One of the pioneers of Finnish industrial art, Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) was born and grew up in Helsinki. He attended the Central School of Applied Arts and went on to produce successful art and design in materials as diverse as glass, wood, porcelain and silver, in addition to making a name for himself as a graphic designer. His work includes unique examples of glass and ceramic objects, jewelry, architecture, sculpture, furniture andindustrial design.
Wirkkala began his professional life with a position at an advertising agency, constantly entering design competitions on the side. While in the service during WWII he earned himself an extended furlough by entering and winning two army-sponsored design competitions, one for a knife made from old boot leather, antlers and telephone wire, and another for his monument commemorating the conquest of Petrovadosk. It was during this furlough that he met his future wife, Rut Bryk, at a party.
In 1946 he won a decorative glass and engraving competition sponsored by the Iittala Glassworks. He worked at Iittala, learning every aspect of glass production, and would continue to design for them until his death in 1985. Wirkkala also entered a lifelong partnership with the Rosenthal porcelain factory in England after he designed a china service for them called "Finlandia." He worked briefly in America for Raymond Loewy after his leaf-shaped wood platter was named "the Most Beautiful Object of 1951" by House Beautiful magazine. While working for Loewy he designed television sets, irons and utensils for Westinghouse, but he didn't stay very long because hefelt hindered by the American design process.
Wirkkala drew his strength as an artist and innovator from his unique sensitivity to the materials he used and from his belief that the artist should contribute to every stage of the production process. One of his most famous quotes about his work process addresses this respect for the medium; "All materials have their own unwritten laws. This is forgotten way too often. You should never be violent with a material you're working on, and the designer should aim at being in harmony with his material." He also believed that, "It's important in industrial design to be with the workers in the factory. This is the way to make real contact with your work" and stressed that this kind of involvement should be taught at the student level.
The shapes and textures of Wirkkala's work are derived almost entirely from his sketches and photographic studies of objects and visual patterns in nature. Some of his most common themes are leaves, wings, spirals, birds, ice, and bubbles. He had an incredible gift for translating the images he observed and studied into his art.
Some of his most famous works are the Chantarelle glass series, his exhibition design for a Finnish design tour in America and for the Milan Triennials in 1951 and 1954. He drew a bank note for the Bank of Finland and a number of stamps for the 1952 Olympics in Finland. Wirkkala also won the "futurological" competition at the Brussels World Fair (1958) for his year 2000 department store design.