The same sentiments applied, albeit more intensely, when Wirkkala made his Milan debut in 1951. Fearful though people were of technology in the post-war era, they also longed for a new way of life. The war had a liberating effect on the women who entered the working world when their male peers were called up for military service. It was equally empowering for many of those men, some of whom had left their birthplaces and encountered people from different backgrounds for the first time. There was a general desire for something new, but not too new.
The meticulously crafted Finnish wooden and glass objects displayed on the whitewashed walls of Wirkkala’s pavilion – which due to material shortage were designed to look “plain and simple, rather than fancy and tasteless”, as he put it – filled the bill perfectly. After winning a Grand Prix at the Triennale, Wirkkala’s plywood platter was named “the most beautiful object in the world” by the US magazine House Beautiful. Gio Ponti, editor-in-chief of the influential Italian design journal Domus, devoted 14 pages to the Finnish Pavilion. Later on Wirkkala’s work was published in Domus in several issues and the journal became a powerful platform for his work.
Wirkkala was invited to curate Finland’s pavilion at the next Milan Triennale in 1954, the year he became artistic director of Iittala. By then, his work had featured in touring exhibitions of Nordic design throughout Western Europe and North America. The exhibition reviews praised Nordic design for its warmth, comfort and modesty. Other designers benefited too, including his fellow Finn Kaj Franck and the Danes, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen and Hans Wegner, but Wirkkala was at the forefront. Not only was his work engagingly romantic in its references to Finland’s folklore, nature and icy climate, he had an unusually strong presence.