Designed in celebration of the 140th anniversary of Iittala, the Kartta glass sculptures were created in collaboration with artist Santtu Mustonen and master glassblower Heikki Punkari. We had the chance to visit the Iittala glassworks and see how the challenging pieces are made.
AN ENORMOUS PILE of softly glimmering white sand is hiding in a dim warehouse at the Iittala Glass Factory, waiting to be turned into glass objects. This kind of sand is a rare thing to see, let alone touch.
It looks like fine-milled sugar but feels like the smoothest silk against your fingertips. 70 percent of it is derived from Belgian seafloor, arriving yearly from Antwerpen to the Glass Factory located in Hämeenlinna, Finland. The sand is used for crafting items in clear glass. Local sand has a high iron concentration which gives the glass a slight green tint.
Artist Santtu Mustonen runs his fingers through the silky soft sand. He has arrived at the factory from the small island he uses as his home base when here in Finland. For over ten years, Mustonen has lived and worked in New York and the Netherlands.
The Finnish designer’s international client list is simply astonishing: Herman Miller, The New York Times, Facebook, New York City Ballet, Apple… In 2016, his piece created for the Oscars was widely applauded. Mustonen works with paintings, sculptures, installations, moving image, and illustrations. His works often feature vivid colors that evoke images of mystical fairytale forests.
A map of the mind
Mustonen takes pictures of the sand pile with his phone. In the adjacent building, some of the sand will soon turn into an artwork called Kartta. The abstract piece, designed for Iittala’s 140th-anniversary collection, is based on a painting by Mustonen.
“It’s not a geographic map but a map of the mind. It works like an inkblot test. I want the viewer to find a visual world inside their own mind.”
Before Kartta gets its final form at the glassworks, Mustonen has been developing it with Iittala for over a year. This is Mustonen’s third project working with the brand. The first was the Pace exhibition at the Iittala & Arabia Design Centre in Helsinki in 2018, the second a series of wooden sculptures that same year.
“It’s really special to work with a client with such deep roots. I’ve been using Iittala and Arabia products basically since I was born,” says Mustonen.
Strongly based in the digital world, the artist calls himself a beginner when it comes to working with glass. Now, he has the chance to explore the combination of a digital process and artisanship.
“I’ve tried to be involved as much as possible. I’ve crafted wooden molds myself and felled the alders for them. I also made the final steel molds that are used to make the Kartta sculptures,” Santtu Mustonen says. He even welded the steel prototype for the piece himself.
From first gather to sculpture
At 1450 degrees Celsius, the glassworks’ largest furnace, lovingly called Vihtori, has melted the sand into a clear mass that drips down like honey. Next to Vihtori, another furnace called Timo is heating copper-colored glass. A group of six artisans is ready to start blowing the Kartta sculpture.
Master glassblower Heikki Punkari tells us that four people work at a time, while two rest. Working with glass is hot, to say the least, and requires motoric preciseness.
Punkari first dips the blowpipe into the glass in Vihtori to take the first gather. The glass can then cool down for a moment. After that, he goes in and takes the second gather from the colored glass and, yet again, lets it cool for a while. The third gather is clear glass.
Mustonen puts the steel mold in place. Punkari places the end of the pipe at the mold’s opening. In just a swift moment, the glass mass is in the mold, and in the next, the mold is opened, revealing the piece in its final form. From the first gather, the process has taken around three minutes, according to Punkari’s estimate. He has repeated the steps innumerable times. “But I haven’t had a mold crafted by the designer himself before,” says the 66-year-old master glassblower with delight in his voice.
Santtu Mustonen praises the humble attitude of the master. “You can just sense his experience and knowledge. Without him, I wouldn’t have grasped this so well.”
Passion for glass
Heikki Punkari has been accumulating his skills in glassblowing since the age of fifteen. According to him, it takes at least 10 years to learn the craft – a lot of patience is required. He became a master glassblower in 1986 and has worked with the likes of Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, and Oiva Toikka. In 2020, he officially retired, but still comes in to train the artisans.
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the designers would visit the factory on a weekly basis. It motivated us, the artisans. Today, Santtu is one of the few that visit. It has been marvelous to meet a young designer with such a passion for glass,” Punkari says.
“Yeah, I’m imposing myself here all the time. Glass is a new material to me, and I want to learn as much as I can from Heikki,” says Mustonen.
Glass cannot be forced
During his career, the master glassblower has blown objects both easy and hard. According to Punkari, Wirkkala’s Kantarelli and Sarpaneva’s Orkidea and Claritas have been demanding. Santtu Mustonen’s Kartta also presents a challenge for the glassblower. It is a polygon, and sharp edges are more difficult to achieve than a round object. If it is not blown perfectly, the edges might become too thin and therefore break more easily.
According to Punkari, blowing some artifacts requires just the slightest of breaths, whereas large objects like Kartta really do put a strain on the blower's lungs. Hand-eye coordination must also be flawless – although, when blowing Kartta, one cannot really see inside the mold, anyway.
“Glass has a memory. If I do something wrong, it shows. You have to be able to predict the effects of everything you do. Glass must not be forced, but more like guided.”
Who: Santtu Mustonen
- 38-year-old artist and designer.
- Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
- Studied at the Helsinki University of Art and Design and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in the Netherlands.
- Has collaborated with brands like Apple, Herman Miller as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
- Also designed the visuals for Iittala's 140th-anniversary celebrations. The Kartta sculpture collection will continue in Iittala's line after the anniversary year.
Who: Heikki Punkari
- 66-year-old master glassblower.
- Lives in Hämeenlinna, Finland.
- Worked at the Iittala Glass Factory from the age of 15. Was a master glassblower from 1986 until his retirement in 2020. Still trains and guides artisans at the factory.
Text: Anna-Liisa Hämäläinen Images: Antti Vettenranta and Iittala
This article was originally published in Avotakka magazine 11/2020.