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Everyone knows about Scandinavian design – whether it’s drooling over high-end interiors blogs, wishing your home looked a bit more like those in the hit Danish drama Borgen, or just acknowledging that, despite the trials of self-assembly, Ikea is still really on to something with that cheap but cheerful, not to mention functional, aesthetic.
But maybe it should be referred to as Nordic design, instead – for one of the biggest hitters when it comes to mid-century classics is Finland.
Design was a crucial part of the country’s rebuilding efforts as well as its sense of identity in the post-war years, and for an economically troubled little land, it punched seriously above its weight, with companies such as Artek, Iitala and Arabia producing rock-solid products that were not only a hit at the time but are still produced and popular today.
Even if you think you aren’t familiar with Finnish design, a glimpse at the Artek curved wooden stool, or the Marimekko poppy print, or Alvar Aalto’s swirled glass vase will convince of the enduring appeal of the Finnish look. And from the first, the Finnish design community was happy to be bracketed with its Swedish and Danish neighbours.
The international breakthrough came with the touring Design in Scandinavia exhibition of 1954, which travelled around north America and Canada for three-and-a-half years. Hugely influential, this exhibition initiated the popular conception of the “Scandinavian look”, which endures today: bright, bold designs, clean minimalist lines, highly functional, and affordable to all. And it was a look Finland was very much part of.
This year sees Finland really celebrating its rich design heritage, beginning with the award of World Design Capital to Helsinki.
The venture aims to promote grassroots interest in design, from consumers and tourists up to policymakers and city planners, to raise awareness of how clever (and beautiful) design can improve quality of life. The capital – and four neighbouring cities – have certainly taken the idea to heart; in January, a new initiative was launched every other day.
This might sound a little high-minded, but then, as Jukka Savolainen, director of Helsinki’s Design Museum, explained to me, the post-war reconstruction period was not only the “golden age for Finnish design”, it also began the trend for fairly lofty ideals of design’s nation-rebuilding potentials. Finns are proud of their design industry’s democratic nature, too – it was about good design for all, affordable prices for all.
But for all those ideals, the city still has a good grasp of the commercial potentials of design: Helsinki now has a designated Design District, a manageable but densely packed grid of streets stuffed with cool interiors and fashion shops, plus small independent art galleries.
For the serious fan, the fact that it is the World Design Capital is the perfect excuse for a visit – there are plenty of events being held throughout the year, and even if you miss out on those you can pick up the coolest pieces rather cheaply. But many are available elswhere in the world – though the “affordable design for everyone” maxim must have either slipped in recent years, or the Finns are just more willing to spend a higher proportion of their income on nice things.
Those golden-age designers clearly got something right – when visiting Helsinki, the pieces I admired in the Design Museum, by the likes of Aalto, Kaj Franck and Timo Sarpaneva, were also the items I saw at the breakfast table, in restaurants, in shops. They really are still being used today – and still looking fresh.
Arguably such a strong and ever-present heritage could be a little suffocating for new, young designers – and the hope is the Design Capital status should help raise the profile of emerging talent, too.
The aim of producing an attractive object with a practical use still informs contemporary designers, however. Chatting to Ville Kokkonen, a design director for Artek (the company founded by Aalto in 1953), he revealed that they still go for that timeless look, explaining that the design process is “not trend-led” and that they only, oh-so-carefully, produce one or two new items each year.
While another young designer, Tatu Ahlroos, seemed wearied by always talking about the old masters instead of fresh visions, for him Finnish design is “bold but minimalist, but with a sense of humour” – and certainly both classic and more contemporary creations support that, from the brilliant blooms of the patterned Marimekko prints to Harri Koskinen’s famous lamp, which appears to encase a bulb in ice.
Think fun, think functional, think Finnish. – The Independent