The Ultima Thule

Tapio Wirkkala Achieved Fulfillment

From His Many Design Challenges

by Joelle Steele

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The old expression “Ultima Thule” referred to the northernmost part of the world, the hardest place to reach, and the ultimate goal of the intrepid explorer. This term is also the name of one of the world’s best known glassware series designed by Swedish Finn designer Tapio Wirkkala(1915-1985). The Ultima Thule is also an apt expression for describing his style of work.

Wirkkala was also a teacher, and he taught that “The artist gets his fulfillment ... in overcoming the technical problems involved” in creating his art. But struggles in overcoming technical problems could be ameliorated if the designer understood that “All materials have their own unwritten laws ... and the designer should aim at being in harmony with his material.”

Tapio Wirkkala, glass artist and designer

Designer Wirkkala must have also lived by his words, since his wide range of skills included carving bobbin-shaped long-legged birds, making both wooden and metal prototypes of cutlery, making sculptures and jewelry, and creating beautiful glass masterpieces inspired by the same Arctic landscape that forged the term “Ultima Thule.”

He was always drawing, but Wirkkala was originally trained as a sculptor at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Helsingfors, where he graduated in 1936. Ten years later, he won an engraved glass competition instituted by Iittala Glass, with whom he began a working relationship that lasted until his death in 1985. During his entire time with Iittala, he also maintained his autonomy as an independent designer, creating works for a wide variety of companies, such as Hackman Oy, for whom his cutlery and hunting knives set new design standards worldwide.

Wirkkala found success in fine art with his massive “ice” sculptures, but is best known for his artistically crafted mundane and utilitarian, commercially mass-produced items, such as bank-notes, beer bottles, drinking glasses, cutlery, and even airline food service products. He is known for his industrial design, architecture, and works in glass, ceramics, and silver.

It was Tapio Wirkkala who was at the forefront of the 1951 Milan Triennale awards, which first brought Finnish glassware its international acclaim. The list of awards he has won from all over the world for his artistic achievements is absolutely staggering. He is one of the most decorated artists in Finland.

It must be genetic! Veli Ilmari Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) was a descendant of Terjärv parish’s Caino-Torp line of ancestry, the source of many accomplished and creative Swedish Finns, including Ray Dolby (Dolby Sound), Johan Ludvig Runeberg (poet), and a wealth of writers, artists, churchmen, educators, military leaders, politicians, and men of industry.

Wirkkala was born in Helsingfors, not Terjärv parish, but he is nevertheless a direct descendant of the founder of that parish’s Caino-Torp line, Ragvald Koiraniemi (1430-?), his 14th great-grandfather, many of whose descendants took the names Caino and Torp. As an artist and writer and Ragvald’s 17x great-granddaughter, I am honored to share my ancestry with Tapio Wirkkala and others of that line. We should all be so fortunate to leave our mark in this world and receive such recognition for our efforts as he did.

This article last updated: 08/06/2008.