Behind the giant

Interview: Matilda Kivelä, Photography: Kaisa Sojakka and Nina Merikallio
Dark red glass piece on a white background

As the collaborator—and wife—of the late Timo Sarpaneva, Marjatta Sarpaneva had a front-row seat to the history of Finnish design—particularly in glass—for decades. And she has recorded it all. We met her at the family’s private gallery to hear stories about Timo Sarpaneva and the beauty of glass.

a close up of a red glass piece

On Timo Sarpaneva’s artistry and his Claritas range

“As an artist, Timo Sarpaneva was truly born at the Iittala glass factory. It was heaven on earth for him. I didn’t know him when he was young, but every time he stepped into the factory, he shed his years like a dusty shroud and became a beaming youngster again. I often accompanied him to the factory just to witness this amazing metamorphosis. He lived in symbiosis with the factory and its workers. When he was creating Claritas, he worked day and night with the glass-blowers. He slept at the factory on emergency stretchers in periods of fifteen minutes and instructed the boys at the factory to bring him chocolate and salty liquorice for when he woke up. Heikki Punkari, Timo’s right-hand man, remembers the making of Claritas fondly. Together they made sixty-four variations of the Claritas technique over six weeks, and each one was a masterpiece of its own.”

On Timo’s process

“The possibilities and constraints of glass-blowing restrict what a designer can do, but Timo was always excited to work within the different limits imposed by the fickle nature of glass as a material. He could do quick pivots and redo his plans in reaction to the expert opinion of the factory’s glass-blowers, to keep the outcome as close to his sketches as possible. It’s impossible to force glass to work in a certain way—it might not fill your mould like you’d want it to, or it might not bend into the exact direction that you want. People often think that art glass-blowing and industrial glass-blowing happen within the same framework, but they are two different things. In industrial design, the objects need to be made rationally, and plans need to be changed according to the limitations of the techniques and the materials that you work with.”

See through glass piece with a flower on a white backround

On the cult of the designer

“When educating new and young designers, overemphasising the importance of the designer is the worst mistake one can make. Putting designers on a pedestal has been one of the fundamental flaws in how we have told the story of design in Finland. It makes me furious. The designer is just a part of the team. He can’t exist if he doesn’t have a team behind him at the factory, all working towards a common goal. Take, for example, a composer. If he writes a score, it’s a piece, but if nobody plays it, it’s just a mute sheet. Designing is based on the same principle. Without a team, it’s all a mere sketch. Timo was a brilliant artist, but he would have never allowed anyone to belittle his team or erase them from the narrative.”

On glass as a material

“Everything about glass is magical. It’s astonishing to think that glass is, in essence, just dirt—practically the same dirt that we walk on. The way in which glass is manoeuvred is magical in itself, too. Have you ever thought about the role that water or gravity or centrifugal forces play? It’s like something out of a fairy tale! You don’t have to read the Brothers Grimm, just visit a glass factory.”

a white pot with a flower in a white background

Everything about glass is magical

Sarpaneva designs