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The Times Shopper: Finland

The Magical Crafters of Exquisite iittala Glass

November 01, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

Glassware shoppers around the world take notice when they see a little red dot surrounding a little white "i."

That symbol is the company logo of iittala, one of the world's leading manufacturers of glassware and art glass. The finest in Finnish contemporary industrial design, plus constant vigilance to assure top quality, have boosted iittala into its position of prominence on the world market.

Glassware by iittala has consistently taken top honors in international design competitions, including the prestigious Triennales of Milan. Prize-winning tableware and art glass are sold internationally, but buying in Finland, from leading retailers or, better yet, at the iittala Glass Center has distinct advantages.

Not the least of these is price. Even in Helsinki's most expensive gift and home accessories shops, iittala glass sells for about 20% less than in the United States. Also, shops in Finland usually have a greater variety of stock to select from, including both the latest lines of production and some older stock that may not readily be available elsewhere.

Company Headquarters

But the most comprehensive view of iittala glass, and the best buying opportunities, are presented at the Glass Center, the company's headquarters near the town of Hameenlinna, about an hour by train north of Helsinki.

There are iittala's factory, workshops, museum and the well-stocked factory shop that sells all the current production series, plus discontinued pieces and slightly irregular seconds at great bargain prices.

The glass factory operates with a remarkable combination of the latest technology and traditional handwork. The company produces glassware that is unusual in durability as well as in design because iittala's special glass formula yields a hard surface that, unlike other crystals, resists scratching and is dishwasher-safe.

On the fascinating factory tour you'll see that making each piece of glass requires the skilled interaction of a team of three or four craftsmen. One of them gathers the gob of glowing molten glass onto a metal rod and turns it constantly to keep the material in the right shape for blowing. Another craftsman continues to roll the rod to keep the gob properly shaped while lowering it into the mold, and blows the molten glass to conform to the mold's shape. Constant rotation keeps the surface of the glass smooth.

Handles and Spouts

When the glass is removed from the mold, the rod is given to another craftsman to add handles and shape spouts. Still another craftsman removes the glass object and places it on a conveyor belt that moves very slowly through an enclosed area where the heat dissipates very gradually, to prevent cracking or other defects.

This process is like a carefully choreographed ballet. The molten glass, glowing brightly and so hot that it radiates warmth to the entire workshop, is the focus of everyone's attention.

All the complex moves of manufacture take place within just a minute or two, and everyone must perform perfectly. Once you've observed the complex ritual of manufacture and learned about the chemistry and history of glassmaking, you'll have an insight that will forever enhance your vision and enjoyment of even the simplest goblet.

In a smaller glass-blowing workshop, you can try to blow a small vase for a charge of about $12. Even with the supervision and assistance of the professionals, this task is quite challenging. The effort adds further appreciation of the skill required for successful glass blowing.

Heritage Collection

The Glass Center's magnificent museum explains iittala's special glass formula and other technical developments, and displays a rich collection of beautiful antique glass produced during all phases of the factory's history.

iittala Glassworks was founded in 1881 by Petter Magnus Abrahamsson, a Swedish-born master glass blower. The factory gained recognition for producing particularly "bright" and clear glass.

At the turn of the century the glassworks incorporated with another nearby factory. At the time, Finnish nationalism was increasing and the factory's most popular items were etched with the faces of Finnish statesmen and cultural leaders. These glasses are priceless collector items and many are displayed at iittala's museum.

During the 1930s production changed and was modernized when leading Finnish industrial designers, well known for their creation of entirely functional objects of exquisite refinement, began working with glass.

Famous Architects

iittala's reputation soared with the contributions of Aino and Alvar Aalto, Finland's most famous architects. Most famous are Alvar Aalto's series of free-form, amoeba-like bowls and vases, created in 1936 and first displayed at the Paris World's Fair in 1937. The designs have had remarkable staying power and these pieces, still in production, are iittala's best-selling items.

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