Portrait of Tapio Wirkkala, Photograph Maaria Wirkkala, copyright Iittala
MidCentury asks BBC 20th Century Expert Mark Hill for an insider view on Tapio Wirkkala from the auction salesroom.
Tapio Wirkkala: his design ethos and influence
One of the great Scandinavian Modernist designers, Tapio Wirkkala’s influence was felt far afield, and he worked in nearly every medium from glass to wood, and metal to paper. He was driven by a deep love for Finnish flora and fauna, and the natural landscape that contains it. The sub-zero temperatures, snow, ice and unforgiving winds shape the landscape and selected the species that would survive. For much of the year, Tapio Wirkkala would immerse himself in the isolated surroundings of his northern Lapland home. Tapio Wirkkala explained the design process as follows: “An idea is often generated by chance and the impulse proceeds from something quite different than the original purpose.”
Tapio Wirkkala worked as one of Iittala’s key glass designers from 1946-85. Winning three Grand Prix at the Milan Triennale in 1951 and again in 1954, his name became increasingly revered abroad, and as a result he was employed by foreign companies such as Rosenthal (1956-85) in Germany and Venini (1965-79) in Italy.
Tapio Wirkkala: value at auction today
Iittala footed dish engraved with fine vertical lines, 1960s-70s. All images courtesy of Miller’s, Quittenbaum, Dorotheum and Woolley & Wallis.
Tapio Wirkkala: early glassware
Tapio Wirkkala is best known globally for his glass designs, which were mainly produced by Finnish manufacturer Iittala. His early curving forms were often inspired by fungus and buds. The most famous of these, Kantarelli, have finely engraved vertical lines and were designed in 1946, winning a Grand Prix at the Milan Triennale in 1951. Made commercially from 1948-57, examples can fetch anything from £100-2,500 depending on size and shape. But if it’s one of the 100 ‘original’ examples from 1946-47, the price can rise to ten times that.
Other designs, such as the mushroom-like Tatti can be found for as little as £80-1,000, depending on size. Value is also determined by how long a design was produced for and how many were made. For instance, Tatti was produced in large quantities from 1953-59, and the lichen-inspired Jäkalä, with its matt translucent surface, was sold in greater quantities from 1951-64.
Iittala Pinus (Pine) mould-blownvase with bark and ice type textures, 1973-99.
Tapio Wirkkala: textured glass
Along with fellow designer Timo Sarpaneva, Tapio Wirkkala was partly responsible for introducing the trend that went global in the late 1960s. Bark and ice were perhaps unsurprisingly the most typical and influential natural textures. In general, values tend to be lower, ranging from around £50-300 for Isbit (Ice) or Isberget (Iceberg) vases, or the bark-like Inari vase. The form number, typically engraved on the base with, ideally, the factory name and/or the designer’s full name or initials help with identification.
Pieces from Tapio Wirkkala’s most commercially successful design, the Ultima Thule tableware range, designed in 1968, can be had from around £20 upwards each brand new, depending on shape. Vintage pieces are better value – a table setting for 12, comprising bowls, plates, a carafe and the hallmark knobbly-bottomed glasses, fetched just over £340 in a Bukowski’s auction recently.
Venini Bolle bottle, 1966
Tapio Wirkkala: geometric glassware
Although less typical, Tapio Wirkkala produced clean-lined, almost geometric designs in vibrant colours by Iittala. Many go unrecognised and, as a result, fetch from £40-300, despite their wide visual appeal. Italian glass manufacturer Venini, for whom Tapio Wirkkala worked from 1965-79, produced some of his more sought-after designs, such as his Bolle (Bubbles) bottles. These come in red, purple or yellow contrasted against colourless, purple or blue glass. Produced from 1966 onwards, prices range from £300-1,200.
Asko Oy veneered birch and lacquered steel coffee table, 1958
Tapio Wirkkala: furniture designs
Although Tapio Wirkkala is best known for glass, his designs in other media often fetch higher sums of money at auction. During the late 1950s, he produced a number of functional furniture designs for Asko. A very scarce set of eight nickel chairs, that recall Jacobsen’s famed ‘Series 7’, fetched over £40,000 in 2012. Tables with basic geometric metal frames and rectangular wooden tops are more typical. These are either inset with curving, stylised leaf shapes in contrasting woods, or are cut from a wood with a heavy and accentuated linear grain. Although these could fetch a couple of hundred pounds a decade ago, their minimalist form and scarcity has made them desirable, and nowadays they fetch anything from £2,000-8,000 depending on size and the woods used.
Soinne & Kni laminated birch plywood ‘Leaf Dish’, 1951
Tapio Wirkkala: wooden dishes
In a similar vein are a series of elegant laminated wooden dishes, produced during the 1950s by Soinne & Kni of Helsinki. Of asymmetric leaf-like form, they curve beautifully in three dimensions and, as such, are typical of the Scandinavian Modern aesthetic of the 1950s. They had fetched low to mid-thousands of pounds for many years, but a large 56cm long birch example designed in 1951 fetched a staggering €31,000 euro hammer price at Quittenbaum in 2012. This exceptional price was reached because the dish had been bought in Milan in 1954, the year in which the design won a major award at the Triennale. It seems to have been a unique peak, as sale results for similar pieces at Phillips in late 2012 ranged from £3,000-8,000.
Kultakeskus Oy silver pitcher with textured surface, late 1960s
Tapio Wirkkala: designs in silver
The value of the raw material undoubtedly has a major part to play in the desirability of Tapio Wirkkala’s silver works. These tend to take the form of stylised and simplified buds or flowers, frozen in time as they stretch upwards to open. Others have the texture more commonly seen on his glass designs, and those would become influential to many post-war British metal designers working at the Royal College of Art under Robert Goodden. Prices generally range from the low hundreds into the thousands, but small representative examples can still be found away from the major auction houses for under £500 – a bargain considering his name and the value of silver today.
Rosenthal Studio Line white porcelain large ‘Pollo’ vase, 1970
Tapio Wirkkala: ceramic designs
Tapio Wirkkala designed ceramics for Rosenthal almost as long as he designed glassware for Iittala, but in general his ceramics are deemed less desirable. It may be that the overtly functional nature and often palid appearance puts today’s buyers off, but in my opinion they may yet see rises. His charming Pollo (chicken) vase can be found for as little as £20 – mainly as they are still available new – and range up to £250 depending on size. Other vases and tableware, typically white bodies with textured surfaces, tend to fetch under £300 unless, as the rule goes, they were produced in tiny quantities or are unique.
Tapio Wirkkala: A common thread
Looking across Tapio Wirkkala’s enormously varied body of work, there is one common thread: his feeling for a curving line. The curve may mark out the form of a silver candleholder or earring, it may be the laminated layers of a wooden dish, or the grain on a table, or it may be the cut lines on a glass vase. But it’s there, and always gently curving. As we know, Tapio Wirkkala was hugely inspired by nature – and at its root, there are no straight lines.
To buy a licensed piece of contemporary Tapio Wirkkala glassware, visit Iittala
Keep an eye on dealers listed in our Directory – we’ve spotted Tapio Wirkkala pieces here before!