It’s an unusual kind of forest. Dozens of “trees” hang from the ceiling, their surfaces flecked with organic lines and nodules — as crafted from tubes of copper-hued glass, mouth-blown by artisans in Finland.
This innovative lighting display is just one of the highlights of the new sunlight-filled Tokyo flagship store and cafe by the Finnish design brand Iittala, which recently opened in the Omotesando neighborhood to coincide with the brand’s 140th anniversary.
Touches of Japan, such as the chidori-style modular ceiling with interlocking white ash wood frames, are present throughout the store thanks to Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s minimal nature-inspired interiors, which provide a crafted backdrop to a cornucopia of Iittala’s lifestyle products — from signature quality glassware to ceramics and textiles.
The new flagship is also home to the first Iittala cafe in the world, with a menu packed with Nordic treats including salmon soup and blueberry tarts. Here, customers can use Iittala’s tableware creations as they would in everyday life (a discovery I made while sipping a tasty green smoothie from a solidly tactile Kastehelmi glass).
In short? It’s a harmonious mesh of all things Finnish and Japanese, which comes as little surprise given the affinities between the two cultures, from a deep-rooted respect for craftsmanship, simplicity and nature to a shared sense of ease with silence in conversation.
“I thought a lot about what Finland and Japan have in common in bringing nature into their cultures, where subtlety and simplicity are intermixed. Nature has always been part of their lives,” Kuma tells The Japan Times, explaining the inspiration behind the interior design. “We focused on their similarities. We designed to create a feeling of resonance between the two cultures.”
Iittala first started out in 1881 as a glass factory in a village of the same name around 110 kilometers north of Helsinki — and it has since evolved into a global design giant. The brand is now known for its everyday products such as Toikka birds, Kastehelmi glassware and Teema tableware, which fuse functional Nordic design and natural materials with crafted beauty.
Today, the Iittala Glass Factory remains a hub of contemporary craftsmanship, combining its long-standing heritage of design with sustainability. (The brand’s famed Aalto vases are still made there.)
Iittala’s products first arrived in Japan in the 1950s and are now sold across the country. The aesthetic connection between the two countries has been solidified further through high-profile design collaborations with Japanese designers such as Issey Miyake and Akira Minagawa.
Carolina Bade, vice president for Iittala Business and Offering in Helsinki, says, “Finns and Japanese appreciate functionality, lasting design and everyday beauty. This is also the very core of Iittala’s philosophy: Iittala strives to create design that stands the test of time and lasts from generation to generation.”
Such a philosophy is brought to life in the Iittala Omotesando store & cafe, housed in a first floor corner spot in a new development called Gems Aoyama Cross on a quiet side street.
The shop space layers clean-lined minimalism with a rich palette of textures: concrete floors, industrial ceilings and swathes of light wood shelving. Tapping into Iittala’s reputation for sustainability, sprinkled around the space are also colorful block displays made from recycled materials such as coffee beans and paper cups.
In true Finnish style, touches of nature are featured throughout the space — as reflected in vast organic tumbles of seasonal flowers hanging from ropes in the windows. Atmospheric footage of nature scenes in Finland plays on the large white rear wall, just behind the hanging light display and the minimal concrete counter.
An expansive showcase of Iittala products is also on view, including many of its heritage collections as well as exclusive products and contemporary design collaborations.
Iittala lovers may be quick to spot some of the items on display that are only available in Japan, such as the classic Teema series of timeless ceramic dinnerware in a creamy new shade called “Linen” and a new Flycatcher bird in blue and yellow glass.
For Minagawa, founder of fashion and textile brand Mina Perhonen (meaning “I” and “butterfly” in Finnish) — who launched his debut Iittala collection last year — Finland has had a defining influence on his designs.
“Finland is home for my heart,” says Minagawa. “Since my first visit at the age of 19, my experiences there of nature, living, design and meeting wonderful people have become irreplaceable in my life. Working with the Iittala team in Finland gave me great joy.
“I hope that (the flagship store) will be a place for Japanese people to get to know the culture of Finland.”
And so, not only does the Omotesando store provide a beautiful space for customers in Japan to enjoy Iittala’s designs and Nordic aesthetics, it also gives them to relish the Nordic lifestyle that Iittala represents.
“Iittala cherishes the idea of finding balance, as found in the small moments of everyday life,” says Bade. “For example, pausing for a cup of tea and reading a book, or setting the table beautifully and having a conversation with friends and loved ones. In Japanese culture, attention is also paid to details and aesthetics. At Iittala, we find this respect for the moments of everyday life very inspiring.”
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