The Savoy vase (ca. 1936-37) by Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto (b.1898-d.1976), is a unique, organic shape in glass, that exemplifies the designer’s vision of Finnish modernity and has become a national symbol for the nature and culture of modern Finland.  Beginning in the early 1930s, Aalto turned his focus away from architecture and devoted considerable effort as a glass designer. He was motivated by the desire to offer people everyday objects that were both derived from nature and accommodated a human sensibility.

In the autumn of 1936, the Karhula Iittala glassworks announced a new glass design competition for the World’s Fair exhibition in Paris in 1937. Alvar Aalto submitted an entry titled, “Eskimåerindens skinnbuxa” (The Eskimo woman’s leather breeches), which showed five designs for vases, roughly drawn on colored bits of cardboard and sketch paper. The sketches superbly described the glass object’s distinctive free form and its serpentine, sinuous contours. Aalto was awarded the entry first prize[1].  Working closely with Aalto, the Karhula-Iittala glassworks developed a way to make these challenging designs by blowing the glass into wooden molds that gradually burned away. The following year, the prototypes were ordered by a new luxury restaurant in Helsinki called the Savoy, which helped coin the vase’s name.

The form of the “Savoy” vase demonstrates Aalto’s quest in his work of the 1930s for the natural and organic, and also reflects the morphologies of his Finnish homeland’s forests and lakes[2].  Like nature’s random arrangement, the vase’s wave-like, often uneven edges force flowers or the like placed inside to adapt, by either falling against an inward contour or by resting within its undulating form. The oblong expansions of the vase’s shape relate to the profile of Finland’s lakes and bodies of water, while the rippling effect on the sides recalls the lines of trees in the expansive Finnish forests.

Cooper Hewitt’s “Savoy” vase is an early example of the design, however the product is now mass-produced by Iittala glassworks and can be purchased in various sizes and colors from design and department stores. While its modern shape and material makes the vase amenable to any interior anywhere in the world, each person that owns this vase brings Aalto’s symbolic expression of the Finnish identity and culture into their own environment.

[1] Schildt, Goran. Aalvar Aalto: The Complete Catalogue of Architecture, Design and Art. New York: Rizzoli, 1994, p. 268.

[2] Reed, Peter, ed. Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998, p. 30.

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