Timo Sarpaneva and the art of glass

In anticipation of our Design sale on October 26, we’ve unearthed rare footage of a genius at work — Finnish designer and sculptor Timo Sarpaneva, who found in ‘magical’ glass the perfect medium for his sensuous forms

In the years since the end of the Second World War Finland has earned a reputation as a crucible of design, pioneered by the likes of Alvar Aalto, Kaj Franck and Tapio Wirkkala. Alongside these figures, and sharing a similar passion for the marriage of form and function that caught the imagination of design enthusiasts across the globe, was designer and sculptor Timo Sarpaneva

Descended from a long line of blacksmiths, Sarpaneva worked with metal, wood, textiles, ceramics and porcelain throughout his career, but it was his designs for glassware firm Iitala and his sculptures in collaboration with Venini that earned him renown and saw him showered with international design prizes.

The absorbing film above shows Sarpaneva and his team at work on the island of Murano near Venice in April 2000, fashioning one of the glass sculptures that are today so highly sought after by collectors. The 75-year-old Finn is largely seen as a guiding presence while his team apply flame, files and heavy iron scissors to the molten glass as they attempt to achieve the desired forms before it cools. ‘Glass is very mysterious,’ Sarpanevea once commented. ‘It’s changing all the time. That's what makes it magical.’ 


Timo Sarpaneva 1926-2006, Somnium, 1998. 11¾ in (30 cm) high. Estimate £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Design on 26 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Timo Sarpaneva 1926-2006, 'Somnium', 1998. 11¾ in (30 cm) high. Estimate: £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in Design on 26 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Timo Sarpaneva 1926-2006, A Prototype Vase, Circa 1952-1954. 8 in (20 cm) high. Estimate £5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Design on 26 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Timo Sarpaneva 1926-2006, A Prototype Vase, Circa 1952-1954. 8 in (20 cm) high. Estimate: £5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Design on 26 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Several of Timo Sarpaneva’s bewitching sculptures are offered in our Design sale on October 26. Somnium, above left, executed in Murano in 1998, features a thin orange profile that seems to reference the Northern Lights that are such a feature of Finnish lore. A Prototype Vase, above right, is an experimental design that hails from the early 1950s when Sarpaneva was still in his twenties.

Timo Sarpaneva 1926-2006, Uhrihärkä (Offering Bull), 1983. 19 in (48 cm) high; 35 in (89 cm) wide; 16 in (41 cm) deep. Estimate £15,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Design on 26 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Timo Sarpaneva 1926-2006, Uhrihärkä (Offering Bull), 1983. 19 in (48 cm) high; 35 in (89 cm) wide; 16 in (41 cm) deep. Estimate: £15,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Design on 26 October 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

As our short film makes all too apparent, there is only a small window of time available in which to shape glass before it solidifies. Perhaps inevitably, after decades of wrestling with this constraint, Sarpaneva’s exploratory inclinations led him to work with glass that had already set. Offering Bull, above, is a masterpiece from a brief series of experimental works from the early 1980s, when Sarpaneva used mallet and chisel to create monumental abstractions from raw blocks of glass supplied by Iitala.