In America, Timo Sarpaneva is not exactly a household name. You may recognize his handsome casserole (1959) with dual purpose wooden lid, which evokes some Viking cauldron. According to Sarpeneva, the pot made a “damn good” reindeer stew—a Finish specialty—and was immortalized on a 1998 Finnish postal stamp. Sarpaneva’s Finlandia glassware, which features a frosted, ridged surface (used by Finlandia vodka for its bottle) may also be familiar. But Sarpaneva’s expansive retrospective at Helsinki’s Design Museum reveals a talent of enormous virtuosity and range who excelled in both industrial design and fine art.
Sarpaneva worked in metal, wood, textiles and ceramics, but his preferred medium was glass. He was drawn to it partly because it recalled the molten metal he had observed as a tiny tot in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop, but he also found it just plain alluring: “Glass is very mysterious. It's changing all the time. That's what makes it magical. It released me from the conventional and the three-dimensional. It opened its deepest reaches to me and took me on a journey to a fourth dimension. I understood the opportunities that clear, transparent glass gives to an artist and designer.”
Sarpaneva descended from a long line of craftsmen and possessed a confidence that enabled him to experiment with radical techniques. For instance, the "bark" effect of the Finlandia line was achieved by scorching and burning wooden molds while blowing glass into them.Typically, molds are soaked in water which produces steam between the hot glass and the mold, keeping the surface of the glass away from the wood. With Finlandia, the molds weren’t soaked in water. So, the molten glass was in direct contact with the mold, burning it and causing the texture of the charred wood to be imprinted onto the glass. One gets the sense that for Sarpaneva, the Finlandia technique was about more than producing an interesting product, but served as a paean to glassmaking and the elemental nature of fire itself.
Sarpaneva introduced innovations into his textile production, as well. The complex coloration and pattern of his Ambiente linen cloth relied on a robotization system employing nearly 2,000 automated settings.
While Sarpaneva considered himself first and foremost an artist, he spent the majority of his career in industrial design. His longest professional affiliation was with Iitallia, the Finnish design company specializing in tabletop and cookware, which first employed him and with which he maintained a professional relationship for most of his life. However, his famous dinner service, Suomi (“Finland”) was launched in 1976 by Rosenthal China. The originally all-white set was selected by the Pompidou Center in Paris to reside in its permanent collection as an example of contemporary design. Rosenthal, which had initially thought the set too simple, subsequently introduced versions of the china featuring decorations by such artists as Salvador Dali and Victor Vasarely.
In looking at Sarpaneva’s work one is struck by how closely tied to nature it is. Natural phenomena of his native Finland like ice, the aurora borealis and the sea inform and inspire his work. This reverence for nature is not peculiar to him, but is very much a part of the Finnish psyche.
A version of Sarpaneva’s glass sculpture, Ahtojää (“Pack Ice”), produced in 2018 specifically for this exhibition measures nearly 7 feet by 30 feet and features 210 blown glass forms. Arrayed on a long, low rectangular table, these weird jellyfish-like protuberances were made using the Finlandia technique. But in this instance, Sarpaneva’s taken it much further, producing irregular, deep channels crinkling the glass. Bulbous nodes, perhaps the result of bubbling due to intense heat, appear here and there across the surface. The forms themselves differ in height—from maybe 8 inches to 2.5 feet—and shape. Some have a brownish cast at the top, suggesting burnt sugar and a longer exposure to fire. Lit from within, it’s a stunning piece that like ice itself, features gradations of opacity, luminosity and hue. The much larger original was produced for the Finnish pavilion at Expo 67.
With Seraphim (1987), Sarpaneva does something pretty extraordinary. Using lighting trained on a large slab of rippling glass, he produces a startling shadow of brilliant, watery light—celestial wings, if you will—against an opaque silhouette, thereby extending the piece beyond its physical borders. With his familiarity with glass, Sarpaneva would understand how its shadow appears and created this work to make the most of that phenomenon. In so doing, he shows us the magic of glass, which has the ability to transform shadow into something lively, beguiling and ineffably beautiful.
And then there are the “jewels”—Sarpaneva’s technically staggering colored art glass, a byproduct of his work with the Venini glass factory in Murano. Sleek and luscious, these pieces feature muted, natural colors and surfaces one wants to stroke…or lick. Though of modest scale (1 ft. to 3 ft. approximately), they are none the less, weighty, imposing works. In some, where different colored glass knock up against each other, one wonders how he kept them separate. This is particularly noteworthy in Protuberans II (1999) (pictured), a piece of mind-boggling technical precision in terms of both hue and shape. Other favorites include the deep amethyst lozenge Lancet (1998) and the simply ravishing “demisphere”, Nocturnalis (1999), which recalls the blue tinged emerald of seawater around icebergs.
Large Iconostasis (1966), a dramatic wall sculpture that both resembles a Louise Nevelson and surpasses her oeuvre, was made from the scorched wooden molds used in the Finlandia series. One can imagine Sarpaneva seeing the molds piled up on the floor of the hot shop, divining their aesthetic merit and formulating a way to employ them in a piece.
Other influences include prehistoric Finland and Norse folk art. The former is evident in his series of sketches of petroglyphs, at once both modern—think Paul Klee—and ancient, as well as his Pohjanlahti rugs, which were produced semi-industrially using traditional Finnish "ryijy" rugmaking techniques, and feature designs based on markings made by seal hunters on the rocky Gulf of Bothnia islands. The drab colors are meant to evoke moss and rock.
In other drawings it seems Sarparneva was merging folk art motifs with the petroglyph forms to create striking hybrids that are as dynamic as they are charming. Kukko (“rooster”) is in this vein. A delightful rooster-shaped tea cozy with extravagant cock’s comb handle topping it, the piece won a silver medal at the 1951 Milan Triennale despite the fact some people mistook it for a funny hat.
Sarparneva was a modernist who used nature and history to imbue his work with humanity. In terms of inspiration and materials, he never strayed far from his native land, giving his work a rooted authenticity. Far from provincial, his inventive, consummate approach has produced work that charms, astonishes and satisfies.