Helena Tynell

Helena Tynell’s training in ceramics & sculpture at Helsinki’s School of Industrial Arts (from 1938 to 1943) resonated throughout her career as a glass designer for Riihimäki where she worked for 30 years.

Tynell began her career in 1943, drawing in the mornings for Taito, a lamp manufacturer, and sculpting ceramics at Arabia in the afternoons. Ceramics extended her feeling for form, but she was drawn to glass because of the spontaneity of its manufacture. ‘That was the deciding factor,’ she explained.

Tynell’s introduction to glass came via the Taito company (owned by Paavo Tynell, whom she married in 1947). As a draughtsperson, she drew large numbers of glass parts for lamps, but it was during her first visit to the glassworks that her inspiration was ignited. Here she first encountered the dramatic casting process and glowing molten glass, which Tynell later described as its most beautiful state.

In 1946 Tynell began working as a designer of both functional and art glass at Riihimäki. Her first designs were asymmetric, natural forms with a free-flowing line, but some differ from the restrained aesthetic of organic modernism as they feature idiosyncratic applied decoration.

Riihimäki Glassworks held a Scandinavia-wide design competition in 1949 and in the art glass category, Tynell won third place. In the same year, Finland’s leading glass engraver, Teodor Käppi, rejoined Riihimäki prompting Tynell to further explore surface decoration. She had always enjoyed graphic design, so relished the opportunity to combine drawings with glass. Tynell’s work from this time was engraved with figurative and abstract motifs, which often incorporated birds and leaves.

After the birth of her second child in 1952, Tynell focussed more on sculpture, and experimented with metal as well as glass. Her work for Riihimäki during the 1950’s was less plentiful but the art pieces within her Polar series (1959) are of exceptional note. Designs from this series such as Revontulet (Northern Lights) were made of richly coloured cased glass cut into bold, angular, geometric shapes, and remained in production for 10 years. 

A trip to Italy in 1961 reinvigorated Tynell’s passion for glass: ‘It was like a bolt of lightning,’ she recalled. ‘Glass suddenly became something three-dimensional and much richer than before’. Subsequently, Tynell’s designs became even bolder, larger and more colourful.

Her work for Riihimäki in the early 1960’s was still closely aligned with art objects. However, the mutually rewarding collaboration Tynell had with BEGA, a German lamp manufacturer, resulted in an increased enthusiasm in design for large scale production. This change can be seen in her designs for Riihimäki from 1964 onwards, when she focussed on mould-blown vases for everyday use. Most of these cheerful and tactile designs feature texture or relief patterns. Her work from this period is that which is most recognisable, enduring, and collected.

Perhaps the most famous of Tynell’s designs is Aurinko (Sun) (1964), a circular bottle with a short round neck and flat rim. The centre of the bottle, which is concave front and back, contains a small circle from which radiate beams that fill the entire surface of the vase. Tynell scaled the textured motif into four sizes, which were made in at least 19 different colours over the decade they were in production. Today, many Finnish homes still display an Aurinkopullo (Sun Bottle) but their appeal and collectability extends far beyond Finland.

Other examples of Tynell’s mould-blown vases include those from her colourful ‘Country House’ range (Vanha Kartano,1968). The designs within this series included stylised representations of a bureau (Piironki), grandfather clock (Kaappikello), storehouse lock (Aitanlukko) and, curiously, a busy maid (Ahkeraliisa) -things one might find in a country house.

After the loss of her husband in 1973, and the cessation of fine glassmaking at Riihimäki three years later, Tynell solidified her relationships with international manufacturers, some of which she had been collaborating since the early 1960’s. In line with her exploration of other avenues, Tynell relocated to Germany, and whilst there, worked simultaneously for various other manufacturers in Germany, Sweden and the United States. 

In 1986, after a decade in Germany, Tynell was preparing to return to Finland to retire. Unexpectedly, however, the BEGA company wished to thank her for her tenure by giving her a parting gift; the opportunity to create her own works without any limitations. This was not only enjoyable for herself, but also for the glassblowers with whom she worked. When she eventually returned to Finland later that year, she could not give up her creative work, and began to create spatial works of art from glass, which were exhibited in various major exhibitions at the Finnish Glass Museum, amongst others, up until the end of her life.


With special thanks to Andy McConnell.