For 70 years now the Iittala factory in Finland has diligently produced Alvar Aalto’s sinuous Savoy vase. Originally part of a housewares collection that Aalto submitted to the Karhula-Iittala design competition in 1936, the vase was first presented at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, where the theme was “Art and Technology in Modern Life.” At the time of its conception, the vase’s graceful enigmatic form challenged the glassblowers who pioneered the making of it. “Back then it didn’t matter how fluently they produced it, because production was far more occasional,” says Paivi Jantunen, former information manager and now consultant at Iittala. This year the industrious little factory located in a quaint Helsinki suburb celebrates 125 years of glassmaking and seven decades of ongoing innovation in the production of Aalto’s legendary vase.
“What does the vase mean to me?” Jantunen asks. “It’s symbolic of a team working together aesthetically and democratically.” A fixture at the factory from 1973 until early this year, Jantunen is a font of information on the social history of Finnish glass. Like many of her former coworkers, she lives nearby in the idyllic factory town and often walks the winding paths to work each morning. On the day of my visit, she leads me through the hot shop, where the glassblowers are maneuvering five-foot-long blowpipes, each with a glob of malleable glass precariously fixed to one end.
“I don’t think Aalto would have designed such a vase if he’d known more about how to make it,” Jantunen says. “The process is a little old-fashioned.” Because there are so many critical moments in the process, she says, every team member is crucial. The six-person group consists of three young blowers (the youngest one is called a “post boy”) who first gather the molten glass from the furnace. They take turns sitting down on a beat-up metal chair, shaping the globule with the aid of a steaming wood cup-shaped block. “There is an intimacy in the process as the blowpipe moves from mouth to mouth,” Jantunen says. A more experienced blower sits on another chair, closer to the center of the small platform where they all work. He further builds and shapes the globule that the post boys prepared. When he’s through, he sets the blowpipe on a mechanical rotator, where it sits in wait for the two master gaffers.
The masters gently hone the final shape with the aid of a steaming rag and then knead the molten glass before setting it into a mold. In Aalto’s time, the wood mold was saturated with water so that the molten glass would adhere to the steam. Today the factory uses a steel mold that by virtue of being a conductor allows the glass to stay in a molten state long enough to form a standardized shape.
“It’s very defined—the choreography—you just watch the glass move,” Jantunen says. “It’s repetitive industrial work but also a craft.” At any given moment, there are approximately five glowing molten globules moving in tandem. The master gaffers set the pace for production by drawing one vase from the mold—about every two minutes—so that a “carrier” may transport the finished piece to the annealer oven, where it cools for several hours.
To mark the vase’s anniversary, the glassblowers are crafting two limited-edition versions of what has become Finland’s most recognizable decorative-arts object. The first, colored in Petrol blue, resembles one of the colors Aalto experimented with in his early designs. The second—more difficult of the pair—is a special two-colored vase composed of white glass lined on the inside with one of five vibrant colors. At the request of the Alvar Aalto Foundation, the latter will bear a clear marking—“Inspired by Aalto”—to distinguish it from the original design.
“Originally the vase was produced in five colors,” Jantunen says. “I think it’s interesting that in the very beginning Aalto used many different colors. There is no exact record, but we know he used the colors that were available to him.” Today the factory molds the vase out of fine quality art glass, but in the 1930s Aalto used batches of colored glass intended for bottles and jars.
In the past 30 years, the factory’s ability to craft utilitarian objects out of colored glass has steadily advanced, due largely to the work of the late Finnish designer Kaj Franck. Franck’s vivid colors became Iittala signatures. For the jubilee year, the company has combined Franck’s colors with Aalto’s form to produce a rather difficult vase that would be impossible to make if not for the evolved skill of the blowers.
In Finland, the source of the vase’s undulating form—which despite Aalto’s fame remains a mystery—is a popular topic of conversation. Some believe he took his inspiration from the geography of the Finnish archipelago and from the maps of his native country produced by his cartographer father. Another legend has it that the title of his competition entry, “The Eskimo Woman’s Leather Breeches,” holds the answer, suggesting that the form resembles the base of a baggy pant leg. Of course no one knows for sure, but in a playful search for an explanation, Iittala has invited several designers to interpret Aalto’s humanistic aspirations as part of its celebration. This winter the company launched a small line of “Inspired by Aalto” items by local talent, and this summer they will launch products by designers of international renown, including the Campana Brothers from Brazil and Japan’s Shigeru Ban.
Worldwide demand for Aalto’s ethereal vase has sustained several generations of glassblowers and contributed to the success of Iittala’s small operation. To date, they have produced millions of vases. The piece reigns as one of Finland’s top exports. Production at this scale, however modest, has required the factory to upgrade its tools. “The finishing work has improved immensely,” Jantunen says. “When you first blow an object you get a mottled top. For much of the first 50 years they chopped it off using a hammer. Now we have a grinder saw that trims it more exactly.”
Aalto himself was more forgiving of such irregularities. “In his time the process was very messy,” Jantunen says. “That’s why older Aalto vases are of a much more irregular quality. They vary in height and the glass is less pure.” Aalto in fact embraced these imperfections, as do many of the enthusiasts who collect his enduring pieces, which serve to remind us that industrial production can be crude, handcrafted, and beautiful. “We can say that architecture always contains human error,” Aalto once said in a lecture, “and in a deeper view, it is necessary, without it, the richness of life and its positive qualities cannot be expressed.”