Tapio Wirkkala

 “In solitude imagination swells.” Tapio Wirkkala

I have often been asked to name my favourite mid-century designer and I find it a very easy one to answer. Yes I love the Eames, the Days, Mr Jacobsen, Mr Nelson et al but my real design crush is Tapio Wirkkala. I have five pieces from the collection in black porcelain he produced for Rosenthal AG which won Wirkkala a gold medal at the international ceramics competition at Faenza. It is my favourite collectable. Easily affordable, with a mix of black gloss and matt ceramic that works well on any surface, especially rosewood, teak or white eggshell. These are stand out pieces no matter where you put them. My heart skips a beat every time I look at them. I imagine rubbing my black Studio-Linie teapot and seeing the Finnish genius flowing out in one of his signature swirls to create any object my heart desires.

Porcelaine Noire tea set photographed by Rauno Träskelin

This incredibly versatile Finnish designer with his wiry beard and signature pipe worked from the 1940s to the 1980s creating everything from sculpture to beer bottles,  jewellery to bank notes. He conjured up beautiful products in wood, porcelain, metal, textiles and plastics. He created first class airplane food services. He even worked in exhibition and graphic design. He went from creating extraordinary feats in glass for iitala in Finland and Venini in Italy to knocking up  television sets, irons and utensils for clients of New Yorker Raymond Loewy.

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Bolle for Venini photographed by Rauno Träskelin

Wirkkala was well travelled. He loved Mexico and explored the extremes in India. Wirkkala saw and loved Le Corbusier’s concrete city Chandigarh but he loved India’s spirituality and tradition too. His life was constant, busy,  he was certainly no stranger to the thrill of  the urban metropolis. Still he came back to the wilderness of middle Finland and Lapland again and again, spending a quarter of each year at his remote cottage in Iijaarvi or his Lapp House at the mouth of the Lemmenjoki river where he felt so inspired by the natural world around him.

Plywood sculpture-3
 wooden composition photographer Rauno Träskelin

He loved the Sami eskimo people of Lapland so much he and his wife named their son after them. He loved their tools, the puukko knife,  he had learned from his mother to carve with as child. He went back to them for inspiration for Rosenthal. The spiral seen in shells and water, birds, the natural beauty of wood and ice, all recurrent themes in his work. Like them he understood the simple thrill that comes from creating something from nature that you could use to eat from or carve with. He understood that nothing beats a quiet uncluttered natural scene for inspiration. A prime candidate for getting away from it all Wirkkala did not like the fuss and adulation that comes with being a star designer.

My favourite story comes from the 1951 Trienalle in Milan where it is said he holed himself up in a closet with Gio Ponti’s wife Giulia Ponti  in order to share a cup of fried anemones she had smuggled inside her shawl rather than enjoy the adulation he would have got from being the Trienalle’s star performer Carlo Ponti’s friend and and someone Ponti greatly admired. Another was when the Pontis’ served Tapio with a fresh plateful of flowers declaring him “uomo natural” to all the guests and telling them he must be treated accordingly. The Finn ate them all.

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‘Pollo’ photographed by Rauno Träskelin

Little did his cemetery architect father and textile weaving mother know that their busy boy Tapio, born in Hankoo, Finland in 1915 would go on to to shape Scandinavian design and industrial art in the mid 20th Century when they gave him all the tools to set him on his way. Without the distraction of television and radio and with dark nights so early, he and his mother would whittle away at a piece of wood  or weave or embroider. His father’s contacts with all manner of talented people working in Applied Arts got him introductions to galleries and inspired him with interiors filled with incredible arts and crafts. Wirkkala was not only brought up immersed in the natural world of Finland at the time, he was brought up with art and design coursing through his veins.

Tapio Wirkkala, 1984, photograph Maaria Wirkkala
Tapio in his natural state photographed by his daughter Maaria Wirkkala

He honed his craft first at home then at the Central School for Applied Arts in Helsinki where his classmates included interior architect and designer Ilmari Tapiovaara, the textile designer Armi Ratia and the ceramicist Birger Kaipiainen. In the war  he managed to knock up a small relief in bone with a bayonet tip as well as design a knife out of deer horn and the return spring for a piece of artillery winning himself  enough leave time for his efforts to meet his future wife, the talented designer and illustrator, Rut Bryk . Wirkkala’s ‘pukko’ knife was never far from reach. An extension of his hand, it would take him into a kind of meditative state artists and musicians are well aware of.


Tapio working on one of his many bird sculptures photographed by Pirjo Honkasalo

Once war was over Wirkkala won several prestigious competitions. His first was in 1946 with his Kantarelli (mushroom) glass vases for Iittala glassworks below, which sparked a collaboration that would last until his death in 1985. He won both first and second prize in a competition for designs for Finnish bank notes establishing him countrywide as a talented draughtsman as well as designer. He later hit the world stage with  three Grand Prix medals at the Milan Triennale in 1954 and  received a further  Grand Prix medal and  gold medal in the  1960 Milan Triennale.

The Chanterelle

‘Kantarelli’ photographed by Rauno Träskelin

Although all of his products have an exceptional sculptural quality he continued to work as a sculptor, producing exquisite pure wooden forms. The largest of them was  an impressive wall made for the 1967 “man and his world” exhibition in Montreal. An exhibition in Gothenburg’s Röhsska Museet on Finnish ceramics, glass and textile was the first of a long series of exhibition designs in Europe and North America. As art director for the Institute of Industrial Arts in Helsinki Wirkkala organized numerous exhibitions on Finish crafts and design. He worked as a design consultant for Soinne & Kni Oy and Hackman-Sorsakoskito as well as Iittala where he came up with his most famous glass work inspired by Spring ice melting ‘Ultima Thule’ which took thousands of man hours to perfectWhile Tapio Wirkkala’s works in plywood made him one of the forerunners of Finnish modernism in sculpture he was no shirker on the domestic front and enjoyed creating everyday pieces too.


“Puukko” Knife, steel and black nylon 1961 photographed by Matti Ounamo.

The eight porcelain tableware services  he created for Rosenthal AG after he left and took Philipp Rosenthal as a client from Raymond Loewy’s office in 1956 resulted first in Finlandia, then Composition, tea for two, Variation, Polygon, Festival and the most refined of all Rosenthal porcelain – Century. Variation is said to have inspired the great Walter Gropius when he was designing Rosenthal’s new plant in Selb.  Gropius designed for Rosenthal as did Martin Freyer and Bjorn Winblad but no-one was quite as prolific as the great Genie of mid-century design, our favourite Finn, Mr Tapio Wirkkala. 

See awards listed below and find pieces at our next show of 55 top midcentury dealers.

Midcentury East

Erno Goldfinger’s Haggerston School, E2 8LS sponsored by Goldfinger’s BALFRON

Sunday 13th October, Hoxton Overground, Hackney, Shoreditch, a lovely area of East London near Columbia Flower Market

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Buy midcentury Tapio Wirkkala from a wealth of dealers at The Modern Marketplace

Written by Lucy Ryder Richardson, founding partner at Modern Shows  

If you would like to reproduce any part of this feature c Modern Shows please contact lucy@modernshows

Thank You to Greta at the WirkkalaBryk office in Finland for finding all the images for us. If you would like to reproduce any of the photographs you need permission from WirkkalaBryk foundation.    

Awards and Distinctions

1st and 2nd place, Bill Designing Competition of Bank of Finland 1947 4 awards

Designing Olympic Stamps 1951 3 Grand Prix, Milan 1951

3 Grand Prix, Milan 1954

Lunning Prize 1951

Order of the Lion of Finland -medal 1955

1st place, the World Fair in Brussels 1957

Society of Industrial Arts Medal of the Year 1958

Grand Prix and Gold Medal, Milan 1960

Silver Medal, Milan 1963

Domus Golden Obelisk, Milan 1963

Gold Medal of the President of Italy

Faenza International Ceramics Competition 1963, 1966, 1967, 1969 and 1973

Premio Internazionale Vicenza 1963, 1966 and 1967

Honorary Royal Designer of Industry, London 1964

Honorary Prize, the Finnish Cultural Foundation 1968

Honorary doctorate, Royal College of Arts, London 1971

Honorary Member of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London 1971

Academy of Finland’s honorary title of academician 1972

Toesto organization’s medal for Creative Work 1980 Prince Eugen Medal, Stockholm 1980

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