Tapio Wirkkala

Southern Ostrobothnian river landscape

aviation plywood




“What are my works that are made of rhythmic plywood? Sculptures?”

In notes written in the 1950s, Tapio Wirkkala (1915–1985) asked himself how he should classify his sculptures made of aviation plywood. Undoubtedly the question caused an extreme division within the Finnish art world: industrial designers designed and sculptors sculpted.

Wirkkala’s own concept crossed the border between the two. He saw that his work converged with the works of the modernist sculpture’s great pioneers, Constantin Brancusi, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner. He considered his work as introducing elements of natural phenomena, going to their very roots with their regularity. He also referred to the similarities between the structure of seashells, wave patterns on sand, water-eroded stone and the harmonic patterns of Lissajous’s curve.

Wirkkala treated the limitations imposed on him by the material he chose to use with humility. “It cannot be handled violently”, he stated. Tapio Wirkkala was familiar with the prerequisites of handling wood. He had trained as a decorative carver and also knew the properties of aviation plywood. This form of engineered wood, made from thin layers of wood-veneer, hot glued together, had been manufactured in Finland as early as the 1890s. Admittedly the material was used for much more than just aeroplane propellers.In the 1950s Wirkkala took on the master carpenter Martti Lindqvist (1915–1975) as his assistant, whose contribution to this large art work was significant.

The lines revealed in the cross-sections of the cut plywood entranced Wirkkala, unsurprisingly, as the artist was highly skilled at drawing, and he could draw a perfect circle without the help of a compass. The lines of the plywood describe the fields surrounding the river, the disc of the sun and the three river boats in “Southern Ostrobothnian river landscape”. The large relief work is exceptionally representational, but is made up of ultimately abstract elements. Their forms can be found in other works by Wirkkala. The sculpture of the sun can be found replicated in his platters, reminiscent of an artist’s palette.

Tapio Wirkkala’s design production forms part of the heart of Finnish design’s international triumphal march, in the 1950s, from the ‘heroic period’ onwards. His sculptures were given optimal artistic attention at the Milan triennial, but they were only shown in Finland for the first time as independent pieces in an exhibition in the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, EMMA, 2009–2010.

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