The Finnish Factor
Hot Prospects in a Cool Climate.
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 11/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
In September 1984, I covered the 18th annual Scandinavian Furniture Fair in Copenhagen for this magazine. Assessing the groundswell of original designs, I singled out the Finns as "noteworthy for styling refinements." That was then. In a visit to Helsinki in September, I found clear evidence that the comment still holds. Moreover, the Finns go beyond the superficial aspects of style. Even cutting-edge Finnish designs are infused by a strong respect for the early modernist tradition, a tradition that others often dismiss as merely retro. The Finns, too, give much more than lip service to the future of the home and the environment.
Design is high-profile in Helsinki. Alvar Aalto's designs in the Artek store, which opens into the trendy Pravda restaurant, look as this-minute as ever, and his 1930s Savoy restaurant was recently restored—but not "updated." In an 1860s glass pavilion on the Esplanadi, the upscale shopping-and-strolling street, the landmark Kappeli restaurant has been given a 21st-century face-lift (with quirky magenta chairs) by architect Kaisa Blomstedt. There's a healthy scene of modern furnishings stores and showrooms, too, over 30 in and around downtown. Some are exclusively Finnish; others offer an international mix that would be at home in New York, London, or Milan.
Design's importance in everyday life was evident at Habitare, Finland's biennial furniture and design fair. Over a sunny weekend, young families with carriages and youngsters in tow flocked to the exhibition with the same enthusiasm that Americans show for visiting Disneyland. Attractions included basic modular seating and storage, practical children's furniture, and a special section for the elderly, plus arresting new concepts from two, even three, generations of designers. Elder statesmen Eero Aarnio, Yrjö Kukkapuro, Antti Nurmesniemi, Yrjö Wiherheimo, Ritva Puotila, and Ristomatti Ratia shared the stage with barely-out-of-school talents whose ideas—a combination room-divider and light fixture, an overscale chair that resembled a folded slab of upholstered foam, a space-saving bed on a hydraulic lift—had been brought to market by manufacturers willing to take chances.
For historical background, the Museum of Art & Design, founded in 1873, has a permanent exhibit on the development of Finnish design and also mounts temporary shows, such as a beautiful retrospective of Finnish fashion from the last five decades. Two months ago, the museum opened an innovative study center with temporary exhibits, underwritten by manufacturers, that demonstrate industrial-design processes. At the same time, the Museum of Finnish Architecture's dramatic Concrete Spaces was presenting the brilliant 1960s buildings of Aarno Ruusuvuori, a less known modernist.
Of the small number of Finnish names that have earned international recognition, Nokia, Arabia, Iittala, and Marimekko are all linked to design. The latter three are now pursuing interesting parallel paths, promoting decades-old designs along with brand-new ones. Current traveling museum exhibitions on Marimekko's Fujiwo Ishimoto and Iittala icon Tapio Wirkkala will surely further the cause. Back home, the 19th-century ironworks village of Fiskars, namesake and original home to the manufacturer of the famous orange-handled ergonomic scissors, has been entirely reborn. It is now a cooperative design-and-crafts community (and tourist attraction), with vacant factory buildings converted to studios and exhibition spaces. A recent show on metal featured tableware, other household objects, and jewelry, as well as art objects.
Not content to coast on past successes, though, several influential organizations, partly funded by the government, continue to raise consciousness of all kinds of design—industrial products, furnishings, fashion, interiors, and crafts being seen as comfortably parallel. The 125-year-old Finnish Society of Crafts & Design/Design Forum Finland, second in longevity only to Sweden's Svensk Form (The Swedish Society of Crafts and Design), stages exhibitions, operates a flourishing retail outlet, publishes the superior Form Function Finland magazine, and last year instituted a Young Designer of the Year cash prize. This year's winners, Eeva Lithovius and Karola Sahi, devised an ecologically sound, user-friendly living space for families with small children, and Helsinki's Design Forum gallery exhibited the installation for a month.
Plans are under way for an information center for architecture, design, and construction (the ARMI project) to be built, after a major architectural competition, in a prominent spot on Helsinki's waterfront. Much broader in scope, the ambitious government-sponsored program Design 2005! encourages manufacturers to include design in strategic planning and links them to appropriate Finnish firms. Mission statement: "A high-quality, aesthetic physical environment built on distinctive design will create a strong identity for Finland in the vanguard of design and craftsmanship." Wouldn't it be nice if, crises aside, other governments thought of wielding good design instead of political or economic pressure to court respect abroad?
The Finnish project that bears closest watching is the five-year-old Future Home Institute, headquartered at Helsinki's University of Art & Design—incidentally the largest design school in Europe, founded in 1871. Activities include a doctoral program, product research and development, and of course a consortium on the "future home." Thesis topics include developing tile from sewage sludge, finding uses mining waste, manufacturing textiles that generate heat or cold depending on the atmosphere, and meeting the needs of the aging. The institute links students to funding sources and industrial partners and, from all indications, is breaking new, challenging ground.
Last month, the New York Times convened designers for a roundtable on design's role in a changing world. The discussion touched on such issues as whom designers design for (mostly themselves, it was noted), design responsibility, and why design isn't a way of life in America. That conversation could not have occurred in Finland or, for that matter, any other Scandinavian country. There, responsible design is taken for granted—in a positive sense. Good design is a matter of course rather than a gratuitous addition, and new materials and technology are not just a way to one-up the competition. They're genuine opportunities to improve the way we live.