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Two Finnish Master Glass Blowers pay a special visit to the Tacoma Museum of Art and ignite excitement from bird- and modern design-lovers alike. 

By Stacy Kendall

Whip-Poor-Will, brown glass bird by Oiva Toikka, Iittala on white background

Whip-Poor-Will, glass bird by Oiva Toikka, Iittala, Tacoma Museum of Art

WHEN IS A BIRD NOT JUST A BIRD? When it’s the iconic, fanatically sought-after glass Birds by Oiva Toikka of Finnish design company Iittala. The sleek and sometimes amusing objets d’art have captivated modern design lovers for almost 50 years ever since the first bird was introduced by Toikka in the early 1970s. Professor Toikka, a legendary Finnish glass artist, is 85 years old, and while he now stays at home, he still personally designs the birds that the company releases annually. Each year, certain birds get retired as the new ones are brought on. Since the inception, Toikka has designed about 450 birds; approximately 40 of them are available in the current collection.

Recently, the Tacoma Museum of Glass celebrated its thirteenth annual Bird Lover’s Weekend, where they hosted two master glassblowers from the Iittala factory in Iittala, Finland—Helena Welling and Juha Saarikko. Sixteen glassblowers in the studio have graduated to making birds, a process that starts with assisting and then grows as the artist’s skill improves. Saarikko is a third-generation glassblower at Iittala and the first in his family to make birds. “It’s an amazing feeling to have seen these my whole life, and, now to be able to do them,” says Saariko. “I have a collection of my own birds that mark special years and occasions, and I have a couple of my grandparents’ and other vintage pieces.”

Juha Saarikko and Helena Welling finishing a bird in the hot shop

Juha Saarikko and Helena Welling finishing a bird in the hot shop at the Tacoma Museum of Glass. Image courtesy Tacoma Museum of Glass

The extraordinary thing about the work that Welling and Saarikko are able to do while working at the Tacoma Museum of Glass hot shop is that the artists get to put their own design stamp on the birds they create there. At the Iittala factory, they create Toikka’s designs, prescribed with very specific shapes and colors. “Here, I can choose the colors and use a bit more creativity—I can be more free,” says Helling. Of course, this makes the birds crafted here highly attractive to collectors, who tune in from all over the world to watch the daily live feed from the hot shop floor. The birds created there are sold through the museum’s store.

Juha Saarikko blowing a glass bird

Juha Saarikko blowing a glass bird. Image courtesy Tacoma Museum of Glass.

Dale Chihuly, the Northwest’s own glass legend, has previously taken his team to the Iittala factory in Finland on numerous occasions, which boasts a dazzling array of colored glass ready in its furnaces, and an especially long annealing oven (which is used to cool hot glass gradually). In the glassblowing world, Iittala is known best for the breadth of its color palette, and “secret recipes” that achieve unique, mesmerizing colors. The red, for example, has been described by the Chihuly team as “unlike any other in the world.”

From the production side, the birds are beautifully simple. They leave the hot shop floor fully formed, requiring no second stage of cold work, or later applications. They are all mouth blown, handcrafted, and no two are exactly the same. “Oiva has said that the shape of the bird just fits glass really well,” notes Heller. “The birds are a small part of the factory, but they are a very special part of the brand.”

The Tacoma Museum of Glass shop sells the Birds by Toikka year-round.


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