Travelling to the Ultima Thule

Päivi Häikiö

A design as contemporary and genuine today as when it was first conceived

A funny thing about getting older is that one day you notice that you’ve grown to love an object that you considered as one of the ugliest items in the world when you were a child. I recall my family eating simple Finnish milk ice-cream of the early 1980s (that no Italian would ever even consider classifying as ice cream) out of Tapio Wirkkala’s Ultima Thule bowls and me thinking: “Wow, how ugly can an object be?”

Then, all of a sudden, someday decades later, you hold the same object in your hand (wearing corduroy trousers and enjoying the candlelight emanating from Iittala’s Festivo candle holders as you did way back then), and consider that same bowl to be one of most beautiful items you have ever seen. 

Iittala’s Ultima Thule, one of the most iconic Finnish glass items, celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year and it is now as contemporary and genuine as when it was born. Simultaneously fragile and robust, engraving the heritage of wood and its pattern on glass, it captures the essence of being a Finn in a mesmerising way. The bottom of the glass resembles dripping icicles. Ultima Thule – the ultimate North.

When we began thinking of how to visualise Ultima Thule in its anniversary year, I started by reading more about Tapio Wirkkala (1915–1985), one of the icons of the heydays of Finnish design. When he designed this glass tableware series, years after his international breakthrough as a designer and artist, he was already strongly rooted in the very northern end of Finnish Lapland. By then, he had created some of his iconic installations and captured the North in wood (for example The Ultima Thule wood installation for the Montreal World exhibition of 1967) and glass art items. Ultima Thule was a crystallisation of his work and made it available to the public: In the 1970s you could easily find Ultima Thule in any regular Finnish home. 

It was clear that in giving tribute to Wirkkala's work we needed to show Ultima Thule's northern roots and capture the fleeting beauty of ice when it starts to melt and create structures and patterns. From words to actions: One day I found myself riding a snow scooter with the photographer Anton Sucksdorff down a very bumpy and icy, almost non-existing road. We were guided by a local reindeer farmer to the lake Paadar in the Lemmenjoki area somewhere in remote Inari. There in the wilderness far from any roads lies the traditional cottage where Wirkkala lived part-time since 1959 and from where he created some of his masterpieces. The landscape itself has probably hardly changed over the years since trees grow very slowly in the North and Wirkkala might have been sitting on a dead wood trunk on the shores of the same lake and carving the pattern of Ultima Thule by hand fifty years ago.

On the day we rode down the icy road, the Lemmenjoki river had already started to melt. It was spring but the lake was frozen and covered with snow. We saw the frozen fishing holes in the lake and the half-melted ice, moulded by spring water that had created patterns like the ones in Wirkkala's glassware. The inspiration gifted by nature, an ever-changing and challenging material, is breathtaking. A part of the magic of the Ultima Thule is probably that it captures the wilderness and creativity of the faraway north in a unique way. It gives a concrete form to a certain Finnish state of mind of being in peace when dwelling in nature. Hearing the emptiness; breathing in the crispiest northern air. And at the same time, Ultima Thule is evidence of how a true master creates objects that truly last time and remain contemporary year after year.

Ultima Thule, our love-hate affair is from now on a long-lasting love affair.

Read more about Ultima Thule and Tapio Wirkkala in this Iittala Journal article:

Photographs by Anton Sucksdorff

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