My series ‘Your Home Needs This’ is all about profiling beautiful design classics and timeless pieces of furniture that I feel everyone should have in their home. And this one is the perfect example – the Alvar Aalto vase, produced by Finnish glass manufacturer Iittala. If I had to name my favourite piece of design, ever, this would be it. It’s by my favourite architect and designer, Alvar Aalto, and it’s my favourite object at home. I love its soft, sinuous form that makes it truly unique – there’s nothing quite like filling it with flowers and enjoying its sculptural shape day after day.
The Aalto vase has become a true classic in Scandinavian design, found in the homes of every Finn and in museum collections across the world. Compared to the highly decorative objects being made at the time the vase was first created, the organic shape of the vase was a revolutionary statement. Inspired by waves in water (Aalto means ‘wave’ in Finnish), it’s a simple design whose tactility appeals to the senses. It’s lost none of its allure and still continues to inspire.
Back in December I was lucky enough to go to Helsinki to visit the Iittala factory and see the Aalto vase being crafted, so here’s the story behind the design and the making that goes into it…
Finnish architect Alvar Aalto originally designed the Aalto vase in 1936. It was part of a series of ten designs which won him first prize in the Karhula-Iittala Glass Design Competition and was shown in the summer of 1937 at the Finnish pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. Amusingly, and perhaps quite audaciously, he first nicknamed it ‘an Eskimo lady’s leather trousers’, referencing the vase’s wavy, curvaceous form.
That name didn’t last very long though, and it was renamed the slightly catchier ‘Savoy’ vase after it was used as the centrepiece in Alvar and Aino Aalto’s interior for the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki, of 1937. The restaurant is still open today and continues to use Aalto’s vases on its tables.
The sinuous form of the vase is a design motif that can be recognised across Aalto’s work as an architect and designer. From his bent plywood stools and Paimio armchair, to the wavy wooden ceiling of his municipal library lecture hall at Viipuri (1935) and the undulations of Finnish pavilion at New York’s World’s Fair in 1939, Aalto wholeheartedly embraced organic materials, volumes and forms.
The making of the Aalto vase is truly a work of art. It requires the work of seven skilled craftsmen and the vase is made in twelve stages, still at Iittala’s glass factory in its namesake village, Iittala, just north of Helsinki.
Glass has been in production at the Iittala factory since 1881, using a secret recipe whose main ingredient is fine-grained sand from the seabed off the coast of Belgium. The main ovens in the factory contain a total of 40 tons of molten gas, heated to a temperature of 1450C.
When we visited the factory we were lucky enough to see the vase being blown – it was magical witnessing that well-known form come to life and take shape. It’s such an unusual shape I always wondered how it came into being – but I never quite realised how much work goes into the making of it and quite what a skillful job it is to make a design classic.
On average it will take 10 hours to make one vase, from molten glass to packaged product.
The vase is made by pouring pre-treated molten glass into a heated mould. The glass is first blown and shaped with a special handcrafted wooden mould (as above) – it requires the blower to produce a strong and even stream of air, which they say sounds like a deep sigh of relief.
A glassblower blowing an Aalto vase would typically have 10 years glassblowing experience. According to the master blowers, a good glassblower needs to have hands that can see what is happening – almost as if their fingertips had eyes of their own.
When the molten glass is then blown against the sides of the mould (above), it takes on the vase’s distinctive shape. The glassblowers need to work quickly to ensure the glass doesn’t harden before it hits the mould – using quick, deft gestures they perform this gentle dance, moving from blowing to moulding (but perhaps the Eighties power ballads and Nineties hits they were blasting out helps ;).
The vase is slowly cooled down to room temperature. Another team in the factory then slices off the cap that connects the upper part of the vase to the blowpipe and grinds down the exterior and interior edges before finally polishing the cut surface. After scrupulous checks, Iittala’s ‘i’ sticker is dotted on and the vase is packaged up, ready to be sent around the world.
So that’s what it takes to create an Alvar Aalto vase, it’s always interesting to hear the story behind the making of a design classic I think. After all, it’s the vase’s craftsmanship, honed over years and years of skill, that is part of its timeless appeal. Now I’ll appreciate mine that little bit more as I fill it with fresh market flowers and bright blooms.
Images courtesy Iittala, except images inside Iittala factory are my own
The Alvar Aalto vase is available at stores across the UK, such as Skandium and comes in a variety of sizes and colours.