A momentary encounter; a reverberation of a margin; an expansion of unity.

(Lee Ufan)

Many comparative studies have been made between the cultures of Japan and Finland. For example, both countries are said to have shared common roots in the Ural-Altaic language group. Ikigai, the Japanese concept for “reason for being” is equivalent to the Finnish sisu, which denotes courage and determination to lead a positive life. Both cultures are highly sensitive to the power of nature and the nourishment of the spirit. However, it is in art and design that keeps the two cultures most intimately interwoven, despite being geographically remote from each other. The Japanese and Finnish artistic approach breathes principles of simplicity, minimalism, colour subtlety, tranquillity, and affinity toward natural surroundings.

Honourable artist Lee Ufan was born in Korea but moved to Japan in his twenties, and the Finnish contemporary product brand Iittala proves their correlation characteristics in their ongoing exhibitions in Tokyo.

Lee Ufan

Mono-ha or “School of Things” was an interdisciplinary art movement active at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. It is focused on natural and industrial materials, such as stone, steel plate, glass, wood, and others, and the holistic energies they emit in relation to the surrounding space and outdoor environment. Lee Ufan was a prominent member of the group who absorbed Eastern and Western philosophies. He transposed those thoughts into the integration of material and nature in visual art, as well as in literature. The latter included the famous essay “From Object to Being” (1969) and his book “In Search of Encounter” (1971), which served as an essential foundation for Mono-ha. He remarks, “Humans try to build, nature tries to restore itself. I present the gate where both sides can be seen.”

The exhibition Lee Ufan is being shown at the National Art Center, Tokyo until November 7 in commemoration of the center’s 15th anniversary. This is the artist’s first major large-scale retrospective showcase in Tokyo since his previous show at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2005. The exhibition is divided into sculpture and painting.

Lee’s Relatum sculpture series, which he started around 1968, reveals three-dimensional pieces combining stone, steel and glass. The objects are unaltered and positioned with adequate distance between each other to emphasise the spiritual relation between object and place, object and space, object and object, and object and image. Two enormous outdoor installations in steel and stone: RelatumEscargot (2018/2022) and RelatumThe Arch (2014/2022), pull visitors close to the empty space encircling them. In the arched work, one may experience the wholeness of the environs upon walking beneath the arches.

His paintings, Landscape I, II, III (1968/2015), emanate magnetic optical illusions. Others experiment with reactions on minimal brushstrokes and blank spaces, such as Dialogue (2020) and Response (2021). He wrote, “Artistic expression is a revelation of an infinite dimension.” Lee was also granted the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in 2009.

Iittala Stars of Finnish Glass

The superior design of household and decorative objects has been Finland’s emblem of craft excellence. For 140 years, the Finnish lifestyle brand Iittala has carried the flag of sheer elegance, fine sophistication, modern functionality and timelessness.

Bunkamura Museum in Tokyo is showing Iittala Stars of Finnish Glass until November 10. Celebrating Iittala’s 140th anniversary, the showcase is Japan’s first large-scale travelling exhibition of the brand, reconstructed from the Finnish Design Museum exhibition of 2021. It presents more than 450 works of ceramics, porcelain, glasswork, videos and installations. A special section is also devoted to the intertwined relationship between Japan and Iittala.

Founded in 1881 in Iittala village, south of Finland by Swede Peter Magnus Abrahamson, Iittala started as a glassblowing factory that gradually adopted modern design principles of form and function. In the 1930s and 1940s, Iittala reached international success owing to the crucial collaborations with design legends like Alvar and Aino Aalto, Kaj Franck, Timo Sarpaneva, Oiva Toikka and Tapio Wirkkala whom all helped carve the Iittala design philosophy.

The brand’s history journeys through stylish designs by Kaj Franck, considered to be the “conscience of Finnish design.” He emphasized basic forms and proportions and separated style and fashion from tradition. His best-known series Iittala Teema and Kartio imbue the simple tones of everyday life, accentuated merely by strong colours. Franck, "I want to make use of objects that are so obvious that they are not noticeable.”

The collection of glass vases and tableware by distinguished architect and designer Alvar Aalto is still mouth-blown in the Iittala factory. The famous Aalto Vase, also called the Savoy Vase, created with Aalto’s wife Aino, is an iconic piece of Finnish design, which was presented in different sizes and colours at the World Fair in Paris in 1937. Its organic shape, identifiable by undulating waves, has shaped the heritage and symbol of the Scandinavian style.

Awarded with the Lunning Prize (1956) and the Grand Prix at the Milan Triennale (1954, 1957), Timo Sarpaneva created the Iittala “i” logo and is best recognized for the bark glass Finlandia line, the irregularly formed mould-blown Marcel Vase, and the streamlined i-line glass products, among others. Beautiful Ruutu vases by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and the famous Paadar, Forest and Kantarelli glassware by Tapio Wirkkala are equally remarkable.

Iittala’s familiar relationship with Japan goes all the way back to the 1950s and 60s since Kaj Franck’s periodical visits to Japan. During a trip to Kyoto, Franck was mesmerised by the raw beauty of Japanese tea ceremony utensils, cast iron, and ceramics. Soon, promising collaborations with Japanese designers began to develop. The home collection Iittala X Issey Miyake with unprecedented designer Issey Miyake was released in 2016 and revealed textiles (including the designer’s famous folding and pleating techniques), porcelain, and glassware in pale colours and simple geometric shapes. Iittala X minä perhonen was presented in 2020, incorporating fabrics, tote bags, ceramics and accessories by designer Akira Minagawa who nurtured a deep connection with Finnish culture. Finally, we can witness the natural wood treatment by acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma in Iittala’s Omotesando flagship store and café. Kuma recreated a feel of the Nordic forest by utilising white ash wood frames, hanging wood poles from the ceilings, and minimally treated interiors while fusing them with traditional Japanese techniques. “Nature has always been part of their lives. We designed to create a feeling of resonance between the two cultures,” Kuma explained.

Iittala’s valuable impact on Japanese design and vice versa is a living testimony of the two cultures’ mutual dependence on fostering a sustainable and timeless relationship.