Expert Nick Davies salutes the Finnish genius behind the Savoy Vase
Alvar Aalto is today acclaimed as the most important Finnish architect of the 20th century and one of Modernisms leading lights. His success as a designer grew from a combination of self-belief, fortuitous timing and pure instinct. Aalto’s core beliefs lay in a typically Scandinavian symbiosis of nature, man and materials. Aalto was passionate about integrated design concerning himself not only with the building but all its interior elements. It is these elements today that have extended their reach beyond Finnish shores to captivate a worldwide audience. Internationally admired and recognised, his back catalogue is immense. However, one of his most simple creations remains one of his most popular and accessible with today’s audience – the Savoy Vase.
In 1936, Aalto with the aid of his wife Aino entered a design competion for the Karhula-Iittala glassworks. The brief was to design a new range of products suitable for showing at the Paris World’s Fair the following year. Aalto delivered a sequence of sketchy and even casual drawings, some of them reminiscent of cubist still lifes. The designs were given a Swedish code name of Eskimoerindens Skinnbuxa, which translates quite literally to Eskimo-Woman’s Leather Pants. The drawings presented a collection of associated forms from a shallow dish to a vase standing nearly a metre high! Winning acclaim and selection, the range was manufactured and first shown in summer 1937 in the Finland pavilion (built after the design with which Aalto won the national competition in 1936). This striking vase received its (much needed) re-name after a new luxury restaurant called the Savoy opened in Helsinki in 1937. Alvar together with his wife Aino was commissioned to design custom furnishings and fixtures. The vases were placed on every table and their fluid organic forms allowed flowers to be arranged in unusual, more individual ways.
The original Savoy vase was produced in clear, brown, azure blue, green and smoke coloured versions. In the 1950s and later, opal, cobalt blue and ruby red colours were also introduced, and since the 1960s both larger and smaller versions of the vase have been marketed. The Iittala factory still produces both the Savoy vase and other pieces from the series. Aalto worked up to his death with his last great commission in 1969, however he will be most remembered for his early Finnish masterpieces including this simple yet elegant little vase.