Greetings from Finland!
(1 July 1915 – 18 July 1988)
Climb up the stairs to Arabia Factory building’s 9th floor and enter the ceramic studios of the famous Arabia Art department. Working underneath a beautiful lemon tree, you could once find one of Arabia’s most original designers: Birger Kaipiainen.
Kaipiainen is strangely unique among Arabia ceramic artists in the sense that he almost exclusively focused on producing unique art pieces, and only on rare occasions ventured into designing mass-produced tableware.
Kaipiainen spent many childhood summers with an artist couple, friends of the family, at Sortavala close to the Russian border. He and his friends would roam along the shores of Lake Laatokka, Europe’s largest lake, and climb the nearby hills to hear the bells of Valamo monastery situated on an island in the lake. His early coming into contact with orthodox christianity fuelled a passion for symbolism and art.
His childhood in the pastoral landscape of Eastern Karelia also implanted flora and fauna as important themes for his work. He and his childhood friends would participate in bird-watching and bird-ringing to help track migratory birds. He was fascinated by the birds’ internal clock that helped time their migrations. Curlews and skylarks became a favourite motif, which reminded him of his childhood. They are associated with summer nights and are popular motifs in folk sayings and poetry.
In 1958 Kaipiainen’s ‘Kiurujen yö’ (Night of the Skylarks) pattern won the wallpaper design competition held by Pihlgren & Ritola. It remains one of the company’s most popular prints, along with another similar design ‘Ken kiuruista kaunein’ (Who is most beautiful among Skylarks?). The nostalgia for the past and melancholic style present in his work appealed to the sensitivities of people living in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Kaipiainen’s romantic motifs and colours captured the fairy tale mood and poetry of nature. The wallpaper designs’ original colour was a deep midnight blue, Kaipiainen’s favourite colour, and one that dominates much of his production. His first tableware designs for Arabia included the delicate blue floral print, known as Arabia Tapetti or Tapestry. The other notable blue motif was his profuse use of violets. Kaipiainen once said in an interview: “Chopin loved violets, and I love Chopin”.
Kaipiainen’s mother was eager to encourage the sensitive youth to develop his artistic talents, and so he began studies at the School of Arts and Crafts, which was then a part of the Ateneum museum. He Initially studied theatre set and costume design, before moving on to ceramic painting.
Kaipiainen remained deeply interested in many forms of art. Theatre and classical music are recurring themes in many of Kaipiainen's ceramic works. Some of his wall plates are like miniature theatre settings with stage curtains, mirrors, chandeliers, and musical instruments; suggestive of stories about to happen. Later on he made some theatre sets and costumes, including for Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet and Yukio Mishima's Madame de Sade. Kaipiainen described his collaborations with opera and theatre as his ‘favourite hobby’.
At the School of Arts and Crafts, Kaipiainen also met many of the people, who would become his life-long colleagues and friends, such as Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, Rut Bryk and his perhaps closest friend, Armi Ratia, founder of Marimekko. Indeed Armi Ratia almost succeeded in convincing the multi-talented Kaipiainen to become a fabric print designer for Marimekko. However, the few initial sketches never made it to production, – a pity, as such a collaboration would undoubtedly have been something iconic.
At the age of 21, Kaipiainen graduated and immediately joined Arabia’s Art Department. He started out as a decorator of vases, bowls and jugs. The next year Kaipiainen became infected with Polio, which partially paralysed his right foot. He refused amputation and had to use a walking stick for the rest of his life. Unable to use a pottery wheel, he resorted to shaping clay like a cook handling dough: rolling, cutting, kneading, and sculpting it into interesting shapes.
On the other hand, his disability spared him from military service and he was able to continue working. A 6-month study exchange in Milan, Italy, heavily influenced his early work, such as the tableware decoration Arabia Ravenna, named after the city famous for Byzantine mosaics. The decorations of this period reveal many Italian Renaissance and Byzantine artistic influences in figurines resembling those of Botticelli, the painter of the Birth of Venus.
Yet, Italy’s influence on Kaipiainen is far more significant in terms of material and technique: His methods became increasingly complex, done in 3-dimensional relief, and included metallic colours, small ceramic pearls and pieces of glass suggestive of Byzantine mosaics. He also studied and was a master of the sgraffito technique, or scratching the pattern into the unfired glaze. These ceramic designs were highly decorative and rich, at a time when post-war minimalism was the prevailing trend in Finnish ceramics.
In 1954 Kaipiainen moved to Sweden, to undergo a four-year “work-exchange” at their sister company Rörstrand. During this time Kaipiainen had his big breakthrough, and was exhibited in New York and Milan Triennale, where he would soon also win Grand prix for his Helmilintu (Pearl bird) sculpture. Like all great Kaipiainen art, it has a story attached to it: the sculpture was put together by assistants at the hospital bedside of Kaipiainen, who had broken his leg.
Sweden transformed Kaipiainen’s work, adding stronger, more vivid tones to his colour palette and also the influence of mysticism and surreal artists, like Nils von Dardel or Marc Chagall appeared in his motifs. Kaipiainen was fascinated depicting the world of memory, dreams, and symbols, like the clock - which mysteriously is always frozen at 12:15. Some have speculated that this was perhaps a secret joke aimed at the Rörstrand factory manager, who would chastise Kaipiainen for his habit of starting work at 12:15.
Kaipiainen’s success also prompted large public art commissions. Perhaps you’ve seen one in Helsinki, the wall relief inside Stockmann's department store or the swan sculpture in the lobby of Finlandia Hall?
Kaipiainen found the love of his life at the late age of 40 and married Maggi Halonen on Christmas Eve in Paris. His wife died only 8 years later, followed the same year by Kaipiainen’s mother. It is said that Kaipiainen covered his wife’s coffin with blue violets. Afterwards violets and angels became important motifs in his work. The tragedy pushed Kaipiainen to work intensively and during this period he created his largest artwork. The huge 40m2 ceramic mural, Orvokkimeri, took over six months of solid work to create and required Arabia and Turun Posliini factories to produce over 2 million ceramic balls, a veritable sea of little ceramic pearls!
A true monument to love, Orvokkimeri won the Grand Prix in the Montreal Expo in 1967. As a continuation of this work, Arabia took the flower detail and made the Pro Arte -limited edition Viola wall plates.
Midsummer 1969, King Badoiun and Queen Fabiola of Belgium visited the Arabia factory and fell in love with a design Kaipiainen had just made. The queen wanted to buy it for her home. This design, initially named simply ‘Tarha’ (Orchard), was launched the same year under the now iconic name Paratiisi (Paradise). It attracted royal attention also from Former Empress Farah of Iran, who purchased the series for her home in Tehran during a state visit to Finland. Perhaps this is not surprising, as Kaipiainen was called “the King of Decorators”.
His illustrations of fruits were born from another reminiscence from his youth, where the young art student’s drawing skills were being evaluated by his teacher Ester Elenius and artist Wäinö Aaltonen: Aaltonen presented Kaipiainen with a paper bag full of fruit. He poured the contents on a ceramic bowl. Out came apples, pears, oranges and grapes, which he asked the student to draw. The beautiful scene left a lasting impression in Birger's memory.
Kaipiainen also wanted to design the dish model for Paratiisi, the ‘BK -model’, the original faience version can be recognised from the oval-shaped plates. Paratiisi also represented the latest technology in decoration as one of Arabia’s first silkscreen printed decorations. Kaipiainen’s idea was to combine printed dishes with single-colours to create variation and accents in table settings. To accompany the colourful Paratiisi designs he made the aptly named yellow and white dishes ‘Aatami’ and ‘Eeva’ (Adam and Eve).
The original Paratiisi was only in production for five years. Along with Kaj Franck’s Kilta series, it was dropped in 1974 due to the oil crisis and economic depression. Despite the setback, Kaipiainen was one of the lucky ones, being among the only three artists (along with Rut Bryk and Heljä Liukko-Sundström) who were kept in the Art Department when the company had to downsize.
Finnish people’s love of Birger Kaipiainen’s art brought the designs back into production in vitro porcelain: Paratiisi’s reproduction and remodelling of round plates (1988) was one of the last things Kaipiainen designed just before his death. Alongside the remodelling Richard Lindh designed the new Black & White version of Paratiisi.
Later in the 2000s, Arabia would also relaunch Apila (2006) and Sunnuntai (2019); as well as the new colour Paratiisi Purple (2012) and spin offs, such as Heikki Orvola’s tribute design Keto-orvokki, for Kaipiainen’s 100th anniversary (2015).
This designer introduction was written by Laura Heinonen from the Astialiisa Online team, about her favorite Arabia artist.
Aav, Marianne et al. Arabia: Ceramics, Art, Industry. Designmuseo: Helsinki 2009
Forsström, Raija. Arabian 9.kerros: taideosasto ja sen taiteilijat. Kirjapaja: Helsinki 2012
Helimaa Hanna. Birger Kaipiaisen paratiisimaailma. MTV news online. 2002.
Ikonen, Lauri. Keramiikan kuningas Birger Kaipiainen: Varttia yli kaksitoista ja hiljaisuus -documentary film. Yle Elävä arkisto (Finnish Public Broadcaster film archives). 1977. Film can be viewed online here.
Kaivosoja, Soili. Keramiikan Ruhtinas. Antiikki ja taide -magazine. 5/2018
Kalha, Harri. Birger Kaipiainen. National Biography of Finland online
Kuriton Kaunosielu: Birger Kaipiaisen keraamisia fantasioita -exhibition pamphlet. EMMA museum of modern art. 2013
Laine, Inka. Sukellus orvokkimereen. EMMA museum of modern art magazine. 2013
Munkki, Kati. Paratiisi-sarja 40-vuotias. Turun Sanomat online. 2009
Mölläri, Jonna-Maria. Historian helmet. Luuppi museum online.
Peltonen, Jarno & Kaarina. Birger Kaipiainen. Taideteollisuusmuseo: Helsinki 1990
Saarikoski, Tuula. Kaaos ja kirkkaus. WSOY: Helsinki 2015
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