Paavo Tynell (1890–1973) was born in Helsinki 12 years after the invention of the domestic lightbulb – a time when Finland, like most of northern Europe, was yet to be electrified. Tynell came into the world at precisely the right time to become one of the pioneers of modern lighting; as the electric light spread across the world, so too did Tynell’s design visions. By the time he died in 1973, Tynell was known, fondly, as ‘the man who illuminated Finland’.
THE GENIUS OF PAAVO TYNELL
At the beginning, the odds of Tynell becoming one of the major design talents of the modern era would have seemed slim. He was born the seventh of nine children in a working-class family, who could not afford an education for their son beyond elementary school. At the age of 16, he went straight into an apprenticeship at G.M. Sohlberg’s metalsmith workshop, spending six years as a sheet-metal worker before taking another year-long apprenticeship as a blacksmith. Tynell’s final project of the year was a light fixture in brass – a material that he would become renowned for working with as his career blossomed.
In 1918, Tynell joined his former teacher Ehrström, metalsmith Frans Nykänen, sculptor Emil Wickström, and industrialist Gösta Serlachius to found the company Taito Oy (named after the Finnish word for ‘skill’). As managing director, Tynell oversaw the production of a range of light fittings, functional metal objects and sculptures, as well as large-scale custom designs, from the company’s foundry.
Tynell served as Taito’s principal designer throughout the 1920s, supported by a roster of other designers, artists, and sculptors, including Alvar Aalto, Henry Ericsson, and Ville Vallgren. By the 1930s, Taito was exclusively a lighting company, having leaned into the growing electrification of a newly independent Finland. During the interwar years, the company earned the reputation as the trendsetter in the Finnish lighting industry. Tynell’s own international reputation grew in parallel, largely thanks to high-profile lighting projects such as Parliament House in Helsinki, designed by architect Johan Sigfrid Sirén, and collaborations with leading modernist architects, notably Alvar Aalto.
Taito, and Tynell in particular, became known among architects and across the country as the premier designer of light for public spaces. His talent for creating indirect light was especially sought after in spaces such as restaurants and movie theaters, where softer, more atmospheric lighting is highly prized.
EXPERIMENTATION AND EVOLUTION
The ’30s and ’40s were largely a time of experimentation for Tynell, who evolved his style from the functionalist and art deco designs of his earlier career to more decorative and elegant expressions. Throughout this period, he served as chairman of Ornamo, Finland’s association of industrial designers, and, through Taito, he provided training and support for young designers, enlisting them as drafting assistants and training them in the skills needed to kickstart their own careers. One such assistant, the glass designer Helena Turpeinen, married Tynell in 1947.
After World War II ended, Tynell returned to one of his earliest materials, creating a series of highly individual lamps that used perforated and polished brass to imbue traditional aesthetics with a modern sensibility. Brass soon became the material signature of Taito, which now employed around 150 people.
From the ’30s and throughout the ’50s, Tynell was considered Finland’s premier lighting designer, called on to illuminate public spaces across the country. In Helsinki in particular, Tynell’s lighting is part of the fabric of the city. Many of his grand installations survive today, in buildings ranging from train stations and churches to hotels and educational institutions.
His influence spread abroad, too, with Tynell becoming especially successful in the U.S., where he acquired nearcelebrity status as a designer. The merger of Taito with the lighting factory Idman Oy in 1953 prompted Tynell’s retirement as managing director of the company, but he continued designing for Taito and other lighting brands in Finland and abroad. Most notably, he designed for the respected brand Lightolier in the U.S., enjoying a productive partnership until 1966.
Marked by delicacy and softness, Tynell’s most famous lamps of this time echo the structures of nature – sculptural shapes reminiscent of tree branches, swirling snowflakes, and seashells.
COMING TO AMERICA
In 1948, Paavo Tynell arrived in New York, tasked with overseeing the installation of Taito Oy's latest lighting models at Finland House. Despite language barriers and financial challenges, Tynell's innovative lighting designs stole the show, garnering significant attention in the New York Times. Recognizing his importance to their venture, the Finnish-American Trading Corporation embraced Tynell, propelling him to near-celebrity status in the U.S.
In 1950 and 1952, Finland House hosted dedicated lighting exhibitions for Tynell, solidifying his reputation and paving the way for success in America. To meet U.S. electrical regulations, Tynell ingeniously designed fixtures with counterweights, becoming one of his design hallmarks. Interviews with him in the national press and appearances on TV talk shows, with Helena as his interpreter, further elevated his fame.
In 1954, the Finland House brand was acquired by the American lighting company Litecraft, maintaining a close partnership with Tynell until 1958. The collaborations included additional exhibitions in 1955 and 1956. Unfortunately, Finland House's premises were later sold for demolition to make way for a skyscraper, marking the end of an era. Nonetheless, Tynell's influence in the U.S. lighting industry endured, leaving a lasting legacy as a visionary designer from across the sea.
“In the beginning of the 1950s, Taito flourished. There was growing building activity in Finland, and export to U.S.A. and otherwhere was growing rapidly. Paavo Tynell made successful design work for many of the finest architects of U.S.A., sending sketches and drawings of special lighting fixtures, based on architectural plans sent to him by architects. In the majority of cases, orders did follow, and the lighting fixtures were made at Taito, to be shipped to their buildings or homes of destiny.”
- Helena Tynell
GLOBAL DESIGN LEGACY
One of Tynell's most significant commissions during this period came from the United Nations. He was invited to design lighting for the office of the UN's first Secretary General, Trygve Lie, in the soon-to-be-finished UN Building in New York. The Model 9060, a beautiful bowl-like lamp in pattern-perforated brass, emerged from this collaboration. Though Tynell's involvement was limited due to Finland's non-membership in the UN, the design earned first prize at the American Institute of Interior Decorators' annual competition, elevating his reputation as a visionary creative force in global design.
Tynell's impact extended far beyond the UN project. His exceptional work garnered numerous new customers in the U.S. and solidified his status as a sought-after designer. His innovative designs and attention to detail captured the imagination of the design world, leaving an indelible mark on the international design landscape.
Throughout 2023, GUBI explores and celebrates the legacy of Paavo Tynell. Explore more stories from GUBI’s latest publication, Raisonné 03, below.
Combining the mind of an engineer with the soul of an artist, Paavo Tynell was one of the greatest lighting designers and metal craftsmen of the 20th century. In GUBI’s newest publication, RAISONNÉ 03, we explore the extraordinary body of work produced over Tynell’s six-decade career.
TYNELL IN HELSINKI
Arriving in Helsinki, or departing from it, travelers are met by design masterworks from some of the greatest figures in 20th-century Finnish design. Completed in 1919, Helsinki Central Station features art nouveau architecture by Eliel Saarinen, sculpture by Emil Wikström, and lighting by Paavo Tynell.
AT HOME WITH TYNELL
A single piece of design is a snapshot of a specific moment in time. A design collection, by contrast, represents an entire story. all over the world, collectors are telling Tynell’s.
A CELEBRATION OF PAAVO TYNELL
Tynell’s distinctive style, coupled with his understanding of light’s role in shaping an atmosphere, proved to have a timeless appeal, with his lamps in global demand long after his death in 1973. As one of the key figures in the birth of modern lighting, Tynell left behind a legacy as one of the biggest influences on early lamp design both in Finland and beyond. In 2018, GUBI reintroduced a number of Tynell’s landmark designs to the world, and continues to revisit the Tynell archives today, ensuring that the man who did so much to illuminate the 20th century continues to do so in the 21st.