Riihimäki Glassworks

Riihimäen Lasi Oy (Riihimäki Glassworks) was founded in the small town of Riihimäki, 40 miles North of Helsinki, in 1910 by Mikko Adolf Kolehmainen, a glassblower formerly employed by Karhula. The factory was in production for a total of 80 years and during that time, produced a vast variety of glass products. In the late 1920s, Riihimäki became the largest glassworks in Finland and, despite periodic downturns, held this position for 50 years. At its peak in 1968 the company employed 1,200 people in the production of 30,000 tons of glass products annually, making it one of Scandinavia’s largest glassworks.

The size that Riihimäki grew to in a relatively short amount of time was remarkable. The company was progressively ambitious regards the employment of qualified designers. They hired an unprecedented number of female designers and the fine glass they produced experienced ever-growing celebration. This said, fancy glass (attractive glass for use in people’s homes) was never central to the company directors’ attentions. First and foremost, Riihimäki was a bottle manufacturer and, accordingly, improving the mechanization of bottle making, and thus increasing profitability, were the main subjects for factory management throughout its existence. For this reason, Riihimäki and the full measure of their success has been overlooked by most writers and, subsequently, collectors.

Nuutajärvi and Iittala are considered Finland’s most significant glassworks. Indeed, they received more design awards than Riihimäki, but the distance of both these companies from glass products for industry was, and is, an essential part of people’s perception of their supposed greater refinement and prestige. What is most unjust about the prejudice towards Riihimäki, based on their association with glass for industry, is that they were the glassworks most responsible for the prevailing domestic aesthetic of Mid-20th century Finland. Moreover, the largest part of Riihimäki’s success (outside of the realm of glass for industry) can be attributed to the work of female designers. This cannot be said of any other glassworks in the world, yet the history is still largely untold which reveals further bias against the factory.

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Arguably, the glassworks’ early history isn’t glamorous as the majority of the domestic ware first produced was not only retrogressive in design but derivative. However, Riihimäki’s earliest designs of traditional cut lead crystal and mould-blown table-glass were not alone in their unremarkability. The domestic wares first produced were typical of the output of most Nordic glassworks of the period. As well as table-glass and containers, from 1919, the factory produced bottles via a semi-automatic plant and window glass. Window glass production was short lived, lasting only until 1924 but, during the interwar period, the products Riihimäki made continued to broaden. Expansion and modernisation of the company came in 1927 when it bought Kaukalahti Glassworks (1923-52), which made light fittings in Espoo, and for the next five decades Riihimäki was the largest glassworks in Finland.

Like Iittala, Riihimäki’s output did not achieve individuality until the late-1930s. However, momentum towards the production of original contemporary glass started in the mid-1920s, when Riihimäki first began commissioning designs from trained designers. Tyra Lundgren (who began in 1925) and Eva Gyldén were the first freelance designers commissioned by Riihimäki, and in 1928 Henry Ericsson also began collaborating with the glassworks after winning a design competition that the company had organised.

The engagement of professional designers was a real catalyst for change at the glassworks (and something the factory continued to do throughout its existence), although, the designs Lundgren, Gyldén & Ericsson produced were still chiefly in the prevailing neoclassical Art Deco style. In terms of the evolution of Riihimäki’s domestic glass, the most transformative collaboration the company had was with Gunnel Nyman. Nyman was to become not only Finland’s first female glass designer of international repute but the countries first great glass designer, period. From 1932 until her premature death in 1948, over 50 designs by Nyman for Riihimäki came to fruition and significantly, from the outset, the partnership indicated to all that Riihimäki were committed to modern design.

In 1933 and 1936 Riihimäki organised two further design competitions, which were enthusiastically entered by the design community and resulted in collaborations with other leading designers, such as Aino & Alvar Aalto and Arttu Brummer, respectively. Riihimäki’s association with the rising starchitects Aino & Alvar Aalto and the highly respected interior designer and educator Arttu Brummer further bolstered their design legitimacy.

In addition to these major names, approximately seven others created one-off designs for Riihimäki in the 1930s including Greta-Lisa Jäderholm-Snellman and Toini Muona. Remarkably, the employment of Jäderholm-Snellman and Muona meant that at least six female designers worked for Riihimäki before the wartime suspension of fine glass in 1939 until 1945. 

Following further expansion from 1937-39, Riihimäki restarted the production of window glass, and in 1946 they began producing laboratory glass, as well as optical lenses.

In 1949, Riihimäki held their fourth design competition, which for the first time was open to submissions from all of Scandinavia. The Art Glass section was won by Arttu Brummer, with the second prize being awarded to Timo Sarpaneva and the third prize to Helena Tynell. Tynell had already been hired as a designer by Riihimäki in 1946 and Brummer had collaborated with the glassworks since 1936, therefore, the most significant outcome of the 1949 competition was the company’s discovery of Nanny Still. Still did not win a category, but her entries were successful in landing her a job at Riihimäki.

During the 1950s, Still and Tynell were assisted by Aimo Okkolin who, although involved in the company since 1937 as an engraver & cutter, emerged as a designer from 1952. At the end of the decade, in 1959, Tamara Aladin was hired as a designer by Riihimäki and from this point onwards the chief designers at the factory for the next two decades were three women, Tynell, Still and Aladin.

The mid 1950’s finally marked the end of post-war rationing in Finland. The end of economic restrictions led to growing competition amongst the Finnish glassworks, and from 1961 when Finland joined the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) both foreign glass imports and Finland’s glass exports increased. Resultantly, the work of Tynell, Still, and Aladin greatly accelerated, as did Riihimäki’s output of decorative domestic glass. The work produced at this time was more innovative and original than anything Riihimäki had produced before. The factory’s output can be generalised by its use of bold colour and exaggerated unexpected forms, which were often hooped.

In the 1960’s to the 1970’s, Riihimäki produced and exported more decorative glass than ever before and retrospectively, there is no other body of work as large as this that was as consistent at successfully capturing the spirit of the time. Tynell, Still, and Aladin’s designs for Riihimäki reflected the aims and aspirations of a new generation that had shaken off the effects of post-war austerity. In turn, their glass designs made by Riihimäki were key in the construction of the modern interiors and lifestyles in Finland.

The year 1973 can be regarded as a turning point in the Finnish glass industry. The oil crisis suddenly raised costs, and at the same time, Finland began to dismantle its historic protectionist tariffs on imported glassware. Finding its products increasingly uncompetitive in its home market, and the international market increasingly tough, Riihimäki ceased making table and decorative glass in 1976.

Design gained increasing importance the more challenging the situation got for the glass industry in Finland. All those involved in the production of glass at Riihimäki were aware of the context in which they were working yet the decision to end the manufacture of art and utility glass came as a complete surprise. Furnaces were officially extinguished November 30th, 1976, however, the glassblower Lasse Suvanto, for example, blew prototypes for Helena Tynell, on a full-time basis, until November 9th.

After 1976, the factory was solely involved in the production of packaging glass and plastic. In 1985 the Ahlström corporation (today Ahlström Munksjö), that already owned Karhula Iittala, bought Riihimäki, only to close it five years later.

Since 1980, part of the former Riihimäki glassworks has been home to the Finnish Glass Museum, which was founded in 1961. The museum presents glass dating back over 4000 years, with emphasis on the 300 year history of Finnish glass.