In the long winters far in the north daylight is anything but a matter of course, something that has turned the Finns into masters of staging light: lightened buckets at Habitare in Helsinki.
Photo © Franziska Horn
Tranquility – is to be found in salad bowls
by Franziska Horn
Sep 23, 2014

Happy is she who has a window seat when the plane starts its descent into the coastal city of Helsinki as the view between the buildings is one of the sea, the islands, and the forests. There’s a lot of green in the Finnish metropolis, as unadulterated nature is the heart of life here and the leitmotif of Finnish design. And anyone crossing Lapland, perhaps the last real wilderness in Europe, or jumping into the cool of a fall-time lake after enjoying the birch fragrance of a smoky sauna, will feel this most intensely. Nature still shapes the country, the people and what they make. And things here thus stand out for the Finns’ virtuoso skill in fashioning wood, glass and ceramics. Incidentally, the colors of the blue-and-white flag symbolize the snow and the lakes of this country, so much of which is deeply embedded in the Arctic Circle.

Yet Helsinki appears to be a hybrid mixture of Art Deco and brutalist Socialism, Russian opulence and rural touches, monumental buildings and idyllic settings. Design in Finland reflects the influences of the Sami people, whose traditional designs absolutely eschew straight lines and exhibit a feel for clear shapes. It is no coincidence that the Finns have a penchant for Japanese culture, something that works both ways. And this year a large number of visitors from the Far East again flocked to attend the “Helsinki Design Week” (HDW).

And there’s another track that runs through town: The 1950s, 1960s and the period of reconstruction after 1945 are considered the heyday of Finnish design, whose key protagonist is still considered to have been Alvar Aalto. His name is omnipresent, with guided tours arriving almost every day to visit his “Villa Mairea” – and the university is named after him. Designers such as Tapio Wirkkala, Eero Saarinen and Eero Aarnio round out the top tier of Finnish “classics”. Then there’s Olavi Hänninen, interior designer and designer, of whom the Finns are so proud, above all when they ride through Helsinki on the Hänninen seats in the yellow-and-green 1970s trams.

The Expo halls are located at the “Messukeskus” tram stop in the north of the city, and it is there that the “Habitare” furniture fair takes place, which has sections for “Furniture”, “Design”, “Kitchen”, and “Sauna”. “Take the leap” is this year’s HDW motto, now in its 10th edition. In the halls for furniture and design, and they make up the largest part of the fair, the special characteristics of Finnish design are on show: clear structures, graphic patterns, radiant colors and the typically Nordic tender blue with all the natural shades – and wood of course as the Finns’ undisputed favorite. “Our heritage and our traditions are really important to us, comments Timo Niskanen, a young designer who recently founded his own luminaire label called “Himmee”. “And bent plywood is simply a Finnish specialty,” he explains. Needless to say, he also uses wood for his plain luminaire models.

In the long winters here far in the north daylight is anything but a matter of course, something that has turned the Scandinavians into masters of staging light: Light gets bundled, reflected, multiplied or persuaded to cast picturesque shadows on wooden slats, as in Secto’s famed pendant luminaires. And the Finns’ creativity is visible in their ability to constantly find new variants for working with wood, for integrating its structure into their designs. The most beautiful pieces at this year’s “EcoDesign” competition at the fair included, for example, Marianne Huotori’s stunningly simple set of bowls called “Kirnu”, where the annual rings in the wood are used as a graphic element and a contrast.

“Everything about Finnish design is logical, simple, straightforward, formally reduced, and beautiful,” suggests Dörte Siemens, a student at Weimar’s Bauhaus University and currently an intern at “ALA Architekten” in Helsinki. And her colleague Stephanie Polochowitz adds: “Finnish design has what it takes!” Both especially like the items in the “EcoDesign” show. And the names of designers such as Sebastian Jansson or Bros are likewise to be encountered in the trade-fair complex or in the city. Wherever you look: Design is not a luxury matter in Finland, but part of everyday life. It not only shapes the face of the concept stores or VIP cafés as design is there to make certain we all feel good with the world around us. And that includes not least the sauna, for Finns an almost holy place, where you live, eat, drink and talk, when you’re not sweating that is.

It was this matter-of-course approach to design that led to Helsinki being nominated “Design Capital of the World 2012”. “When the city applied for the project the focus was not only on improving local design, but also people’s living standards,” comments Liisa Arvola, who is one of the guides leading groups round the Design District. “Being a design metropolis is a permanent process. Our goal is new projects and a functioning, clean city.” The Design District comprises 25 streets with some 200 stores, galleries and museums. At “Globe Hope”, for example, you can buy old Communist Germany sleeping bags that are now enjoying a second lease of life as winter jackets. In the “Okra” concept store on Aleksanterinkatu Irena Pepin stands behind the counter and explains that “we love bright colors because winter is so dark.” On the shelves there are stacks of design items, such as colored pencils, ceramics, shopping bags, fish-leather wallets, plates with tree-trunk decors, and the typical Kuksa cups of the Sami people, carved from the root knotwood of birch trees.

“Many of these objects come from the forests or were inspired by them, and we have an awful lot of them,” Irena says. A few streets further on, on Esplanadi Boulevard, is the Ittala flagship store designed by Kaj Franck – one of the pre-eminent members of the Finnish design scene. Founded in 1881 as a glassmaking workshop, Iittala boasts design icons such as Alvar Aalto’s “Savoy” glass vase and Tapio Wirkkala’s “Ultima Thule” glass series. Just as unforgettable: Harri Koskinen’s “Lantern” or the seemingly archaic wrought-iron pot by Timo Sarpaneeva. All this may be known to the design insiders, but you still find yourself astonished by the wafer-thin glass so reminiscent of the thin ice of a Finnish lake when the thaw starts.

A few blocks further on is Marimekko, which since 1951 has very successfully marketed stripes, dots and splashed flowers in Pop color tones on clothes, pillows and tableware. A stone’s throw further on is furniture maker Artek: You’ll encounter the Who’s Who of Finnish and international design on its premises – as well as furniture by Ilmari Tapiovaara, after Alvar Aalto one of the country’s best-known designers. The local Design Museum on Korkeavuorenkatu is hosting a show on Tapiovaara on the occasion of the centenary of his birth: In 1937 Tapiovaara graduated in Furniture Design from the Central School of Applied Arts, worked for Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, and was also in creative contact with Mies van der Rohe. His declared goal: To create good design everyone can afford. Entire generations of pupils have sat on his chairs, a man who made democracy his maxim well before Ikea came round. To this day, his “Domus Chair” is famed and a few million have been exported to the United States; then there’s his “Trienna” table, not to mention his luminaires, cutlery, carpets, and his work teaching young designers.

Anyone wanting a bit of peace and quiet after the hustle-and-bustle of the HDW, should head for the Kamppi “Chapel of Silence”, created by “K2S Architects” near the mail railway station. Commissioned in 2012, the building resembles a large salad bowl, but on the inside it is a haven of tranquility. And is a “pars pro toto” of Nordic design. Here, you are as safe as in the heart of a ship, and beneath the light that falls from the narrow strip skylights you’ll no doubt gaze at the artistic wooden paneling and contemplate the soul of Finnish design.

At the end of the day you start to realize that in Finland design is confident but never an end in itself. It is neither shallow, nor does it attempt solely to present itself or create a monument to itself. It tries neither to be manifestly cool nor to be edgy, and as a result usually ends up being both. It doesn’t curry favor or rely on razzmatazz. Instead, it attempts to make everyday life simpler and improve it. For that to succeed, and this the Finns know, you need a close relationship to the simple and the natural, and a sense of the value of everyday elements. All of which has to evolve in the course of time.

Further recommendations:
Alvar Aalto – Second Nature
September 27, 2014 thru March 1, 2015
Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein

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Stolen from the compost: chipped wood works for a light by Einari Saarinen. Photo © Franziska Horn
The most beautiful pieces at this year’s Habitare are the bowls by Timo Ripatti. Photo © Franziska Horn
Take the forest into the home: at gallery „Lokal“. Photo © Franziska Horn
Harri Koskinen’s “Lantern” at Ittala flagship store. Photo © Franziska Horn
Marimekko, which since 1951 has very successfully marketed stripes and dots splashed on clothes, pillows and tableware. Photo © Franziska Horn
The Design Museum on Korkeavuorenkatu. Photo © Franziska Horn
To create good design everyone can afford: Exhibition on Ilmari Tapiovaara at Design Museum. Photo © Franziska Horn
Anyone wanting a bit of peace, should head for the Kamppi “Chapel of Silence”, created by “K2S Architects” near the mail railway station. Photo © Kaisa Luukannel, Visit Helsinki