Riihimäen Lasi Oy

By Richard Last Spring 2021 | ISSUE 79

As Scandinavian glass takes the retro world by storm, there’s one major glass producer that has been largely overlooked, writes Richard Last. Welcome to the world of Riihimäki.

Founded in 1910 in the small town of Riihimäki, 40 miles north of Helsinki, by Mikko Adolf Kolehmainen (a glassblower formerly employed by Karhula), Riihimäki Glassworks – later known as Riihimäen Lasi Oy – became the largest glassworks in Finland and, despite periodic downturns, held this position for 50 years. At its peak in 1968 the company employed 1200 people in the production of 30,000 tons of glass products annually, making it one of Scandinavia’s largest glassworks.

The expansion of Riihimäki in a relatively short amount of time was remarkable. Riihimäki was foremost a bottle manufacturer and improving the mechanisation of bottle making, and thus increasing profitability, was the main focus for factory management throughout its existence. Because of this, Riihimäki and the full measure of the company’s success has often been overlooked by most writers and collectors, despite the fact that it was the glassworks most responsible for influencing the prevailing domestic aesthetic of mid-20th century Finland.

Early days: Riihimäki’s earliest designs of traditional cut lead crystal and mould-blown table-glass were not alone in their unremarkability; the domestic wares first produced were typical of the output of most Nordic glassworks of the period. As well as table glass and containers, from 1919 the factory produced bottles via a semi-automatic plant, and window glass. Although the latter was short lived – window glass was produced only until 1924 – during the interwar period the range of products made at Riihimäki made continued to broaden. Expansion and modernisation of the company came in 1927 when it bought Kaukalahti Glassworks (1923-52), which made light fittings in Espoo, and for the next five decades Riihimäki was the largest glassworks in Finland.

Carnival glass from Finland: In April 1928, Riihimäki added carnival glass to its output. The new range, promoted as Hoh’to-Lustra, was extensively advertised in both Finnish and Swedish newspapers, where it was described as ‘beautiful, previously unseen glassware that glitters in a miraculous symphony of colours’.

Around seventy different Riihimäki patterns are known: an astonishing output for a relatively small factory, indicative of the popularity of carnival glass in Finland during its years of production. As well as being sold in Finland, Riihimäki’s carnival glass was exported to countries including England, Australia, the USA, Argentina, South Africa, the Middle East, Germany, Estonia, Norway and Denmark. Carnival glass was made at Riihimäki into the early 1940s.

Women designers: A large part of Riihimäki’s success in contemporary glass can be attributed to the work of its female designers. The company was progressively ambitious regarding the employment of qualified designers and hired an unprecedented number of women.

Momentum towards the production of original contemporary glass started in the mid-1920s, when Riihimäki first began commissioning designs from trained designers. Swedish multidisciplinary artist Tyra Lundgren (who began at Riihimäki in 1925 and later designed glass for Kosta and Venini) and Eva Gyldén, who specialised in cut glass, were the first freelance designers commissioned by Riihimäki, and in 1928 engraver Henry Ericsson also began collaborating with the glassworks after winning a design competition that the company had organised. The engagement of professional designers was a real catalyst for change at the glassworks and something the factory continued throughout its operation.

The most transformative collaboration the company had was with Finnish glass and metal artist Gunnel Nyman, who was to become not only Finland’s first female glass designer of international repute, but the country’s first great glass designer, period. From 1932 until her premature death in 1948, Nyman – who was formally trained as a furniture designer but transitioned to glass during the interwar era – produced more than 50 organic, flowing designs for Riihimäki.

In 1933 and 1936, Riihimäki organised two further design competitions that were enthusiastically entered by the design community and resulted in collaborations with other leading designers such as Aino & Alvar Aalto and Arttu Brummer. In addition to these major names, approximately seven others created one-off designs for Riihimäki in the 1930s including Greta-Lisa Jäderholm-Snellman and Toini Muona. Remarkably, the employment of Jäderholm-Snellman and Muona meant that at least six female designers worked for Riihimäki before the wartime suspension of the production of fine glass in 1939 until 1945.

Keeping the basics: Following further expansion from 1937-39, Riihimäki restarted the production of window glass, and in 1946 the firm began producing laboratory glass as well as optical lenses. In 1949 Riihimäki held its fourth design competition, which for the first time was open to submissions from all of Scandinavia. The Art Glass section was won by Arttu Brummer, with the second prize being awarded to Timo Sarpaneva and the third prize to Helen Tynell. Tynell, whose designs ranged from organic forms to geometric engraved patterns, had already been hired as a designer by Riihimäki in 1946, and Brummer had collaborated with the glassworks since 1936. The most significant outcome of the 1949 competition was the company’s discovery of Nanny Still, who, despite the fact that she did not win a category, was offered a job at Riihimäki for her highly geometric designs.

During the 1950s, Still and Tynell were assisted by Aimo Okkolin who, although involved in the company since 1937 as an engraver and cutter, only emerged as a designer from 1952. At the end of the decade Tamara Aladin was hired as a designer by Riihimäki and from this point onwards the chief designers at the factory for the next two decades were three women: Tynell, Still and Aladin.

Growing innovation: The mid-1950s finally marked the end of post-war rationing in Finland. The end of economic restrictions led to growing competition amongst the Finnish glassworks, and from 1961 when Finland joined the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) both foreign glass imports and Finland’s glass exports increased. Resultantly, the work of Tynell, Still and Aladin greatly accelerated, as did Riihimäki’s output of decorative domestic glass. The glass produced at this time was more innovative and original than anything Riihimäki had produced before. The factory’s output can be generalised by its use of bold colour and exaggerated, unexpected forms, which were often hooped.

In the 1960s to the 1970s, Riihimäki produced and exported more decorative glass than ever before. The designs of Tynell, Still, and Aladin reflected the aims and aspirations of a new generation that had shaken off the effects of post-war austerity. In turn, their glass designs made by Riihimäki were key in the construction of the modern interiors and lifestyles in Finland.

The world changes: The year 1973 can be regarded as a turning point in the Finnish glass industry. The oil crisis suddenly raised costs and, at the same time, Finland began to dismantle its historic protectionist tariffs on imported glassware. Finding its products increasingly uncompetitive in its home market, and the international market increasingly tough, Riihimäki ceased making table and decorative glass in 1976. Bought by Ahlstrom in 1985 and merged with Karhula in 1988 under the name Ahlstrom Riihimaen Lasi Oy, in 1990 the Riihimäki factory was closed.

Richard Last is a regular contributor to Antiques to Vintage magazine.
Ref: www.sigmarlondon.com