Aalto vase, a modern icon from 1936.
The year is 1936 and Finland’s glassworks have decided to launch a competition for new everyday and art glass designs to display at the Paris World Fair the following year. The young architect Alvar Aalto entered with a series of images entitled ‘An Eskimo woman’s leather breeches’. The entry was bold and unconventional, and featured freeform sketches in pencil, ink, and crayon of various vases and bowls that could be used as ‘trays, fruit bowls, or containers for cactus gardens, for example’.
The undulating, highly asymmetric shapes of the designs marked a clear break with traditional glass design. Bringing to mind the shorelines typical of Finland’s lake-dominated landscape, these forms were to become some of the most well-known and distinctive of twentieth-century Finnish design.
From Eskimos to the elegance of the Savoy.
Pieces based on Aalto’s sketches were exhibited for the first time at the Paris World Fair in 1937 and included around 10 items, ranging from shallow dishes to a vase almost a metre high. They attracted a lot of attention across Europe and in Finland as well, and a number of them were chosen for the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki, for which Aino and Alvar Aalto designed the interior in 1937. The most popular piece, a 160-cm vase, quickly became known as the Savoy vase as a result, a name that has stuck ever since, although the range was given the Aalto name by Iittala back in the 1970s.
Handmade in Finland.
The early Aalto vases were hand-blown using wooden moulds, but as demand increased these were replaced by metal ones. Production took place at the Karhula glassworks until 1949, when it switched to Iittala. The five original colours – clear, brown, azure blue, sea green, and smoke – have grown to over 20 over the years, and Iittala’s product development department regularly adds new colours. The richest colour of all, in every sense, was ruby red, which was produced between 1989 and 2003.
All Aalto vases continue to be handmade today by the skilled glassblowers at the Iittala glassworks. Working in teams, they rapidly transform the molten glass into Aalto’s distinctively sinuous and instantly recognisable shapes. Being able to blow Aalto vases and finish them successfully calls for many years of experience on the part of the works’ glassblowers and grinders. After washing and a final quality check, they are despatched around the world. All Aalto pieces feature a signature on the base, which is largely laser-produced today, although speciality items are engraved by hand or sand-blown, as were the original ones.
The Aalto vase today.
The Aalto vase appeared to have come to the end of the road back in the later 1960s, however. Only one size (160 cm) in two colours (clear and opal) was still in production, and volumes were very low. Ms Maire Gullichsen, a member of the Board of Directors of Ahlström, which then owned the glassworks, and a long-term patron and friend of Alvar Aalto, continued to believe in the design and was very keen to keep it in production. The Aalto vase only experienced a true resurgence of popularity at the end of the 1970s, however, after the death of its creator.
Today, the Aalto vase has become an icon of Finnish design and one of the most well-known Finnish products ever produced. Sold in over 50 countries worldwide, Aalto vases are also on display in numerous major museums and are particularly popular as wedding presents and gifts on major occasions.