Birds by Oiva Toikka: Iconic Timeless Design

There are lots of elements to think about when redesigning a room. You need to get the colour scheme right and make sure the furniture both fits the overall look and is comfortable to use. Then, there are those little extras that add the personal touch. Ornaments are important and few shout “good taste” more than a flock of glass birds by Oiva Toikka, an iconic timeless design. They are that perfect overlap of artistry and craftsmanship that look as good now as they did when he started making them 50 years ago.

Time to tweet yourself?

What comes to mind when you hear the word “birds”? Maybe songbirds in the garden, seagulls at the seaside or a colourful parrot in a gilded cage? If you’re a twitcher, then it’s about exotic visitors worth travelling hundreds or even thousands of miles to see with your own eyes for a few seconds. A film buff probably sees them as objects of terror from Birds, the Hitchcock masterpiece; a bookworm gets the same vibes from the Daphne Du Maurier short story that inspired him.

They have a place in art too. Doves feature in religious art dating back more than 5,000 years, often a symbol of peace, hope, change or of the soul ascending.

Others have specific meaning. The eagle stands for independent spirit; the peacock represented Hera or Juno, the queen of the gods, in Ancient Greece or Rome. The raven or crow could be sickness and death, but could also be a message of guidance and wisdom.

Then there are those that are simply birds. They stand for nothing apart from decoration and their own beauty. There is no hidden meaning apart from their own spectacular form. This is the category explored by Oiva Toikka in his series of iconic glass ornaments. While some designs are sought-after by collectors – just look Iitala birds up on eBay – most are freely available. There is no reason they can’t brighten up any home, office, or hotel lobby.

Behind the name

Before going into the designs and delights of the birds themselves, let’s spend a little while finding out about the master who thought up the look. After all, Oiva Toikka was the one had the idea and then found the skilled craftsmen to make it reality. He is a big name not just in his native Finland, but across the world of fine art. You will find his inspirations on show in museums around the world, including the British Museum in London. The Finnish Glass Museum in Riihimäki has the biggest collection, but wherever you are in the world, there are almost certainly examples of his work near you.

Finland has a rich history in the art of glassmaking. With an abundance of quartz, wood and water – the raw materials for making a high-quality product – they have been using glass for at least 4,000 years. It has been a major industry in the country for 300 years. There are so many factories and studios that an informal “glass trail” has grown up. It runs from the capital, Helsinki, to the north.

Who was Oiva Toikka?

Oiva Toikka was born in 1931 on a farm in Viipurin Maalaiskunta, the rural municipality surrounding the then-Finnish town of Vyborg, now part of Russia. Luckily for him, he grew up at a time when Finnish glass art was starting to gain an international reputation.He trained in ceramics at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, but quickly took his talents into the world of glass. He soon gained a reputation for innovative practical designs with product lines such as Kastehelmi and Flora tableware ranges after joining Iittala in 1963 on the recommendation of another Finnish design legend, Kaj Franck.

The curiosity and imagination Oiva Toikka brought to his work meant he was never afraid to deviate from the streamlined functionalism that characterised Nordic design. Instead, he favoured colourful, artistic creations often inspired by nature. His big impact on the art world came with the Birds by Toikka series.

He made the first in 1972 and was still making them not long before he died in 2019. He came up with hundreds of models that are still being made today at the Iittala glass factory in Hämeenlinna, 40 miles from his original workshop in Urjala.

His awards include the Lunning Prize, a Finnish State Award for Crafts and Design, the Pro Finlandia Medal, the Kaj Franck Design Prize, the Finland Prize and the Prins Eugen Medal. Not only did he win prizes, but his design expertise earned him commissions for stage productions, most notably with both the Finnish National Theatre and the Finnish National Opera.

Birds by Oiva Toikka

Oiva Toikka’s birds have become famous symbols of Scandinavian glassware. The earliest example was just a small part of his “Lake Palace” sculpture, made in 1969. That one sparked the revolution in his thinking and you can see how it led directly to the Flycatcher, the first of the Oiva Toikka birds to enter production as a piece in its own right.

Over the next 47 years, he came up with more than 400 different vatiations. Each bird is a unique individual, signed and with the insignia of Nuutajärvi, where it was made, or Iittala, the manufacturing company. The collection is a rich example of mouth-blown glassmaking traditions.

Toikka saw himself as a rebel against functional design. His use of free-blown or trailed glass was always unconventional, even when he was working with plain glass. Then he started to add colour – a lot of colour.

The outstanding characteristic of his most famous series is the sense of movement obvious in each example. The exact movement varies, they may look as though they are running, dancing or flying, but they are almost always in action. They are sometimes inspired by seeing real birds in motion, but a lot came straight from his imagination.

Nor was he confined to examples from his native species in the north of Europe. There are pigeons, ducks, owls, pheasants, tits and finches, to name just a few. Each one is an individual with strong characteristics. More importantly, each is individually blown, no mass manufacture here.

It’s safe to suggest many people develop personal relationships with these little glass creatures living in their homes. It is like owning a live pet, but without the cruelty of the cage.

Keeping each bird unique

The way they are made means each bird is unique. Even with the early Flycatcher figures, there were variations in style and colour that kept the line fresh and innovative. Oiva Toikka made it clear he had no intention of playing things safe or seeking perfection. “There are enough perfectionists around,” he once said.

“The work with the glassblower is the beginning of everything,” Oiva Toikka, told the Kvadrat Interwoven website. “It is only when I see the craftsman I’ll be working with in the morning that I make up my mind about the day’s experiments. Our work is to make the most of his talent, together.”

He made a point of not trying too hard to lay down hard and fast ideas on paper. Instead, he preferred to design as we went along. “The object is as good as the conversation with the blower during the glassmaking process,” he added.

Sometimes even mistakes could point him in a new and novel direction. A slight error in one project could take him off in a different direction – maybe another species of bird, maybe a different colour scheme for a style he had done before.

Fresh looks by design

By its nature, glass blowing is done at speed. The craftsman can add details to the design later, but the fundamental form has to take shape in the first few puffs. Fail there and all they can do is chuck it back into the furnace and start again. That worked perfectly for Oiva Toikka.

His preference for artistic creations particularly suits his birds range for Iitala. Birds in nature are naturally colourful so he could fulfil many of his ambitions just by staying true to life. They are also naturally fluid in their form. Blown glass is the perfect medium for capturing their movement.

The possibilities are endless, and Oiva Toikka was happy to explore all the scope of his chosen subject. “Maybe there are people who get excited by a fish sculpture, but a wood grouse is still the best gift for a guy from the Finnish woods,” he observed.

A sense of daring curiosity drove his thoughts. Combined with his creativity and love of technical experimentation, Oiva Toikka created a distinct body of work never limited by artistic boundaries.

Still innovating

Nor did Oiva Toikka’s ideas die with him. Three boxes dating from the time he worked at the Iittala factory later came to light. Inside were drawings, sketches, and patterns that had never seen the light of day before.

After talking it through with his family, Iitala decided to launch a new line, The Curious Mind of Oiva Toikka, to showcase the ideas they had unearthed. The range is mainly tableware, textiles, and art prints, but there are birds in there as well as other designs inspired by the bird range.

Refreshing the line

Oiva Toika’s art is available anywhere and there are hundreds of examples to choose from. You can pick up a curious pigeon, a cheeky chick, an idle duck, a quirky owl or any of the other examples from his quirky range.
No wonder, people from all over the world collect examples of Birds by Oiva Toikka.
Glass-bird collectors track down rarities and discuss sightings, their enthusiasm matching that of their counterparts in the ornithological world. This creates a strong second-hand market. Iitlala also sells new Birds by Toikka directly on their website.

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