From the December 2019/January 2020 Issue  

The Savoy Vase

Writer Ren Miller

It reportedly takes seven craftsmen, 12 work stages and 30 hours to create just one Savoy vase.

After winning a competition more than 80 years ago, this undulating design is just as popular today

Think about the stylized geometry of the Art Deco vases you might have purchased if you were decorating a home in the 1930s. Then imagine the eye-popping modernity of the Savoy vase, a sensuously undulating design that won a glass design competition in Finland in 1936, garnered raves at the Paris World Fair in 1937 and went on to become an icon that is now part of the permanent collections in museums worldwide.

It all started when Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), who had studied architecture in Helsinki, decided to create furniture, lighting and fittings for the buildings he designed. When Finland’s Karhula-Iittala glassworks (now known simply as Iittala) announced it would organize a competition to acquire designs suitable for showing at the Paris World’s Fair, Aalto drew sketches of a collection that ranged from shallow dishes to a 3-foot-tall vase. He named the collection Eskimåkvinnans skinnbyxa (“Eskimo Woman’s Leather Breeches”), suggesting Aalto was imitating folds of soft leather. Some have suggested Aalto may have been inspired also by the rounded shapes of Finnish lakes, while others note the architect’s last name is the Finnish word for “wave.”

Regardless of the inspiration, the curves of the vase demonstrated the design world’s growing fascination with organic shapes and the art world’s interest in modernist abstract painting and sculpture. The folds in Aalto’s glass designs create painterly gradations of color. The folds seem almost random, but their placement—even the varying widths of glass—have a specificity designed to create the look Aalto wanted. The color is pale and almost transparent where the curves are largest but more intense and almost opaque where the curves are tighter.

Achieving the look had its challenges. Aalto originally wanted the glass to be mouth-blown into molds made of thin steel sheets bent into the appropriate shapes. When that didn’t work for the sharpest curves, steel molds were replaced with wood (with the wood burned away once the glass hardened), later to be replaced by cast iron. Though the type of mold has evolved, the glass is still mouth-blown into it.

Aalto encouraged people to use pieces from the collection to hold fruit, cacti, flowers or even nothing. They were designed as sculpture, he felt, so the end-user could decide their purpose.

The Savoy vase became the most well-known piece of the collection. Designed in collaboration with Alvar’s wife, Aino Aalto, it’s named for the Savoy, a luxury restaurant that opened in Helsinki in 1937. The Aaltos designed the interiors and fixtures for the restaurant and decided each table should have one of the vases. Flowers fall naturally into the folds of the glass, allowing for unusual and eye-catching arrangements. Even today the restaurant’s website calls the Savoy vase its “best-known interior design detail.”

For all the vase’s popularity, Aalto never received money for the design because it belonged to the manufacturer. However, the design burnished his reputation—and continues to do so—and that value is inestimable.

The vase, also known as the Aalto vase and still produced by Iittala, originally measured 5.51 inches high and came in sea green, azure blue, brown, smoke and clear. Today, it comes in 3.7-, 4.7- and 6.3-inch versions, as well as a 10-inch version in a slightly different shape, and in more than 20 colors for $125 to $210., or