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The applied art of glass

Molten glass flows from the end of the blowpipe, still seeking its form and glowing in heavy red spirals, lighting the faces and hands of the glassblowers. Although it takes a long while for the glass to set, shaping it is a hurried task. The light of the furnace gives the glasshouse an archaic and ancient look, but the activities that take place there are fast, precise and modern teamwork – led by designer and artist Markku Salo.

Working by hand was already important for Markku Salo when he was young. He was skilled in drawing and crafts at school, which otherwise was hardly interesting. Salo went on to study at the Kankaanpää Art School, in a two-year course first focusing on painting and graphic art, followed by sculpture. As it happened, he became interested in three-dimensional form and its opportunities. He appeared to have a promising career as an artist before him, but then he decided to study industrial design at the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Industrial design was a new subject at the time. “It was a completely new concept, it was interesting”, says Salo. He wasn’t drawn to interior or textile design, or even graphic design, even though he was a skilled printmaker. Even the fact that industrial design was perhaps the furthest from the arts, did not bother him. “It was due to my interest in technology. And it still had to do with three-dimensional and physical objects.”

Upon graduating from the University of Art and Design in 1979, Salo was immediately hired by the Salora consumer electronics factory in Salo, Southwest Finland, where he headed its design department and was involved in the design of hi-fi equipment. His interest in sculpture, however, lived on from his art studies at Kankaanpää, and he was immediately interested when an opening at the Nuutajärvi glassworks was announced in 1983. “When I saw the announcement, it was obvious that I would apply for the job”, he recalls. “I felt the need for expression that would be a bit less restricted. And there was nonetheless more of an aesthetic side to glass.”

The Nuutajärvi Glassworks
The time-honoured Nuutajärvi Glassworks, which had been founded in 1793, was still thriving in the early 1980s. It produced glass with various techniques, from pressing to blowing. Industrial production was a prominent aspect of the works, and designers Oiva and Inkeri Toikka, Heikki Orvola and Kerttu Nurminen were leading names. Although Kaj Franck had already resigned from his post of artistic director, he visited Nuutajärvi occasionally and his influence could still be felt. Markku Salo was included in designing collections and sets of glassware.

“They had a kind of rule that you first had to design large series of works and they didn’t immediately let you into the art glass workshops”, says Markku Salo. “As a result, the techniques of making large series at Nuutajärvi became familiar.” Salo designed a wider range of objects – sets of glassware, vases and candleholders. The factory offered good opportunities to experiment in the working of glass, making patterns and treatments of the surface. There was a continuous demand for innovations. Salo had the opportunity to collaborate with Kaj Franck, when the Nuutajärvi Glass Museum’s exhibition showcases were renewed.

While his training in industrial design was useful in product development, Markku Salo yearned for more artistic freedom. Gradually, he too was able to work with the factory’s art-glass chair or workshop. His first collection for Nuutajärvi’s Pro Arte series was called Valley of the Kings (1988). It already displayed many of the features that became characteristic of his work in art glass: an architectural and sculptural approach, distinct forms, and the texture and patterns of the surface.

Postmodern forms
The 1980s were the heyday of a style in design and architecture that was known as postmodernism. The clarity, functionality and structural nature of modernism had now given way to ornamentality, eclecticism, ostentation, and even the theatrical. The ideas of the Memphis group founded by Italian designers and architects became widespread, even in Finland. “It had so much of a presence that if you hadn’t taken any clues from that style you would have been completely isolated. It really drew you in”, says Salo. The stylistic features of postmodernism were clearly evident in Salo’s work in art glass in the 1980s, and he notes that some things still have an effect.

There was a growing difference from the aesthetic of Kaj Franck, who, according to Salo, was hardly inspired by the new style. On the other hand, Salo’s mentor Oiva Toikka joined in effortlessly. “Well, Oiva was already a Memphis designer to begin with”, says Salo with a laugh. “He was of a different generation than Kaj… Oiva had nonetheless lived through pop art.” Markku Salo points out that Oiva Toikka’s idiom of form and his rich colours influenced his work, especially its artistic side.

Pâte de verre
Salo was interested in different glassmaking techniques. “I then started to use filigree”, he says. “Though by no means in such a refined manner as Kaj…” For some time, filigree technique had been applied less in glass art, but now new designers and artists experimenting in it came on the scene. Even rarer was the pâte de verre technique that became an inspiration for Markku Salo in the early 1990s. In its simplest application, crushed glass in the shape of the desired object is melted in a furnace. Depending on how much the glass is melted, the results can resemble ordinary cast glass or the piece can remain in crystalline and ice-like lacy form. Colours are obtained from crushed glass of different colour and the shapes are created with moulds. Compared with the blowing of objects in a glasshouse, pâte de verre offers a wider choice of size and colour.

Pâte de verre was also an opportunity to make larger works. Salo carried out his first experiments along these lines in the large crucible furnace at Nuutajärvi. “One of the aims was to make larger glass objects. Not meaning, though, that everything should be bigger, but instead to seek experiences of a new kind to create different or newer things”, says Salo. The large format inspired him to undertake experiments.

At the boundaries of glass
Markku Salo is known for his bold experiments in glass and for seeking the boundaries of the material. “It comes with this profession that you’re always exploring the possibilities of your material”, he says. “It is a way to forge ahead, to test the boundaries of the material or to develop new techniques. It is also way for artistic progress”, he continues. “You discover worlds through which you can seek other things. At first, it may be an end unto itself to develop techniques without considering the artistic goals. The new technique will then reveal what it can be adapted to, and what could possibly be expressed by it.”

The experiments led to new ideas. Some of Salo’s works combining metal netting and glass had their origins in a random occurrence. “It happened at the beginning, when I was allowed to use the art glass workshop”, he recalled. “I had booked a session there, but I wasn’t well prepared. I didn’t have enough ideas. I saw some metal netting in the studio and I came upon the idea of making a kind of pocket-shaped mould out of it by folding it. I told the guys to blow glass into it. It came nicely through the netting, bulging and coming through the holes.” Salo had originally thought of using the netting only as a mould, but then decided to include it in the piece. It marked the beginning of a long series of works.

Art glass by Markku Salo is often in series – he has said that this may be due to his own background in serial manufacturing. An idea, a theme, emerges and it is tested and varied. The names of the works are important, too, as they provide instructions for seeing and lead to insights.

Opposition and scale
Combinations of metal and glass are characteristic of many works by Markku Salo. In these pieces, the glass is fragile and organic with soft forms, while the metal rods and netting are thin, precise and sharp. His best-known works are most likely his quietly humorous glass dogs, descendants of the traditional dog-shaped spirits bottles of glassmakers.

Metal also plays an important role in Markku Salo’s large artworks. While providing a supporting structure for glass, it is also an equal material that creates a contrast for glass. Salo’s latest work is a multi-part sculptural installation for the Tampere University Central Hospital. Although it gives the leading role to stainless steel, glass is naturally included in it.

The Tampere installation continues Markku Salo’s series of large works. His first ones included the astounding, over three-metre long Danger of Frost, which was made for the Light and Material exhibition in Helsinki in 1987. This bird-like sculpture had flapping wings powered by an electric motor. In the summer of 1998, Salo held an exhibition in the caves at the Retretti Art Centre in East Finland, displaying pieces of immense size, mostly in pâte de verre technique. These experiential works combined light and sound – and even movement. In one of the installations an industrial robot moved glass objects by Salo according to choreography by dancer Aku Ahjolinna.

The scale of Markku Salo’s works ranges from small to large: from utility objects and hand-held Pro Arte art glass pieces to artworks with dimensions of several metres. “It’s fun to make large works”, he says. Opportunities to make them are rare, and it is interesting to try out new things. The large pieces are not enlarged scale models. Designing them calls for a different way of thinking – once again challenging boundaries.

Inspiration and the subconscious
Salo usually finds his ideas for new works, whether in glass art or utility objects, by experimenting. “By doing, simply by doing”, he describes the origins of ideas. “By getting interested in things. And the thing called inspiration hardly exists. There are moments of greater clarity and thinking more clearly… when you’re active, things will develop and crystallize.”

In his creative work, Markku Salo is exceptionally able to make use of the borderline state between sleep and being awake. In between sleep and waking up he can take up something that he has considered and study it, with the aid of the subconscious. “It’s a kind of free moment”, he says. “It has led to results. When you wake up completely, you can immediately test if the idea is any good. Of course there are always situations where you find a damn good idea while you’re still more asleep and then when you wake up completely, it turns out to be useless…”

Since time in the glassmaking workshop is costly, Salo always prepares carefully for it. “I want to coordinate what goes on in there”, he notes. “I usually make a mould or have one made. Of course there are things that can be made without moulds, basic stuff.” Moulds and designs also ensure that the artist’s ideas are realized as planned.

An entrepreneur from Nuutajärvi
Markku Salo has been an entrepreneur for over twenty years. He established his Muotohuone firm at Nuutajärvi in 1991, and receiving a five-year state artist grant in the following year meant that he had to resign from his former position at the Nuutajärvi Glassworks. Muotohuone produces both unique, one-off art glass and utility glassware in small editions – carafes, bottles, vases. The products reflect the basic features of Salo’s oeuvre: the small series combine clear-cut form with colourful glass, while in the unique pieces form is less restricted. All the objects are made at Nuutajärvi.

Markku Salo observes that entrepreneurial success in applied art and design requires a professional and active approach. It is necessary to have contacts, also abroad, and they must be taken care of. Exhibitions are a good way to remind people of oneself. “They also spur creative work”, he notes with a smile. “When you agree upon an exhibition, it has to be done. That has been a tactic for me, to agree on holding exhibitions at regular intervals.” The numerous grants and prizes Salo has received, the Georg Jensen Prize and the State Award for Industrial Arts among them, have also encouraged in continuing on the chosen path.

Although the Nuutajärvi Glassworks closed in 2014, the community still carries on as an active centre of glass art. Markku Salo has made a significant personal contribution to developing the Nuutajärvi Glass Village. Vocational training in glassmaking at Nuutajärvi, which had been launched in 1993, was also threatened, but the Cultural Foundation of the Nuutajärvi Glass Village, founded in 2014, acquired through donations a new furnace for the Nuutajärvi Glass School, which has now been officially taken into use. Salo speaks warmly of the local glassblowers and the students of the Glass School. This field still interests young people and new glassblowers are emerging. “A few students have actually come to the conclusion that they want to blow glass for artists and designers, and to progress within their own profession. Finland needs craftspersons with top-level skills, people who are attached to craftsmanship and are proud of it”, Salo observes.

Alongside the Glass School there are several firms and companies of the glass sector at the Nuutajärvi Glass Village, the glasshouses are hot, the products of local craftspersons are on sale, and the Prykäri Glass Museum, designed by Kaj Franck and now part of Design Museum, is still open to the public.

Art and industry
Markku Salo was drawn to glass by his interest in sculpture. He regards glass specifically to be a material for artistic expression, rather than just a typical raw material for making utility objects. Industrial manufacturing proceeds from the function of the object, but in glass art Salo wanted to move on from tradition.

He describes traditional art glass as involving vessels: “More difficult vessels were made, but they also had their starting points in applied art.” Here, too, Oiva Toikka served as an example; his works could have been of other materials as well, since artistic expression had led them beyond the traditions of applied art.

On the other hand, he makes his works of art only for himself. “You can’t go around asking others if this or that is nice. Of course you feel out things. When you ask other people for their views, your own ideas gain support. But making art is… the responsibility is all yours”, Salo says. “In industrial design you can blame production engineers for ruining something, which can sometimes be true…” Salo commends the atmosphere at the Nuutajärvi Glassworks, where artist-designers sparred and supported one another, and one could even protest against the demands of production. The working of glass is, of course, always collaboration with the glassblowers. But even though the glassblowers may come up with quite critical comments and suggestions, the final word rests with the artist and designer.

Salo says that industrial production and art are mutually enriching. “This combination of art and design is quite exciting… You have to be slightly dichotomous, since the work proceeds from starting points that are so different.” Industrial manufacturing has to consider the user, another person – and even the salesman, he laughs. The available production technologies, however, influence design, laying down the parameters. And the ideas of Kaj Franck are still influential: function precedes form. “It involves compromises. Applied art. That’s a good term, applied art. A dash of art… free, but nonetheless quite strict.”

© Anne Veinola