design classic: Kartio by Kaj Franck 1958


Kaj Franck (1911-1989) trained as a furniture designer and interior designer in Helsinki and after graduating in 1932 he worked as an illustrator, textile designer and interior decorator. In 1945 he joined the ceramic company Arabia and became their chief designer but also worked in the late 1940s for Iittala and in 1951 he was appointed artistic director of the Nuttajärvi glass works so he is now more widely known for his glass and tableware designs.

In 1955 he was awarded the Lunning Prize and travelled first to the United States and then to Japan. 

The Kartio tumbler was designed in 1958 as one of several simple and practical pieces of table glass that were produced for both domestic use but also for commercial restaurant and cafe use and also for export. Kartio means cone and the shape could not be simpler … a truncated cone with a flat base and angled sides. It stacks easily and the smooth, slightly-rounded thickening of the base not only gives the tumbler a good balance when picked up but helps to prevent the stacked glasses being chipped and scratched.

One definition of good design is that there is a point reached in the design process where nothing can be added and nothing taken away without spoiling the form of the work and that is certainly true of the Kartio tumbler. The simple shape has beautiful clean lines and proportions and it is obvious that if, for instance, the angle of the side was made steeper and the top tighter then it would not be as easy to drink from or as easy to stack and if the top was taken outwards it might look more dramatic but would probably be less stable. The design has been refined to a point where visually and physically it has a strong sense of equilibrium.  

Another yardstick by which to judge good design is that it should express the best qualities of the material and its form and any decoration should reflect and make the best of the characteristics of the manufacturing process and, unless there are very good reasons, that form should take as the starting point its ultimate function. The Kartio tumbler certainly ticks all those boxes. Perhaps some people would argue that this makes the glass rather stark or even slightly boring and some might use words like functional or utilitarian pejoratively as an implied criticism but it is the simplicity of the design that makes it timeless. Some good design is good because it simply and quietly gets on with the job it was meant to do. The Kartio glass is coming up to its 60th birthday but my guess would be that anyone who is not a design historian would be hard pressed to guess its age.

Over the years Kartio has been made in coloured and clear glass and is still in production by Iittala who now control the Nuttajärvi works. The catalogue from the design museum in Helsinki, Kaj Franck Universal Forms published in 2011 has a short but interesting section on which colours were chosen and why and why and when over the years new colours were added and some colours stopped. Even the simplest design can be influenced by or set new fashions. 

Aitio shelving from iittala by Cecilie Manz 2014

Cecilie Manz graduated from the School of Design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1997 and, after a period of study at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, she returned to Copenhagen where she has established her own studio.

Designing furniture, lighting and household products, she has worked with many of the major Nordic design companies and manufacturers including B&O, Fredericia, Fritz Hansen, Holmegaard, Kähler Keramik and Muuto.

The Aitio shelving range was designed for the Finnish company Iittalia and has been in production since 2014.

There are three designs in metal - a square box, a double-width box and a shallow wide shelf - all with the same form with a base plate with the edges turned up and, wrapped around that, shaped metal forming, in a single piece, the back and sides folded round to the front to almost meet at the centre. The proportions; the silhouette of the stepped down sides and the quarter-round profile of the folded corners and the cut-out of the base piece are all very carefully thought through. In less-skilled hands the end result could have been clumsy or crude but actually the designs have real finesse and illustrate very clearly the difference between a design that is basic or functional and a design that is carefully refined … minimalism is not a starting point for a design but an end point, so as here, might perhaps be better described as reductionism with the designer seeing how much to take away, how much to simplify and knowing exactly when to stop. 

A robust metal bar is fixed to the wall and has notched lugs over which the shelf drops … the shelf having simple holes drilled in the back … and two dimples, towards the bottom edge of the back, keep the unit vertical over the back plate.

These boxes can also be used on a work top or on a desk without being suspended from the wall.

There are three colours - a white that is not brilliant white but almost stone or cement, a gun-metal grey and a mustard - and all in a matt finish.

There is a fourth option with a wooden shelf that is supported on metal end brackets that echo the form and the profile of the other shelves.

Careful attention has been given by Iittala to the design of the packaging - both for the way the cardboard box protects the item during shipping and storage while in stock but also for distinct graphics and typography.

the new Ruutu vase from iittala


Ruutu, the new range of glass vases from the Finnish company iittala were designed by brothers Ronan and Erwan Bourouille who are based in Paris.

They have a distinct and very elegant profile with four vertical sides but not set to form a cube with a square or rectangular base because, when seen from above, the four sides form a narrow or compressed diamond but with tight rounded rather than sharp-angles. 

Each vase is hand blown but using a metal mould to control the shape and to give a production run consistency.

By blowing the glass, the thickness of the sides can be graded - with the glass at the long outer corners very thin but then thickening gradually towards the corners that are on the short axis. So, although the sides are straight and consistent in thickness vertically, this change in thickness towards the centre along each side, within the glass, and a heavy gathering of glass across the base gives the vases not only a surprising weight but also, and more important, the gradual change in thickness modulates the way light passes through the vase or is reflected to give the glass an incredible depth and richness. 

There are plain version of the vase in clear glass but they come in a carefully-chosen range of colours with a deep sand colour called desert, a moss green, a smokey grey, a copper, a deep red called cranberry and a lighter red called salmon pink.

Selecting colours with great care is a hallmark of glassware from iittala and, with their considerable experience and technical skill, they produce glass that is reliably consistent in colour year after year. In each range, such as the Kivi lights or the Kartio water glasses, colours are produced that can happily be mixed together but then, over the years, iittala also cleverly introduce new colours into a range to keep the product alive and in demand … so designs can be not only familiar and dependable, retaining customers, but can also, with a distinct new colour, be fresh and fashionable to follow or to set new trends in table settings. 

In their shape the Ruutu vases may seem deceptively simple but it is clear that a phenomenal amount of thought and care has been taken over proportions not only for each vase but also for the relationship between the different sizes if vases are put together. The different heights and sizes can be used on their own, on a shelf or low table for instance, but they are also designed to be set in multiples and would make a dramatic centrepiece for a dining table … with a group either all in one colour or in one size or carefully mixed.

we don't do it like that here .... getting the Iittala habit

Iittala tableware.jpg

Several Finnish friends have told me that girls in Finland, when they are about 15 years old, choose a style of china, usually from Arabia or Iittala, and choose a colour or a pattern and make this known to family and friends. Then at events like birthdays, achieving good exam results or whatever, everyone knows what to buy as a present … some plates or cups in the chosen design. Steadily and regularly the collection grows.

Of course the idea is not new … this is a modern survival of the wedding dowry or trousseau or what was called in England in the 1950s and 1960s putting something away in the bottom drawer. From aristocratic families in Italy in the 14th or 15th century to prudent middle class families in Victorian England to the glory box in Australia, the idea was basically the same - to give young women the best possible start in the expensive business of setting up the first home of their own.

The Finnish variation presumably involves more friends and over a longer period and carries with it an interesting message for manufactures … that quality of design and continuity, over and above novelty, are really important and loyalty to brand or design is possible for long-term marketing. This doesn't thwart new designs or stop innovation: it just means that sometimes step changes should be considered - a new colour that compliments an established range or a new pattern on an existing shape - and of course it means maintaining production and stock over a reasonable period - no change just for the sake of change. 

OK not very romantic but incredibly practical … in those early and expensive days of setting up a new home you can have good, well-made china on the table that reminds you of your friends and family but is also, crucially, what you like, chose and want. Quite a bit better than five toast racks on the wedding day and quite a bit fairer if you delay marriage or never marry. 

The only odd thing was that no one talked about what the boys get.

cooking with Iittala

Tools from Iittala.jpg

The Tools range from Iittala, with roasting trays, saucepans and saute pans, was designed by the Swedish designer Björn Dahlström in 1998. 

The material, described by Iittala as “compound technology”, is a sandwich with an inner core of aluminium, to give an even distribution of heat through the whole pan, but with outer layers of stainless steel for durability.

The pans can be used on all types of hob, including induction hobs, and can be used in the oven so the casserole can be used for browning and the initial stages of preparing a recipe and can then be transferred from the hob to the oven. 

Robust, sensible handles means that lifting the pan is easy and the simple lines and rounded angles makes cleaning straightforward.

The roasting pans are fantastic for vegetables or meat and can be taken straight to the table for serving. The smaller pan (shown above) is 41cm by 36cm, including the handles, and is 6cm deep and there is a larger pan 37cm by 41cm, including the handles, which is again 6cm deep. 

The larger pan somehow seems to look relatively small in the shop but rather larger on the work top in the kitchen so ... as a slight word of warning ... if you are taken by the larger pan then just check that your oven is wide enough to not only get the pan into the oven but that there is enough space to pick the hot pan up or pull it forward by the handles on either side when taking it out of the oven.

I apologise for the smears on the casserole in the photograph - this is my pan on my stove just before I started cooking - but it would appear that I am rather more skilled at taking photographs than I am at washing up ... but at least it shows that my review is very much from hands-on experience.

The 3 litre saucepan

Marimekko, Artek and Iittala in Helsinki

Perhaps the best place to start to explore design in Helsinki is from Esplanadi. This is a long park or garden running east to west that is lined with shops and hotels. The Cathedral and main government buildings are close but with the harbour, where the main Baltic ferries arrive, at the east end of Esplanadi and with the central railway station (designed by Eliel Saarinen) just three blocks to the north, this is often one of the first places visitors to the city find.

On the north side, at Pohjoisesplanadi 33, is the flagship store of Marimekko. This is on a large corner site, so it has plenty of window display, and the shop is set out over two floors. The displays of textiles and clothing inside the shop are amazing and when you need to rest then Marimekko have their own cafe - Marikahvila - at the back of the store which opens out onto the circular atrium of a large up-market shopping arcade.

On the south side of the gardens, immediately opposite Marimekko is the flag-ship store for Artek at Eteläesplanadi 18. If you can’t make it from one store to the other without a rest then there is an open-air cafe in the middle of the gardens between them. 

Just to the east of Marimekko is the Iittala store and opposite that, to the east of Artek is, appropriately, the Savoy Hotel with the restaurant after which Alvar Aalto named the Savoy Vase . The vase is still made by Iittala and much of the interior of the hotel designed by Aalto survives.

investing in good design

By investing in good design I don’t mean buying an outstanding piece of furniture that might make a fortune at an auction in the future but buying something that is beautifully designed and that is well made and is a pleasure to use.

When I was a student and living in a shared house I invited my tutor and his wife round for supper. Although there were glasses in the cupboard in the kitchen they were all different and all pretty grim - either donated by parents and obviously dug out of the attic as “good enough to do a turn” or they were glasses with odd logos on them and had been “borrowed” from one of the local pubs.

I went out and bought a set of plain glass tumblers from the recently-opened Habitat store. Forty years on I still have those tumblers; still use them every day at breakfast for juice and at supper for water. I still enjoy using them and I still think the design cannot be bettered. 

It was some years later that I found out those tumblers were designed by Kaj Franck in 1958 and that they are still made by the Finnish company Iittala. Occasionally Iittala adds a new colour to the range but the form and the quality of the glasses is the same.

So that’s what I mean by investing in good design. Buy something that you like - something that not only looks good now but will not look dated next year; buy something that is well made and does what it is meant to do and does it well. Those are key qualities that mean that a piece of furniture or an item of tableware can become a design classic.

Maybe one day my tumblers will end up in a recycle bottle bank but they’ve served me well for forty years so they probably have a place and a use for a few more years to come.

design classic: Lederhosen of an Eskimo Woman

First produced in 1936, this glass vase was designed by Alvar Aalto inspired by the traditional costume of Sami women. Initially it was called Eskimåkvinnans Skinnbyxa but was subsequently renamed the Savoy vase after the luxury restaurant that opened in Helsinki in 1937.

The shape was created by blowing molten glass into a ring of irregularly spaced wooden sticks to create wave like and slightly sloping sides but as production increased first wooden and then later steel moulds were used. The vase was displayed at the World Trade Fair in Paris in 1937 and I believe it has been in continuous production since that year. The first vases were 140mm high but smaller versions are now produced by Iittala. Nord has one of the large vases, attracting much attention, in the window display, and a selection of smaller vases in clear, coloured and opaque white glass, sometimes called milk glass.

design classic: the Sarpaneva casserole

This cast-iron casserole was designed for Rosenlew by Timo Sarpaneva in 1963 but has been reintroduced by Iittala. The ingenious curved wooden handle can be used to carry the pot from the oven to the table and then can be slipped out and latched into the top to remove the hot lid. The heavy iron ensures slow even cooking and the enamel lining means easy cleaning and maintenance.

Just a few points: don’t leave the handle on when the pot is in the oven (as if you would!) and as with all cast iron, dry the pot well immediately after washing. If you do forget the casserole when it’s in the oven and it burns dry then don’t panic and plunge it straight under the cold tap - a sudden change of temperature can make any enamel lining “crizzle” - better to allow the pot to cool slightly and then fill with warm water and leave it to soak.