Tapio Wirkkala was born on 2 June 1915 in the southern Finnish port city of Hanko. He went to school in Helsinki. His father was an artist and Tapio studied sculpture at the Central School of Applied Arts, specialising in woodwork. During those years, Finland was breathing the fresh air of independence.
Tapio began work as a graphic designer but was called up for the army. Whilst on leave he met the young ceramicist Rut Bryk and the couple were married at the end of the war. An impoverished Finland embarked on a project to change the country’s design style, in a democratic and indigenous key: “More beautiful everyday products”. Between 1946 and 1985 Tapio designed glassware in the old Iittala glassworks factory.
His revolutionary methods involved him in following each phase in person, often creating the glassblowing moulds himself. During that period he was primarily inspired by Finnish mythology and the forest.
In 1947 he designed the country's banknotes and in 1951 he curated and designed the Finnish section at the 9th Triennale di Milano, achieving great success and winning three Grand Prix. This was a breakthrough for Finnish design, turning Iittala for its glasswork, Arabia for its ceramics, and Artek for its furniture into international household names.
It was at the Triennale that Tapio and Rut met Gio and Lisa Ponti, forming the basis of a lifelong friendship. Wirkkala personally photographed his own work in a very unique style with his shots published and promoted by Ponti in Domus magazine. Tapio was awarded another three Grand Prix at the X Triennale in 1954, as he became internationally famous. The intensity and individuality of his approach were unparalleled: “Take a piece of ice in hand and find your culture from it…”.
Tapio succeeded Arttu Brummer as director of the Helsinki Institute for Industrial Arts.
This turned out to be a short but intense experience, interrupted by his visit to Raymond Loevy’s studio in America. His return from the United States in 1956 marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship with the German porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal. His Venetian adventure began three years later in 1959, and Wirkkala’s Venini glasswork took on colours characteristic of Murano glass. His later work used many different materials (metals featured commonly) in numerous different forms, some of which, such as his vodka bottles, were widely distributed.
In the early 1960s, Wirkkala’s designs ranged from light bulbs, pipes, cutlery and foldable canoes for the rivers and lakes of Lapland (a region the designer was particularly fond of), as well as jewellery. His woodwork, which had begun with his studies of aeroplane wings in 1940, continued and would stay with him for the rest of his life, creating natural forms (particularly leaves) as well as decidedly more dynamic and abstract shapes. Actually, Tapio was
not so much influenced by nature as the energy intrinsic to it. The most striking result was “Ultima Thule”, a nine-metre high “lunar” relief created for the Montreal Expo in 1967.
Tapio died in Helsinki on 19 May 1985.