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Top tips on the quality of Finnish vintage dishes - part I

How do you feel about the quality of nordic vintage dishes, do you accept small imperfections in the production or how about signs of use? Are you one of those people to whom these little marks tell stories about the history of the dish, or are you looking for a rare perfect specimen for your collection?

Astialiisa at an Antique Fair
Astialiisa at an Antique Fair

Astialiisa constantly strives to develop the quality descriptions and information on the products in our webshop. It is important and especially topical for us, as we are adding new products and replenish inventory to suit the wishes of different customers and as our product range increases rapidly. Finding out how a professional evaluates vintage quality is fascinating and valuable knowledge for buying and owning vintage dishes.

Part 1 of this article explains quality in terms of production, in Part 2 we will focus on condition: how vintage dishes might show signs of use from their life in Finland, usage, care and storage, and how this reveals the quality, when you’re buying and using vintage dishes in your table settings at home. We will also tell you about an innovative new method for the restoration of vintage ceramics!


1. What do Arabia’s factory stamps tell you about quality?

Can you tell the original production quality from the stamps on a vintage dish? Our current understanding on the use of the factory stamps at Arabia Finland and their years of use are based on the extensive research of Edvin Lindqvist, who was Arabia’s Head production supervisor in the 1970s. While his report is comprehensive, it is not entirely reliable, as both practices and quality classifications varied across the decades.

Paratiisi dishes with this label were produced in Finland 1984-2005
Paratiisi dishes with this label were produced in Finland 1984-2005

Here are some great tips from Astialiisa's experts:

Is there an Arabia stamp on the dish? The seal of the Arabia factory, the factory stamps on the bottom of the dishes, are Arabia’s guarantee of the dishes’ quality: the item is genuine and has been accepted as unblemished production. Even these may contain variations accepted as a natural part of ceramic production.

How to distinguish 1-quality from 2-quality production? In addition to 1-quality, Arabia Finland also sold dishes with very minor defects. These were classed as 2-quality production. These 2-quality dishes usually don’t have a Arabia factory stamp. Instead, the 2-quality vintage dishes may be stamped with dots, numbers, two in Roman numerals (II) or just the text MADE IN FINLAND. In some series, 2-quality is differentiated from 1-quality by the fact that the name of the set is not printed along with the stamp.

Arabia Anemone Bowl
Arabia Anemone Bowl

What about hand-painted vintage Arabia? Designers from the Arabia Art Department signed their 1-quality production. In hand-painted series, you usually find two sets of initials separated by a slash on the bottom of the dish. The first are the initials of the decoration’s designer and the second are the initials of the ceramic painter. However in the 1970s, hand-painted series produced in small editions gradually moved to the use of stamps. These still represent the same wonderful hand-made quality and the increasingly rare and beautiful art of ceramic painting. The tradition of hand-painting at the Arabia factory ended in 2002, when the last Valencia dishes were painted. If the dish doesn’t contain any signature or stamp it is likely to be 2-quality production.

Arabia Valencia Soup Plate
Arabia Valencia Soup Plate

Some important exceptions to these guidelines:

Arabia’s stamping practices have varied greatly at different times. For example, it is possible that only the saucer of a coffee cup was stamped, but not the coffee cup itself. Stamps may also wear off during use and washing. Especially so-called ‘cold-stamped’ factory stamps, which were printed above the glazing may gradually wear off. This is common in, for example, the Ruska and Kilta series. You can always count on Astialiisa to assess the quality of your dishes with historical knowledge, expertise and a careful physical examination.

With current production you can’t distinguish quality on the basis of markings on the dish. The Arabia brand continues to stamp dishes that have been produced in countries such as Thailand and Poland since the early 2000s. 2-quality dishes produced in these countries are not stamped differently. They have the same stamps as 1-quality! New production 2-quality dishes are only marked out with stickers, which peel off when washed. Astialiisa specializes in quality dishes made in Finland.

Arabia Helsinki Factory (photo by Akusti Tuhka 1953, Museovirasto)
Arabia Helsinki Factory (photo by Akusti Tuhka 1953, Museovirasto)

Want to get to know Astialiisa’s condition classifications?

We class the condition of our dishes as Class 1A for an excellent condition new dishes, and Class 1B for mint or near mint condition vintage dishes. When there are minor visible changes in the condition of the dish, the quality is given a condition rating of Class 2 or Class 3. All our nordic vintage dishes are always beautiful, fit to use and safe. We aim to provide extra information on variations in production quality in the product information. Click here to read more about our condition classification.

What kind of quality variations do Arabia and Iittala accept in their dishes?

For ceramic products Astialiisa follows Iittala’s official guideline:

“Because of the characteristics of the base material and glaze, there might be slight differences in the shape and texture of the ceramic products, and they might have small black spots on the surface and dents (pinholes) on the glaze. Please be assured that they have no quality problems.”

The same type of acceptable variations in production quality: small defects and small bubbles may also be present in Iittala glassware.

Arabia Decoration Hand-painter (photo by Keijo Laajisto 1975, Museovirasto)
Arabia Decoration Hand-painter (photo by Keijo Laajisto 1975, Museovirasto)


2. Why are vintage dishes different, and often more interesting, than new production?

There were many handcrafted stages involved in the manufacture and finishing of the vintage ceramic dishes that were made at the Arabia Factory in Finland. This is why you can find interesting small differences in their dishes, just like in nature. It is so exciting to view a dish from different angles and let it’s story unfold.

There may be small variations in the shape, size and weight of vintage dishes; or asymmetry, such as a slight skew in the ear or handle of a coffee cup, as these parts were attached by hand.

Traces from the tripod rack used in the glazing phase of production are often visible on the bottom of the dishes, as glaze could not be applied to the areas covered by the tripod legs. Sometimes dishes shifted on the rack during the glazing, and these marks may appear larger. However, this is considered a normal production feature not a quality defect. You may notice these marks in popular dishes from the late 70s, for example Krocus and Faenza. Sometimes I laugh because I think this mark left by the tripod resembles a human belly button, and like a belly button, it reveals to us its origins.

The decorations on Arabia vintage dishes were also largely applied by hand. Even when printing techniques were used, the fixing of the decorations and various stripes, etc. to the dish were done manually. Did you know that ceramics can shrink up to 20% when fired and different colour mixtures react to heat in different ways?

Arabia Sininen Aurinko Plate
Arabia Sininen Aurinko Plate

It was normal for the intensity or even shade of coloured glazes to vary a little under different production batches and with dishes made of different materials. The ceramic arts and crafts industry is indeed an interesting union of art, artesanal skill and industrial production. We get to enjoy and admire the many fruits of this labour on our own dining tables.

Coloured glazes have been one of the Arabia factory’s specialities, in which they developed expertise and became known for. It is exciting to follow the development of the quality of glazing, for example in the Kilta and Teema series. In the original Kilta series, there was more variation in the shade of the glazing colour due to the way it reacted with the faience clay mass. The vitro porcelain clay used for the later Teema series created a smoother, but inevitably more industrial look.

Arabia Kilta TV-Set
Arabia Kilta TV-Set

In several Arabia stoneware series, colour variation was not only typical of the nature of the clay mass and glazes used, but colour variation was purposefully used as a part of the artist's design. In other words, so that each dish would be a unique piece. For example, Ulla Procopé created really exquisite colour variations of glazes for the Ruska ja Meri series, and Raija Uosikkinen for the Otso series.

Arabia Otso Plate
Arabia Otso Plate

Similarly there are also differences in the colour intensity of Arabia’s hand-painted decorations, as well as in variations in the actual painted patterns, which reveal the hand-made nature of these dishes. In many dishes, lively variation was an important part of the designer’s vision, and more challenging for the painter to produce than exactly painted copies. Beautiful brush strokes, brush marks and softly changing colour washes aimed for something almost unique, in order to create a special atmosphere for the table setting. Great examples of such designs include: the Valencia, Palermo, Anemone, Ruija, and Rosmarin series.

Arabia Palermo
Arabia Palermo

Along with hand-painting, Arabia also developed air-brushed decorations. The colours were sprayed onto the dish through a stencil, which created a more vivid and softer-edged decoration compared to printing methods. It also helped create colour intensity and tone vividness. Have you ever looked more closely at Anja Jaatinen-Winquist's Saara series, for example, or noticed the colour variation of Gunvor Olin-Grönqvist's Kosmos series? They bring to mind the surface of a lake under the midnight sun of the Finnish summer. How lights and shadows vary in the rippling water’s surface as a gentle breeze passes over it.

Arabia Saara
Arabia Saara

Naturally in handmade decorations little, perhaps rather delightful, accidents are sometimes liable to occur. Colours could occasionally splash resulting in little dots, or a printed decal may not have been placed perfectly on the dish, but is skewed or partially missing. The appearance of these small decoration imperfections determines whether we class a dish as 1-quality or 2-quality.

In Part 2, I will tell you more about how you can assess the condition of vintage dishes. How is the use in a Finnish home reflected in the dishes and how we evaluate its impact on condition and quality classification. Do you want to know which group I belong to when choosing dishes: hunters of the perfect dish or those to whom small imperfections reveal the history of the dish?

Wishing you interesting moments with Finnish vintage dishes,
Tiina

Arabia Aurinkoruusu
Arabia Aurinkoruusu

Do you have questions about the quality of vintage dishes? You can email us, use the contact form or put your questions in the order details field.

Sources:

Finnish Design Museum online, Collections

Iittala online, FAQ guidelines

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