Finish Modernist known for his no-nonsense, multifunctional tableware, Kaj Franck, would be 100 years old in 2011.

To celebrate, Iittala has produced a limited edition of the ‘Kartio’ tumblers; there is a new exhibition at Helsinki’s Design Museum about his work from June 15 to September 25 2011; and a new book, Kaj & Franck: Designs & Impressions, was recently published. But who was this man, and why is he seen as one of the greatest design heroes?

Kaj Franck (1911-1989) studied at the Central School of Art and Design in Helsinki and in the 1930s designed fairly conventional, decorative textiles. But after WWII, on joining Finnish ceramics firm Arabia (where he became head of design), his work – mainly ceramics and glassware – became radically Modernist and pared down. He was also artistic director of Finnish glass factory Nuutajärvi from 1951 to 1976.

His arrival at Arabia heralded a new era of thoughtful, democratic design in Finland. Greatly influenced by the simple forms of vernacular ceramics and functionalism, he decried the bourgeois taste for expensive, gold-decorated matching dinnerware. And he railed against materialism: “It’s pathetic to be a slave to possessions”, he said.

His response to such excesses was an utilitarian, mix-and-match tableware range called ‘Kilta‘ (1952); like his water-thin ‘Kartio‘ glassware (1979) and ‘Teema‘ crockery (1979), it was stripped of superfluous elements and came in plain colors. The building block-like elements of ‘Kilta’ and ‘Teema’ allowed an array of permutations: a small plate morphed into a saucer, or a cup without a handle into a sugar bowl. And their neutral look meant they went well with crockery people already owned.

But Franck wasn’t a puritanical Modernist: in the 1960s and 70s, he created art glass similar in spirit to the work of Oiva Toikka, a colleague at Nuutajärvi famous for his glass birds. He was also close to designers Vuokko Nurmesniemi and Heikki Orvola, Professor Simo Heikkilä of Aalto University, and Japanese-born designer, Fujiwo Ishimoto, among others.

Cones, cylinders, and spheres played a central role in Kaj Franck’s work as a designer of everyday glass- and tableware.

“He always wanted to see how the latest samples of a design would look alongside existing pieces,” says Tauno Tarna. “He believed that people should always buy new tableware to add to what they already had and that everything should be able to work together harmoniously.”

The book Kaj & Franck. Designs & Impressions provides an extensive overview of Franck’s output, from his Kilta tableware to his numerous tumblers, art pieces, and rarely seen unique works. A must read for all Scandinavian fans!

Source: Elle Decoration UK, June 2011, & Iittala

Photos: Rauno Träskelin / Design Museum.