Sarpaneva had a humorous recollection of his first entry at a Milan Triennale in 1951. “It was a hell of a nice tea cosy – a rooster head. I drew the plan and my mum sewed it up. And she embroidered it with expensive silk thread.” That same year, Sarpaneva had won his first award in the Friends of Finnish Handicraft “Tea Cosy Decorating Competition”. His brother Pentti had come in third, but Sarpaneva had also won fourth place. Inspired by his victory, he decided to enter his Kukko (Rooster) tea cosy in the Milan Triennale. The Italians could not quite figure out what a tea cosy was for. When the Triennale hosts asked what the purpose of the piece was, Tapio Wirkkala, who was serving as the exhibition architect, pulled the tea cosy onto his head and announced that it was a Finnish carnival cap. The Kukko tea cosy received the silver medal as a Finnish carnival cap.
The 1954 Milan Triennale was Sarpaneva’s debut on his way to international success. Together with experts from Iittala Glassworks, he had improved upon the steam-blowing method, which had been used as early as the 1880s, creating a collection of pieces with technical and artistic skill such as had never been seen before. Many of the pieces from that collection are, to this day, rarities highly prized by collectors that fetch princely sums at international auctions. These include, among others, Kajakki (Kayak), which is mentioned in the 1991 Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive piece of modern glass art in the world.
Finnish design continued its triumphal march at the 1957 Milan Triennale. A broader range of Finnish expertise and talent was showcased at the exhibition. This included lamps, textiles, furniture, ceramics, glass etc. “Everything was winning”, recalled Sarpaneva. The decisions were made by an international panel of judges, which consisted of ten members. Timo Sarpaneva served as the exhibition architect at the 1957 Milan Triennale, receiving the Grand Prix for his work. His “colour edge” plates, Nukkuvat linnut (Sleeping Birds) and Karelia textiles also won awards.