Iittala is Embarking on a Bold New Chapter

What happens when the designer behind *that* Harry Styles cardigan takes the helm of a Finnish heritage glass brand? We find out.

Design
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Over 100 kilometers north of the Finnish capital of Helsinki is a small village, which has – over the past 300 years – become world-famous.

The story begins back in 1881, when a man named Peter Magnus Abrahamson established the “Iittala Glasbruks Aktiebolag” (or Iittala Glass Factory), bringing with him a team of glassblowers from Sweden. It was humble beginnings – the factory would produce objects made from molds imported from abroad, resulting in designs that more often resembled existing archetypes rather than new visions. Decades of different ownerships followed, and the First World War made for a scarcity of materials. But in 1932, the decision to hire an in-house designer named Göran Hongell changed everything, and the company went on to forge collaborations that put Iittala’s name on the map as a design destination.

Hongell’s appointment marked the first time that a Finnish glassworks had hired an in-house designer, so in many ways, it was quite radical. From a business perspective, it showed that Iittala was ready to be at the forefront of the country’s glass production, and from a creativity perspective – it gave the team of glassblowers new and innovative ways of working.

In the years after, design competitions were launched and icons were born, among them Aino Aalto’s “Bölgeblick” tumblers, Alvar Aalto’s “Aalto” vase, and Tapio Wirkkala’s Ultima Thule collection. Each collection presented a departure from the typical aesthetic of the time, and showcased Iittala both as a trendsetter and risk-taker.

“The most unique designs often emerge when traditional craft methods are used to create something entirely original and new,” says Janni Vepsäläinen, the new Creative Director of Iittala, whose appointment mirrors that of Hongell’s, in that she is first ever person to take on that role at the company. It’s a statement she has proven to stand by entirely, especially during this year’s Stockholm Design Week, where she unveiled an bold future vision for the brand, dubbed ‘The New Era’.

“We want to offer different and unexpected experiences from what our audience has previously seen from Iittala,” she says, describing the concept behind The New Era. “We are reinforcing Iittala’s founding identity of being a forward-thinking, bold and experimental design brand.”

Born in Finland, Vepsäläinen has worked across Europe and America in various fashion design roles. Her CV boasts positions at Givenchy, The Row, Simone Rocha, and most recently at JW Anderson, where she served as the Senior Knitwear Designer and was behind the viral patchwork cardigan worn by Harry Styles. But towards the end of her time there, she’d found herself in some kind of creative rut. “I got to the point where I was like, right, like, what’s next? I felt like my creativity needed new outlets,” she says. “I’d had thoughts about starting my own brand, and then I was approached for this position [at Iittala].”

Her appointment as the brand’s Creative Director is indicative of a wider trend in the design industry, which increasingly seems to be tapping into fashion’s way of doing things.

For her work with Iittala, this manifests in more collection-based thinking, outsider collaboration, and intentional spectacle. During this year’s Stockholm Design Week, Vepsäläinen’s vision was revealed some 25 meters underground in an old nuclear reactor. In addition to its refreshed branding, a new collaboration with London-based multidisciplinary artist and instrumentalist Damsel Elysium was presented in an otherworldly performance, while the huge concrete underground structure itself was transformed into an immersive installation peppered with limited-edition products.

“I think I am a bit of a disrupter by nature, and therefore I could not have approached this any other way,” Vepsäläinen says. “It comes from my fashion background, in that I’m always thinking about how to push things a little bit further than what’s maybe expected.”

Her first presentation was testament to this, and was a notable departure from a brand that had, for the most part – thanks to its association with Modernist greats – been thought of as timeless and relatively quiet. Iittala’s New Era was an undeniable highlight of the week’s programming, and certainly set the bar high for fellow design brands.

Read on for our full interview with Janni Vepsäläinen below.


What were your initial thoughts when you were approached by Iittala about this role?

My instant reaction was kind of like, ‘how would that like work?’ – it’s such a distantly related product [from knitwear]. But then I started thinking about it seriously, and went ahead with the process. During that time, I started drafting the first lines for the creative vision – and I just realized that I loved it, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I was so immersed in the amount of opportunities I could have in this kind of brand that has a story and has a history and has a heritage, because technically, I don’t have to reinvent anything in a way, you know, it’s like, the more you look into the core of the brand, the more you can find this sort of energetic and avant-garde thinking, you know, if you look at those design classics, they were very, against the grain of the of that time. And, to me, that’s sort of the interesting narrative that I’m trying to tap into.

Can you explain a bit more about your decision to work with Damsel Elysium?

I found Damsel online and I just fell in love with how they performed, their music, and their look – and I was just like I need to talk to this person. When we did, it was obvious that I was talking to somebody on the same frequency. And that, in my opinion, is often what the design industry is lacking a little bit – that ability to expand outside that sort of traditional design industry. I don’t know if it’s because it’s so technical or it’s because it’s just kind of got into this risk assessment way of thinking rather than just creating something.

The collection is obviously very experimental. Can you explain what it represents for the brand?

The collection is like that beautiful dress on the catwalk that no one is going to buy. But it has a purpose, and it’s telling a story and a narrative. And that, to me is almost more important than the product itself.

How did you get the existing company on board for the changes you wanted to make?

The top level have been very on board. At the end of the day, they made a radical decision to hire a creative director from a fashion background – and to even have a creative director is a new thing for Iittala.

Up until now, it was very much led by a product, and there was a lack of holistic thinking into how we build concepts into products and design ideas in large. With changing that, I’ve been greatly supported, and I’ve been given a lot of freedom to express myself.

What is your thinking around the existing collections, and are you planning to adapt or change the way that things work in terms of the production of those pieces?

Changing ways of thinking to “collections” represents a huge change, because in the past, we were traditionally working with external designers on product drops that were planned in the annual calendar, but not really in a way that was really serving the collection thinking.

We’ve intensified the speed – something I’m also bringing from the fashion industry – and we are committed now to develop two seasonal collections a year which is a big change for the team. When I first started, they showed me designs slated for 2026 and I was just like no way – my creativity doesn’t work that way. We developed these pieces with Damsel in two months – and I love that intensity.

Your appointment is the latest signifier that the fashion and design worlds are increasingly blending. Where do you see that going?

I try to keep a bit of an outsider view. I was the worst “fashion” person because I never really looked at other shows. I kind of almost need to disengage myself a little bit from it. I need to always have my gaze a little bit other direction

But it’s happening: we have musicians joining fashion brands, and the next moment they’re doing furniture, and I think I think we live in a world where like it’s noted now that creativity has so many different outlets. That’s why collaboration, for me, is super important. I really wanted to collaborate with somebody who didn’t come from a design background, but was from a completely different spectrum of culture.

What’s next for Iittala?

I think the I need to keep exploring what is unexpected from the designs: how do we bring new products to the market? What’s the narrative? What are the stories we want to tell? And I think that needs to be that surprise.

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