Some years ago, I wrote a series of features for The Financial Times about international design – how different countries decorate their houses, and the differences and common themes between them.
My sons were at primary school in North London and there was an international set of mothers in the playground who I could mine for information. Having written about France, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, I reached Finland on my virtual travels and asked Elena if she had any pointers to get me started.
She told me about the quality of the light in Finland, which is so beautiful that it makes glass look wonderful. Especially coloured glass. She had a large collection on her shelves in her north London home, although it didn’t look quite the same as it did in Helsinki, she said.
She was talking, of course, about Iittala. Perhaps the country’s most famous export, founded in a tiny town of the same name in the south of the country in 1881.
It was set up there because it was close to the main road. And the railway. And there was a lake behind, which is crucial to glass-making. So it was the ideal place. And that’s how the company got its name, which is pronounced, as are so many Finnish words, with the emphasis on the first syllable – Iittala from Finland, as it were.
Last year I was invited to tour this factory (some of you may remember my Helsinki highlights from the newsletter) to celebrate the launch of a new collaboration between the company and one of the UK’s most talented product designers; Jasper Morrison. It is the latest in a long line of partnerships Iittala has made including Issy Miyake, the Bouroullec brothers and Antonio Cittero, not to mention their own countrymen, chief of whom must be Aalvar Alto and his first wife Eino.
It was the Altos, along with Kaj Franck, who led the development of the brand with their core belief that objects should be designed with thought and be available to everyone. They pushed the boundaries of glass design to include both beauty and function and moved away from the traditional cut crystal that was so prevalent elsewhere in the world in favour of more modern design.
It starts, of course, with the sand, which comes – and this might surprise you – not from Finland, but from the North Sea, off the coast of Belgium. Why, you might ask, don’t they use Finnish sand? Because it has too much iron in it which affects the colour. And it’s all about the colour at Iittala.
So they receive one delivery a year – of 3,200 tonnes, which comes in 20 trucks whose drivers make about 70 round trips. And it all lies piled up round the back of the factory in a steadily diminishing pile.
The Belgian sand takes the colour really well and it’s crucial that a vase made in 2019 matches the colour of one made in 1960. Iittala claims to make the best coloured glass in the world and consistency is vital to that claim. There are 200 colours in the archive and some 20 of them are active at any one time.
“Anyone can make coloured glass,” they say. “But only Iittala can make this coloured glass.”
There are also some 400 products in the range, some made from moulds and some from blown glass, which is very difficult to master. I know this because I have tried it. My attempt did not make it out of the factory. In fact, I’m pretty sure it didn’t make it further than the bin.
Now glass is a fickle product because it’s an organic material. So it’s affected by the weather. There are days when the humidity is too much. Or the sun is too warm. And on those days they may not be as productive. But, that’s ok because all the broken glass is recycled and used in housing insulation and isn’t just thrown away.
They don’t like to say how much is broken as it’s so variable, but a good run will result in 95 out of a hundred successful pieces. A bad one 60.
Iittala is famous for the coloured birds but also for the iconic (and I don’t use that word lightly) Alvar Aalto vase, which is blown into a wooden mould. The moulds are wooden and carved from logs, which are stored in the lake behind the factory to stop them drying out. When we visited in October, several had been hauled out to dry and be made into new moulds. This has to happen before the lake freezes over for the next four months.
Before you are allowed to blow an Aalto vase you must train as a glass blower for five years. The master blower has been there for 48 years. But we weren’t there for Aalto, we were there for the Jasper Morrison launch. A collection of tableware comprising ceramic white plates and bowls, wooden serving boards and glass candle holders (made from moulds).
The Raami collection was two years in the making but designed, as is everything Iittala does, to last a lifetime.
Speaking of his love for Nordic and Scandinavian design, Jasper said: “I grew up in foggy London where everything was over upholstered with dark walls and heavy carpets, but my Grandfather had worked in Denmark and created a Scandinavian room with wooden floors and pale walls and I remember feeling such relief when I went in there.
“From that day I became very sensitive to atmosphere and can be easily upset if something is wrong. So my starting point for this collection was what it can do for the atmosphere [around the table].”
Raami means Frame in Finnish, and the idea is that plates frame the food and the table frames the plates. The plates were inspired by a similar set that belonged to Jasper’s Grandmother with a thin border and simple design.
The glasses, which are, of course, coloured, are ridged only on the inside so they don’t feel like they look, which was something else that appealed to Jasper.
The collection was designed to work from breakfast right through to dinner with coffee mugs and tea cups, coloured water glasses and elegant wine glasses as well as plates and bowls.
It’s deceptively simple but, as every fan of Iittala knows, sometimes the simplest pieces, designed to last the longest can be the hardest to make.
I wasn’t paid for this post but I went on the press trip and this seemed a good slot to tell you all about this company and the new Raami collection. Some years ago The Mad Husband bought me an Aalvar Alto vase for Christmas so I’m a long term fan of the brand and can vouch for the beauty of the coloured glass.