Finland’s superwoman of glass art

Anu Penttinen likes cityscapes, loud colours and expressive forms. Finland’s new generation of glass artists is here.

One of Finland’s most unique and successful glass artists, Anu Penttinen lives in a tiny, picturesque village, but she finds inspiration in street maps, man-made environments, cityscapes and urban details – not the usual ingredients of Finnish glass design.

Penttinen has exhibited her eye-catching glass art throughout the world, including the US, Japan, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia. She also has her own shop, Nounou, in the downtown Helsinki neighbourhood of Punavuori, but lives in Nuutajärvi, a village located 150 kilometres (93 miles) northwest of the capital and known for its glassworks and glass artists.

“I like the process of glassblowing,” she says. “It is immediate, and you have to make quick decisions. I like how the hot glass behaves – it has its own personality. However, it’s not an easy material at all, and that’s why it keeps me interested.”

Lively colours and strong patterns play


“Glass is more like a lifestyle than just a job,” says Anu Penttinen.Photo by Timo Junttila/Iittala

The most important element of her design nowadays is colour. For about a decade, she used only black and white. Then she started to integrate more colour. “It’s really challenging,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s interesting to come up with colour combinations that work well with the patterns that I use. It is never just one or the other – it’s colour with pattern.”

Penttinen works with glassblowing, kiln-forming and cold-working techniques, creating a wide selection of glass objects, from small boxes to lamps, glass birds and unique pieces of art. She is exploring the relatively new roll-up technique, where sheets of glass are fused, rolled to form a cylinder and then blown into a shape.

“It is an interesting technique, and the most important one for me at the moment, because I can do things now that weren’t possible before,” she explains.

Finland made its entry onto the international stage of glass design in the mid-1930s and has since soared from one success to another with such dominating figures as Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala, Kaj Franck, Nanny Still, Timo Sarpaneva and Oiva Toikka, to name just a few. For the designers of the present generation it has not been easy to get out from under their predecessors’ shadow, but glass artists such as Harry Koskinen, Markku Salo, Hans-Christian Berg and Anu Penttinen are now household names in Finland and abroad.

Making a living from glass


The combination of colour and pattern play the key role in Penttinen’s design today.Photo: Leena Karppinen

“Nowadays, it’s increasingly common for the glass artists to make their own work,” says Penttinen. “In the old days, none of the glass artists in Finland actually knew how to blow glass. And then again, there are many industrial glass designers today who don’t know how to use glass.

“Nowadays if you actually want to make a living from glass, and you make your own pieces with your own two hands, it is quite difficult to get it out there, to get the recognition. It is quite a new idea for people that you can actually make your own glass objects because in the old days they were just made in the factory.”

Glassblowing, a physically demanding process with its hot kilns and toxic chemicals, used to be a male domain. But no more.

220 years of Nuutajärvi


The younger generation of glass artists do their own glassblowing, coaxing the material into divulging its secrets.Photo courtesy of Anu Penttinen

Penttinen was born in Helsinki but has been living for years in Nuutajärvi, a village that she describes as “a quiet place with a long history of glass making.”

“Nuutajärvi means a lot to me,” she says. “It’s a very good place to work and live, because glass is more like a lifestyle than just a job,” says Penttinen, who lives in the former home of Kaj Franck, one of the leading figures of Finnish design.

“There’s a special flair in the village, and that also means something to others who use the same material as I do, and think the way that I do.”

The town, the like-minded people there, and the surrounding nature serve primarily as resting points, rather than sources of inspiration. “It’s not as if I ever bring nature into my work, because my work is mainly inspired by big cities and details in the cityscape. But the environment here just makes it easier to be a glass artist.”

Nuutajärvi is populated by some of the finest glassblowers in the country. There are also artists, as well as students of glass design and glassblowing. About ten independent glass artists live and work here in their own studios and hot shops. The glassworks, which belong to the design label Iittala, celebrates its 220-year jubilee in 2013 – but Iittala is moving glass-art production to its main factory in 2014.

However, Penttinen emphasises, “This doesn’t mean that the village is closing down. It could be even something positive. It does not affect the village or the tourism. We artists have our own workshops and studios here. The designers here all have close ties to Iittala, and that will continue, just that production will move to another place.”

By Rebecca Libermann, May 2013