile genius of design and no one yet has surpassed his influential and wide ranging portfolio of work. His contribution to design includes everything from designing banknotes for the Finnish currency during the 1950s to glass products, furniture, graphic design, city planning, artwork and many everyday products.

One of Wirkkala's sayings was: “All materials have their own, unwritten laws……. One should never be violent with a material one is working on and the designer should aim at being in harmony with the material he chooses.” Tapio Wirkkala is the symbolic figure of Finnish design.


Kantarelli 1946

Pendant 1971

Tapio was a reclusive, understanding nature to its core and from nature, he took many elements into his design solutions. His life was incredibly productive. Representing his country in numerous exhibitions all over the world but his most loved place was hidden away, in the vast woodlands of middle Finland. He lived in the forest for many months of the year, it was so remote that a helicopter had to throw down the design prototypes to his hut as no car could reach him. It was in nature that Wirkkala found the solitude he loved so much and where he looked for forms to inspire his art and design work.

Sculpture ‘Whirl’ laminated birch 1954

He was not one to look for fame and medals, even though he had won many awards during his lifetime, Grand Prix medals, Gold medals, Honorary acknowledgements and many more.

Wirkkala was an artist of exceptional diversity. For him no material was alien and he left no area of design unexplored. Although his artwork and unique objects are to be found in the world’s leading museums, Finns have used his anonymous utility objects for decades, such as his plastic ketchup bottles. 
Tapio Wirkkala’s design from the 1950’s reflects nature’s own forms – such as leaves, mushrooms and melting ice. These forms with pure and elegant contours are easily recognized in the laminated birch dishes made in a technique called aeroplane veneer. Wirkkala also used plywood for larger art sculptures. One of his plywood pieces was voted as the most beautiful object of the year in 1954. Wikkala was also artistic director of the University of Arts and Design in Helsinki for many years.

1960’s vase for Kultakeskus

Leaf platter ‘The most beautiful object’' voted 1951 by House Beautiful magazine

As an artist, Tapio Wirkkala was a craftsman who learned the properties of his materials by working them on his own as well as with skilled assistants. Wirkkala was ultimately a sculptor for whom his own cellar workshop was the most important studio. This was his alchemists chamber, from which he drew ideas and found new inspiration. 
In 1946 Wirkkala won his first design award in a competition organized by Iittala. He was made artistic director of the company and begun a lifelong relationship with the glassworks.

Ultima Thule 1968

His Ultima Thule glass series resembles melting ice during the first spring days. It took IIttala many hundreds of hours to figure out how to capture the design in a production process. The result was worth it as the series is still popular all over the world.

Tapio 1952

The Tapio glass is a classic never surpassed with it’s harmonious lines and intricate bubble blown into the stem. This is also produced by Iittala glassworks in the South of Finland.

Wirkkala also designed for other international companies, for example glass for Venini and ceramics for Rosenthal.

Pollo 1970’s for Rosenthal

Vases and birds for Rosenthal

The Milan Triennale was the first international arena for him. Here his job was to represent his country. This was the number one design event after the war, trying to show Europe a way out of the hardship. In 1951, Finland had nothing more than a pile of wood planks and a number of helping hands to aid Wirkkala in building the Finnish Pavilion in Milan. With this, Wirkkala was to represent his country’s design vision. The night before the grand opening, someone wrote in the sawdust ‘Viva Finlandia’. That year the Finnish Pavilion won Wirkkala three Grand Prix medals and another three for his Triennale contribution in 1954 and again in 1960 and so on. Many more exhibitions and medals followed during his career, amongst them the first prize at the World Fair in Brussels in 1957. The modernist building of the Triennale can still be admired in Parco Sempione in central Milan.

X frame table 1958

There are not many who can come close to the tenacity and virtuosity of Wirkkala. It was his astute observation of nature and a light hand that made him the master, quickly recognized.

During his career, Wirkkala has participated in many international exhibitions and not for nothing, there is a very comprehensive, well illustrated book about his work; Eye, Hand and Thought by Marianne Av.

Tapio Wirkkala, the man from the land of the Midnight Sun.

Bolle bottles 1966-76 for Venini

  Awards and Distinctions
  • 1th and 2d place, Bill Designing Competition of Bank of Finland 1947
  • 4 awards, Designing Olympic Stamps 1951
  • 3 Grand Prix, Milan 1951
  • 3 Grand Prix, Milan 1954
  •  Lunning Prize 1951
  • Order of the Lion of Finland -medal 1955
  • 1st place, the World Fair in Brussels 1957
  • Society of Industrial Arts Medal of the Year 1958
  • Grand Prix and Gold Medal, Milan 1960; Silver Medal, Milan 1963
  • Domus Golden Obelisk, Milan 1963
  • Gold Medal of the President of Italy, Faenza International Ceramics Competition 1963, 1966, 1967, 1969 and 1973
  • Premio Internazionale Vicenza 1963, 1966 and 1967
  • Honorary Royal Designer of Industry, London 1964
  • Honorary Prize, the Finnish Cultural Foundation 1968
  • Honorary doctorate, Royal College of Arts, London 1971
  • Honorary Member of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London 1971
  • Academy of Finland's honorary title of academician 1972
  • Toesto organization's medal for Creative Work 1980
  • Prince Eugen Medal, Stockholm 1980