Finnish design and what makes the Nordic powerhouse so cool

by Rebecca Lo on Jun 28, 2018 in Architecture , Products , Top Story
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As Hong Kong and the rest of world joined Finland to celebrate the nation's centenary, Perspective flew to its capital Helsinki to discover what makes the Nordic powerhouse and Finnish design so cool

Finland has long fascinated design aficionados. Its sparse population – just 5.5 million people in a country larger than Italy (population 60 million) – has produced a disproportionate number of architects and designers; in fact, Finnish architects are probably as well known as Italian ones: Erik Bryggman, Vilhelm Helander, Markku Komonen and Jaakko Tähtinen, to name a few.

Last year was Finland's centenary, with special events and exhibitions across the country, the majority of them in the capital, Helsinki. There were also celebrations around the world; Hong Kong got in on the act with Culture for Tomorrow's exhibition Hot is Cool at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza in December.

'Timeless' is a word often used to describe Scandinavian design; it is an entirely appropriate description of Finnish design, which has a time-honoured history. Its origins are closely associated with manufacturing of products that have endured because of superior design and quality control, and this practicality and stripped-back utilitarian nature has endured with contemporary designers.

Finland’s sparse population has produced a disproportionate number of architects and designers

The Design Museum, Finnish design

The Design Museum, Helsinki is in a neo-gothic former school designed by Gustav Nyström

Taking Finland's oldest company Fiskars for example, it started as an ironworks in 1649 and is now a global conglomerate, whose best-known product the orange-handled scissors have been produced since 1967. While the Fiskars Corporation has a swag of international brands (Waterford, Wedgewood, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert), its portfolio also includes historic Finnish marques such as Hackman, which has made cutlery since 1790; Arabia ceramics, founded in 1873; and Iittala, a glassmaker set up in 1881 that has produced the Alvar Aalto collection of vases since 1936.

Artek – the name is a melding of 'art' and 'technology' – was established in 1935 by Alvar and Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen, and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Its manifesto stated that it wanted to 'achieve a synthesis of the arts, improve everyday living, and bring modernism to Finland'. Alvar Aalto was a graduate of the Helsinki University of Technology, now part of the Aalto University, a hotbed of contemporary start-ups. Finland has so much more design names.

Demonstrating the nation’s dedication and strength in design, a touring exhibition Echoes – 100 Years in Finnish Design and Architecture made its way from Helsinki across Europe with its carefully curated collection of historic and contemporary Finnish designs and structures. Another highlight was the exhibition 100 Objects from Finland, showcasing hand-picked products from each year of Finland's existence after it gained independence following more than 100 years of Russian rule. Bank notes designed by architect Eliel Saarinen sat alongside an Alvar Aalto stool and the Planetoid Valleys necklace worn by Princess Leia in the original 1977 Star Wars, designed by jeweller Björn Weckström.

Many of these objects can still be seen up close at Helsinki's Design Museum. In the heart of the city's Design District, the museum is housed in an 1895 redbrick former high school designed by architect Gustav Nyström. The cosy yet contemporary interior features three storeys of past, present and future. The ground floor is devoted to some of Finland's universally known designs,  under the title Utopia Now – The Story of Finnish Design. Alongside the history of Nokia's development, there is background information on two of the four founders of furniture company Artek: Aino and Alvar Aalto. There's also an explanation of how Angry Birds became such an international sensation, and many other everyday designs that might not be not as well-known.

The Memphis Design Group founded in Milan by Ettore Sottsass is well represented in the Design Museum

The Memphis Design Group founded in Milan by Ettore Sottsass is well represented in the Design Museum

Helsinki is an architecturally rewarding city. Topping the list is the art nouveau Central Station in the city centre by Eliel Saarinen, father of architect Eero Saarinen. Clad in red granite with a bright green copper-capped clock tower, the 1919 structure was one of Saarinen's most popular and visited in his home country. Guarding the main doors are four large Russian-style statues in the form of stylised lamp posts.

Saunas are Finland's national pastime, with about 2 million of them in the country, or one for every two to three people. Löyly, in the hipster former industrial district of Hernesaari, is one of Helsinki's few mixed-sex public saunas. Opened in 2016 and designed by Avanto Architects, the small-scale structure is part sauna, part restaurant and all fun.

From a distance, its seaside perch resembles a stylised iceberg lapping the shores. "Restaurants and bars are a way to help the sauna pay for itself over a quicker period," said Ville Hara, co-founder of Avanto Architects, when he was in Hong Kong for the opening of his Sauna Kolo, one of the stars of Hot is Cool.

Löyly public sauna complex in the former industrial district of Hernesaari, has three different saunas and a restaurant Photo. Marc Goodwin, Archmospheres Mikko Ryhänen / Joanna Laajisto Creative Studio

Löyly public sauna complex in the former industrial district of Hernesaari, has three different saunas and a restaurant
Photo. Marc Goodwin, Archmospheres Mikko Ryhänen / Joanna Laajisto Creative Studio

"For every Finn, sauna is a way of life. In the summer I go every week, and often alternate jumping into a nearby lake to cool off with being in the sauna. We believe that the best saunas are woodburning ones, so that you can experience the scent of real smoke while you are enjoying the steam. At Löyly, different types of woods are burned to generate the heat for different experiences." The horizontal wooden slats cladding the two-room sauna building morph into steps leading to the top for panoramic views of people sailing by on pleasure craft. Designed for sun-worshipping Finns, the staggered roof is dotted with beanbags for loungers to enjoy aromatic smoke wafting from iron chimneys.

For every Finn, sauna is a way of life

Residential neighbourhood Arabianranta is the best spot for design lovers to shop. As new construction there must devote 1-2 per cent of the budget to public art, the neighbourhood is a contemporary Finnish art lover's dream. Located north of Helsinki's city centre, off Helsinki's longest street, Hämeentie, Arabianranta was where Arabia ceramics were manufactured since 1871. In its heyday, Arabia was one of the largest ceramics brands in Europe. The Arabia Factory Building has been adapted in recent years into a mixed-use structure that houses outlets for glass and ceramics label Iittala and textiles label Finlayson, two of Finland's best-known lifestyle brands.

Fiskars Campus

The Fiskars Campus gallery

What is now known as the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture was founded in 1871 and, as the largest art university in Scandinavia, has educated many of the country's best-known architects, designers and artists. The campus spans both the historic Arabia factory and a new addition with a glass atrium. The Fiskars Campus gallery offers accessible exhibitions of installations and art. The top floor of the Arabia Factory Building is devoted to an annexe of the downtown Design Museum and features predominantly glass and ceramic displays.

This article first appeared as "Nordic lights”, a feature story from the June issue of Perspective magazine.


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