In Finland, Flights of Fancy

Glass birds designed by Oiva Toikka for Iittala have become a tradition for workplace anniversaries and collectors.

IITTALA, Finland — Ask any Finn if he owns an Iittala glass bird and the answer will probably be yes, followed by an anecdote about the landmark job anniversary for which the barn owl or bullfinch was bestowed with a pat on the back.

People here started presenting the vibrantly hued glass birds, often to celebrate a workplace anniversary or other milestone, about a decade after the glass designer Oiva Toikka released his first bird for serial production, the Flycatcher, in 1972. They also captured the hearts of ornithologists, interior designers and collectors around the world.

“When sunlight passes through the glass, the bird glows,” Paul Kangas, an American of Finnish descent who collects the birds, wrote in an email from his home in Washington state. Of his 700 pieces, the swan is his favorite. “Another favorite is the willow curlew,” he said. “The birds fit into many décors. I mix mine with Japanese furniture.”

Finland’s glassblowing history dates to the 1600s and involves several renowned designers, among them the famed architect Alvar Aalto. Mr. Toikka, a celebrated artist here, originally designed the birds for another factory that subsequently merged with Iittala, a prominent manufacturer of art and tableware glass.

The current Iittala factory, about 80 miles north of Helsinki, houses the production of its pressed and handmade items, among them many of its signature pieces, such as Mr. Aalto’s wavy vase, which is commonly called the Savoy vase but actually bears the architect’s name. (A few specialty items, such as stemmed wine glasses and hot-liquid drinking vessels, are outsourced to a European manufacturer.)

Birds by Toikka, as they are officially known, require years of glassblowing expertise to create, and showcase the decades of chemical developments in colored glass for which Iittala is well known. Chemists at the factory are charged with maintaining a color archive of roughly 1,000 hues, of which 30 are considered active.

On one October afternoon, as tourists watched from an observation balcony, a team of seven men and women blowers assembled on a circular platform in the factory’s glassblowing studio, called the “hot shop.” The day’s production schedule included the Suomi 100, a pigeon created to celebrate, in December, the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence from Russia. It is one of approximately 500 designs that Mr. Toikka has released since the Flycatcher.

At the center of the platform stood an enormous, roaring kiln containing clear glass – a molten mixture of sand, sodium and minerals heated to about 2,640-degrees Fahrenheit. Flanking the furnace were several smaller, movable kilns containing colored glass specially formulated to capture the Suomi’s arresting blue hues.

The hot shop appears to be a chaotic place to the untrained eye, yet the 60 or so blowers who work here often are compared to dancers carrying out a highly choreographed performance. They are casually attired in jeans and T-shirts — the hot shop is, as its name suggests, hot — to the sound of the roaring kilns and a blaring radio.

Some blowers sat on benches, nimbly manipulating 5-foot-long pipes topped with grapefruit-sized gobs of molten glass. Others carefully blew the glass into orbs that they then rolled with wet wooden ladles, further coaxing the masses into rounded shapes.

Still others hoisted finished bird bodies — or parts of them — over open flames, which coaxes color out of the glass, or used metal instruments to fashion beaks and tails from melted glass the consistency of honey.

Having been checked at several stages for imperfections — rejects are cast into large bins surrounding the circular stage — the birds are ferried to a cooling kiln, where they are slowly brought to room temperature through a series of tightly monitored temperature reductions.

“Glass is an organic matter that has a mind of its own,” Siru Nori, Iittala global communications manager, said. “It has to be cooled down in an extremely controlled manner to get rid of defects and tensions. If the products don’t survive this tempered cooling, they won’t survive everyday use.”

It takes about four years to learn basic glassblowing skills and techniques. The more demanding parts of the birds’ creation can require 10 or 15 years of experience. Master blowers, as the more experienced artisans are designated, work closely with the newer ones, grooming them to become future masters, Ms. Nori said.

Glassblowing relies on a deep understanding of molten glass, developed in large part through years of experience, Helena Welling, 33, an Iittala blower, wrote in an email. Having an ingrained sense of the necessary hand movements, for example, frees her to consider the overall process.

“Timing is essential,” she wrote. “You have to focus on the details, the color, the thickness, the temperature and the form.”

The finished products are sold at retailers and Iittala shops around the world, and on its website. They range in price from 100 euros to more than 1,000 euros ($115 to $1,175), while sought-after vintage and rare models can sell on auction websites for much more.

Mr. Toikka, an avuncular man of 86 who rarely gives interviews (and didn’t this time), has said that the birds arose from a need to produce objects that didn’t require grinding, a time-consuming process that was causing a factory backlog. A bird’s rounded form was suited to glassblowing, and molten glass seemed a metaphor for its actual movements.

The designer “also has the unique skill to know the colors, the blowers and the bird species,” said Kaisa Koivisto, the chief curator at the Finnish Glass Museum in Riihimaki. “So he can design each species so that they can be made in serial production by the certain blowers.”

Mr. Toikka, who still designs birds, doesn’t strive to produce lifelike reproductions and many of his designs, including a dapper upright model named Butler, come from his imagination. Rather, he has said in past interviews, he is most interested in creating birds that are stylish and intriguing.

“It’s about the character,” Ms. Nori said. “If you take five barn owls, it’s the same bird but they all have slightly different expressions because they are all handmade.

“Some of them are generous. Some of them are philosophical. People really connect to the personality of the bird.”