During his student days – and after – Sarpaneva entered a variety of design competitions, which were held very frequently in Finland after the Second World War. The Friends of Finnish Handicraft organised several art textile design competitions, in which Sarpaneva won numerous awards. An international glass design competition hosted by the Riihimäki glass factory in 1949 was a turning point for Sarpaneva’s career. Riihimäki had invited, among others, Arttu Brummer to participate in the competition. Brummer was Sarpaneva’s teacher, with whom he was very close. Others invited to participate in the event included architect Aarne Ervi, ceramicist Toini Muona, sculptor Essi Renvall and artist Helena Tynell. All were notable figures of their time. Young Sarpaneva entered the competition under the initial “O”. Arttu Brummer won the competition and Sarpaneva took the silver medal. Later, he said that winning second place felt like a victory to him, as he thought first place should naturally go to his teacher.
Sarpaneva’s high placing in the competition earned him a visit with the then director of the Riihimäki glass factory, Roope Kolehmainen, who led Finland’s most important glassworks with an iron hand. The young artist travelled to Riihimäki by train. A black car with a driver were waiting for him at the station, which was not far from the glassworks. The driver dropped Sarpaneva off in front of the factory gate. Nervous, he opened the door and stepped in. After waiting for a few moments, he was summoned to the director’s chambers. Inside, sitting behind a monumental desk, was a large, dark-complexioned and somewhat dour-looking man. Sarpaneva timidly presented his sketches to the man. The counsellor nodded approvingly and offered Sarpaneva a design job. Just what he had hoped for! At last, he would have a chance to work with this fascinating and multifaceted material! After a brief discussion, Sarpaneva cautiously asked Kolehmainen about the salary he would be paid. After all, compensation is generally paid for work performed. The industrial counsellor shot the young artist a cool stare from behind his desk and flatly stated that he would not be receiving any salary. Instead, they would make the artist famous. And that was the end of the discussion. Sarpaneva was about as poor as poor can be and desperately needed money to earn a living. Fame would not fill his belly. Unhappy about this unfortunate turn of events, he took his folder of sketches, buttoned his coat, thanked the director and left. Outside, there was no black car waiting for him. Driving rain pounded down on the muddy highway and the despondent artist as he walked toward the train station, which now seemed light years away.