Hands that see

Text: Matilda Kivelä, Photo: Bryan Saragosa
Red hot piece of molten glass on a blowing stick

We visit the Iittala factory with one of Finland’s finest glass-blowers, Heikki Punkari—who grew up at the factory and has worked with the likes of Timo Sarpaneva —to discover the magic of molten glass and what it takes to become a master of this craft.

The factory door is open; snowflakes are falling on the concrete floor. Furnaces are tirelessly churning out molten glass that looks just like lava.

The temperature rises when we reach the factory’s glass-blowing platform, but when I mention it, Heikki Punkari, one of Finland’s finest glass-blowers, lets out a deep laugh. “Oh no, it’s not hot any more. You should’ve been here in the sixties!” We’re taking a stroll along the glass-blowing platform, avoiding the red-hot globes of molten glass. Glassmaking is a silent process, a well-thought-out choreography performed by men and women in sweatpants and t-shirts, their foreheads adorned with beads of sweat. They quietly reach deep inside the furnaces to extract a small amount of the glowing mass with the tips of their pipes. The blowers tame the blasting open fires into working with them, not against them. The sheer danger of this activity sets the tone for the show, and if you’re not attentive you’ll miss the delicate choreography hidden in it. Every movement seems completely organic and timed to the very second. As soon as one glass post swings past, another follows it. Seeing skilled glass-blowers craft molten glass is hypnotising. The malleability of the material makes it look like soft and supple plastic. In the moulds, it spills over wildly, before it’s blown and pressed into its final shape.

Heikki Punkari a Finnish glass-blower

This is where every Aalto vase is modelled by hand and mouth according to the original drawings. A few metres away, delicate glass birds, originally designed by Oiva Toikka, are born, their heads precariously joined to their bodies in a combined effort from two glass-blowers. The tasks change, but the same care and intensity are applied to each object.

Heikki is at home here. His career at the Iittala factory started when he took a summer job cutting the factory’s lawn. Indeed, his family has a long connection with the company—his grandmother worked in the packing unit and his father Kosti was one of the factory’s most revered glass-blowers—and Heikki has been visiting the factory since before he can remember. He says he’s always been completely enamoured by glass. When asked what’s the best thing about the material, he pauses for a while, and then replies with a simple, yet all-encompassing “everything”. Over his nearly fifty years at the factory, he’s seen it in its heyday, worked day and night experimenting with Timo Sarpaneva and witnessed changes in both the industry and the craft. Some things never change, though. “The talk in the locker room still revolves around ice hockey and affairs of the heart,” he laughs coyly, quickly changing the subject.

Every Aalto vase is modelled by hand and mouth

Heikki Punkari blowing glass

Each bird is a combined effort from two glass-blowers

A form of artistry confined within the framework of industrial production, glass-blowing teeters on the line between creativity and engineering, and although glass-blowers are often seen as craftspeople, rather than artists, artistic experimentation is both encouraged and supported at the Iittala factory. Every glass-blower has the chance to work on their own art glass after hours and utilise the factory’s endlessly huffing and puffing furnaces. That, according to Heikki, is the only way to ensure that the glass-blowers keep improving their skills and maintain their love affair with glass. To him, it is essential for their profession to keep on reinventing their skills—and for that, they need the freedom to experiment with their hands. Although the glass-blowers work according to detailed instructions and drawings from the designers, each object is adorned with the personal touch of each worker. The hands equipped with the most discerning visual sense produce unique pieces of glasswork. As Heikki says, each great glass-blower has a keen eye for the fickle ways of glass—and hands that see.