How red-hot glass transforms into iconic Finnish designs – visiting the Iittala glass factory

Established in the 19th century, the Iittala glass factory is the largest in the Nordics and the only one left in Finland. Design Stories got to take a tour of the glassworks to see how Aalto vases, Leimu lamps, and Ultima Thule glasses are made. Come along!

Iittala Aalto vase at the end of a glassblowing pipe
Aalto vases and most of Iittala’s other glass items are manufactured in the Finnish village of Iittala, where the glass factory was established over 140 years ago.

FLAGS WITH THE FAMILIAR i LOGO flutter about next to the parking lot as we arrive at the Iittala glass factory in the Finnish village of the same name. We are in for a treat, as our plan for the day is to watch Iittala’s glassblowers turn hot, molten glass into mind-bending art glass as well as elevating everyday tableware.

You may already know that the iconic i logo was designed by the renowned Finnish artist and designer Timo Sarpaneva, but do you know what it symbolizes, besides the letter I? If not, find out at the end of the story!

Entrance to Iittala glass factory
The factory also has a viewing balcony that anyone can visit and marvel at the skills of Iittala's glassblowers and other glass professionals.
Kastehelmi tealight candleholders in linen, moss green, rain and cranberry
In addition to hand-blown glass, the factory also has machine lines that produce pressed glass and bowls made with the centrifuge method. The Kastehelmi droplet pattern was created specifically for pressed glass to hide the seams of the mold.

The only one in Finland

The Iittala glass factory was founded in 1881, and it is nowadays the largest in the Nordics – and the only one still active in Finland. This is where Iittala's glassblowers craft iconic vases by Alvar Aalto, playful glass birds by Oiva Toikka, and the uniquely ice-like Ultima Thule glasses by Tapio Wirkkala. We are told the factory employs around 200 people, around 60 of which are glassblowers. Other glass professionals include quality controllers, polishers, engravers, and packers, to name a few.

Alongside hand-blown artifacts, the factory also produces utility glass on machine lines, either by pressing or with the centrifuge method. In the latter, molten glass is cast into a spinning mold, which forces the glass to spread evenly inside it. We didn’t think we’d learn physics today, but we’ll take it! This method is used to make the Ultima Thule bowls and Kastehelmi serving platters, for example.

A glassblower molding a glass bubble with a block at the Iittala glass factory
Founded in 1881, the Iittala glass factory is the only one in Finland that produces utility glass. The factory is known within the industry as an expert in colored glass.
A glassblower blowing air into a glass bubble at the Iittala glass factory
Glassblowing requires skill, strength, and sensitivity at the same time: even though it is physical work, the glassblower must know how to control the force of their blowing.
Ultima Thule wine glasses at the Iittala glass factory
The Ultima Thule glasses are blown into molds that give them their distinctive, ice-like texture. The glassware range has been in production for over 50 years.

Years of practice

After our physics class, we get to learn some chemistry, as we hear about how glass itself is made. The recipe contains ingredients like Belgian sand, soda, and calcium carbonate, which are molten into a red-hot, honey-like mass in the factory’s massive furnace called Vihtori (the machine line is called Vesa).

The glassblowers responsible for blowing the Aalto vases have trained in the craft for at least five years.

Glassblowing is far from easy – it shows true artisanship and requires years of training. For example, the glassblowers responsible for blowing the Aalto vases have trained in the craft for at least five years. An equally challenging object is the Ruutu vase by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and both pieces require as many as seven professionals, 12 work steps, and up to 30 hours of work depending on the vase’s size. The most time-consuming step is annealing or cooling, which removes tensions from the mass and allows the colors to develop.

And in case you’re wondering: Tapio Wirkkala’s Kantarelli is apparently the trickiest to make. We are told that only a few glassblowers can do it.

Vihtori furnace at the Iittala glass factory
The Vihtori furnace holds 40 tons of molten glass that glows red-hot at 1450° Celsius. The factory's furnaces are to be replaced in the following years – maybe next time we’ll meet Vihtori Junior?
Glass bubble on the end of a blowing pipe in front of a glass furnace
As the glassblowers gather a mass of molten glass at the end of the pipe, its consistency resembles honey – the blowers must keep moving at all times to prevent it from dripping.
Molten glass inside a graphite mold during the production process of an Aalto vase
The Aalto vases get their shape in graphite molds.
Recycled glass Aalto vase at the Iittala glass factory
Some items are made entirely or in part of recycled glass, and none of the scrap glass from the production lines goes to waste.

Expert in colored glass

As Finns, we have been using Iittala’s items since we were kids, so never even realized that colored glass was something extraordinary. We’re so used to cranberry-red Aalto vases and rain-blue Kastehelmi candleholders that we have always taken it for granted that the color never fades or rubs off.

Iittala’s colored glass is made by adding various oxides to the glass recipe.

Iittala’s colored glass is made by adding various oxides to the glass recipe. We hear that brown and red glass is made with copper oxide, while blue is made with cobalt. Creating a new color recipe may take years, and yet, Iittala’s color archive consists of over 200 of them. Around 20 glass colors are usually in production at a time.

A glassblower making the shade of a Leimu table lamp at the Iittala glass factory
Glassblowers work in teams traditionally called 'chairs', and each member of a chair has a specific job or task.
Glass shades of Leimu table lamps in an annealing oven at the Iittala glass factory
Annealing is the most time-consuming part of glassblowing, but extremely important. This is when the glass items like the Leimu lamps cool down and develop their final colors.
Leimu table lamps in two sizes with a glass shade and a concrete base
Handcrafted glass objects are always unique. For example, the thickness of the glass may vary and as a result, the color may also look deeper or lighter.

Against throwaway culture

At the end of our visit, we hear about the factory’s recent strives in sustainability, recycling, as well as health and safety. At the beginning of October 2022, Iittala’s parent company Fiskars announced that the glass factory’s furnaces will be renewed and updated to ones that run on renewable energy, which will significantly reduce the entire factory’s emissions and energy consumption.

Recycling has also been a hot topic in recent years at the factory, and since 2016, none of the production lines’ scrap glass has gone to waste. Some of it is used for making new products and the rest is recycled in other ways. Not all waste glass is suitable for reuse at the factory, so it is transported elsewhere for repurposing and used to make glass wool, for example. So, in theory, our homes or office buildings could be insulated with pieces of Aalto vases or Kastehelmi candleholders!

With this amusing thought lingering in our heads, we wave goodbye to the factory and the red-and-white i flags waving in the wind. Oh, and the meaning of the logo: the lowercase i symbolizes a blowing pipe with a bubble of glass at the end, surrounded by the flaming red mouth of a furnace.

Iittala favorites

Ultima Thule goblet
Annual Bird 2022 Crake
Aalto vase
Leimu table lamp
Raami tumbler
Kartta glass sculpture
Ruutu vase
Kivi candleholder

See also:

Iittala products at Finnish Design Shop >
Preloved Iittala products at Franckly >

Text: Emmi Ratilainen Images: Iittala

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