Curvaceous and free-flowing, the Savoy Vase designed by Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino can’t be pigeonholed to any specific decade.
Although it was designed in 1936 by this talented duo as part of a competition, it certainly doesn’t have the usual angular decorative features normally associated with the art deco period.
Given the landscape in Finland where Alvar and Aino made their names in architecture, interiors, furniture, lighting, textiles and decorative objects, the vase is often poetically linked to the country’s many lakes and waterways. The numerous birch forests are often cited as being of inspiration. But the truth is considerably less poetic; it was inspired according to most sources by the leather breeches worn by Eskimo woman. But who wants to imagine leather breeches while dining at the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki (designed by the Aaltos) in which the vase first appeared?
The Savoy restaurant features a Savoy Vase on every table. There are also tea candles in the same shape as the vase, dotted through the place, along with glass cabinets displaying some of the original vases created in the 1930s and originally produced by the Karhula-Iittala glass factory (now Iittala). The first thing one notices are the imperfections in the original glass rather than the smooth finishes of vases that appear today.
Some also compare the form of the sculptural vase to the sinuous lines of Alvar Aalto’s plywood chairs, in particular his chairs for the sanatorium he designed outside Helsinki, with its relined form allowing patients to literally stretch out and improve their breathing on the terraces in the crisp Finnish air. However, as with the comparison to the landscape, the reality is that the vase was initiated by blowing glass around a set of wooden sticks stuck into the ground to create the vase’s distinctive wavy outline.
Architect Peter Williams, director of Williams Boag Architects, has a number of Savoy vases in his home in Parkville, Melbourne. One of his first purchases was after visiting the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki. The vase standing at approximately 290 millimetres in height, features the original smoky green glass used in the 1930s.
“I see the vase like ‘frozen liquid’,” Peter says, who also appreciates the way each one is produced. “The wooden mould tends to disintegrate after five or six vases are made.” Peter also enjoys arranging flowers in his savoy vases, suggesting shorter stems and fuller blooms. And although the Finnish wouldn’t see too many banksias, Williams often fills his vases with this Australian native. The slightly dirty or smoky green glass in his first purchase nearly 10 years ago also plays with the natural light and highlights the irregularly shaped rim. “It’s that fact that the glass varies in thickness that creates this wonderful play of light.”
Those who prefer to see flowers arranged in a stiff upright position may not immediately gravitate to the Savoy vase, even though it took pride of place at the Paris World Fair held in 1937, a year after it was designed. But many of those sitting around a table at home, or at the Savoy restaurant in Helsinki, will appreciate the way flowers placed in the vase lean towards each diner. And even if they remain completely empty, the vases appear as wonderful sculptural forms on the table.