Tracing the spirit of Ultima Thule

Text by Alice Rawsthorn. Photography by Anton Sucksdorff.

So small was the budget for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1951 Milan Triennale that hiring local technicians to build it was out of the question. The pavilion’s designer and curator Tapio Wirkkala had no choice but to construct it himself together with his skilful carpenter. One morning he arrived on site to see that someone had spelt the consoling words “Viva Finlandia” in the dust on a sheet of glass.

 

Finland was still struggling to recover from the trauma of World War II and its aftermath. Wirkkala regarded the Milan Triennale, then the most prestigious global showcase for design, as an opportunity to redefine his country as the source of a new style of modern design, steeped not only in modernist principles, but in Finland’s craft traditions and natural beauty.
 
His strategy proved stunningly effective, not only for Finland and the rest of the Nordic region, but for himself. The Finnish Pavilion established Wirkkala as a gifted, charismatic and resourceful pioneer of a gentler, subtler, more naturalistic interpretation of modernism, which proved hugely appealing worldwide amid the paranoia in the Cold War and atomic age.
 
This was not the first time that modern Finnish design had made its mark internationally. The architect Alvar Aalto, had done so in 1933 by exhibiting his birch plywood furniture at Fortnum & Mason’s, the London department store. Aalto’s designs proved so popular that Britain became his biggest export market, not least because even the most progressive Britons found the curvaceous forms and natural wood of his furniture more appealing than the bold geometrics and cold metal and glass favoured by modernist designers elsewhere in Europe.
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.
 

In 1955, Wirkkala moved to New York to work for Raymond Loewy, the most famous industrial designer of the time. Wirkkala relished the opportunity to learn about industrial design and mass production, neither of which existed on the same scale in Finland. He was particularly interested in the technical innovations, such as new production processes and modelling techniques, available in the US.

Back in Finland, Wirkkala divided his time between his Helsinki studio and a small house and workshop in the remote rural area of Inari in Northern Lapland. The peace and calm of Lapland provided a sorely needed respite from his frenzied travel schedule, giving him the “distance to think and to concentrate,” as he put it.

The Ultima Thule glassware he designed for Iittala in the mid-1960s captured his relationship to nature beautifully. Visually, Ultima Thule is a striking, instantly recognisable recreation of the dripping icicles in Wirkkala’s beloved Lapland. Its appeal is enhanced by the knowledge of the thousands of hours Wirkkala devoted to perfecting a graphite mould capable of creating such intricate effects, and of the moulds and prototypes being shipped from Iittala’s glassworks by boat to his Inari workshop, which was inaccessible by road.

Not only was the original Ultima Thule glassware one of Wirkkala’s most affordable works, it became widely accessible when he adapted its design for the bottle used by Finlandia vodka from 1970 until 2001, thereby reinforcing the democratic spirit, which is part of Nordic design’s international appeal. When “Nordic Noir” TV dramas became popular in the early 2000s, British and American viewers were astonished to see the Jacobsen chairs and Henningsen lights that they considered elitist in the homes of working class characters.
 
 
The same qualities of warmth, inclusivity, naturalism, craftsmanship and authenticity have sustained Nordic design’s popularity ever since. They seem particularly enticing today at a time of escalating concern over climate change, corporate ethics, the disparity between rich and poor, the refugee crisis, the human consequences of unprecedentedly powerful technologies like artificial intelligence, and the rise of intolerance political extremism in the age of Trump, Putin and Erdogan. 
 
Once again, Nordic designers have developed ingenious responses: from the user-focussed architecture devised by Snøhetta in Norway and Cris Liljenberg-Halstrøm’s impeccably crafted Danish wooden furniture, to the data visualizations developed by Lucify in Finland to help us to understand the gravity of the refugee crisis. Diverse though their work is, it shares the humane qualities that have made Ultima Thule and other examples of Nordic design so inspiring for so long.