Finland: The capital of cool

Oct 16, 2012


Cute cotton dresses have taken Paola Suhonen a long way. The designer behind Finnish label Ivana Helsinki has shown in Paris Fashion Week and opened a flagship store in New York. Along the way, she has worked with Coca-Cola, Google and HP Sauce. She also enjoys collaborating with other Finnish designers. For one Big Brother-type project, she shared a house with some for a week, working and partying together. And she makes films, too.
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In some countries, this multifaceted approach would perhaps be considered unusual. In Finland, it’s just what you do. “Finland in general is very experimental with art and design,” Suhonen says. “Companies are so small they need to be creative in terms of being able to compete with companies that are globally huge.”

It’s always been this way. The legendary 20th-century designers who helped Finland gain a place in the international spotlight all applied their talents to diverse projects. Alvar Aalto designed floor lamps and vases as well as Helsinki’s Finlandia concert hall; Eero Aarnio created guitars and lamps as well as his famous Ball chair; and Tapio Wirkkala – who famously spent thousands of hours developing a technique to create his dripping icicle glassware – also designed banknotes, jewellery and knives.

While Nordic countries are known for their clean aesthetic, tiny Finland – at 5.4 million its total population is just a tad larger than Sydney’s – has long punched above its weight in the design stakes. And just as well since, for many years, the naturally modest Finns struggled to find anything else to be particularly proud of.

While their larger neighbour Sweden had Ikea, Abba, Bjrn Borg and Volvo, the Finns were perpetual losers in the Eurovision Song Contest, once even awarded the damning “nul points” (zero).

These days, however, things are different. Helsinki was named World Design Capital 2012, an event that coincided with a newfound Finnish confidence. A large number of design-themed events and exhibitions have taken place throughout the year, highlighting not just the talents of Finnish designers, but the role they have played in helping shape national identity.

“In Finland, the arts were used to create national awareness,” says Jukka Savolainen, director of the Finnish Design Museum. For many years a province of either Sweden or Russia, Finland attained its independence only after 1917. Small, undeveloped and stranded on
the furthest edge of Europe, the new country desperately needed to create an identity for itself. With prominent local architects such as Eliel Saarinen and multidisciplined designers Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino embracing modern aesthetics, design became a tool with which to help define what it meant to be Finnish.

It helped that the designs being produced reflected much about the people. Finnish design has never been about ostentatious ornamentation. Countries with strong courtly traditions, such as France and Italy, naturally developed a decorative aesthetic. However the Finns have always been simple country folk, people who not only call a spade a spade, but expect it to look like one, too.

“Finnish designers don’t do things that are simply nice-looking,” says “interior architect” Kaisa Blomstedt, citing the work of masters such as Kaj Franck. “They’re serious about the moral and [ethical dimensions] of design. Everything must be functional, producible and sustainable.”

In a land of 200,000 lakes and dense forests, it’s no surprise that nature is a recurring theme, from Timo Sarpaneva’s orchid bud vase to Oiva Toikka’s bird sculptures. Toikka’s works also highlight the handmade aspect that is such an important part of Finnish design.

“Our culture is not very old – our grandparents were still working in fields, living without electricity,” says designer Saara Renvall. “We’re not far removed from that. We still have those basic skills of knowing what you need to, if you need to grow food or fix a cottage.”

The Finns retain a strong respect for crafts. Renvall works across a variety of areas, including furniture and jewellery, collaborating with traditional craftspeople. She says the handmade element is vitally important. “Handmade things have a certain warmth, there’s something about the touch of the maker that moves people.”

Finland’s design culture is about more than just creating objects. Good design is accepted as an integral part of modern urban life, and there is an understanding that encouraging local talent is a more effective strategy than importing international stars. Only one major building in Helsinki’s CBD has been designed by an international architect – the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (by Steven Holl). Architects are routinely chosen through competitions that are open to all, giving emerging talents a chance to shine.

Projects such as MultiColoured Dreams (MCD) match graffiti artists with building hoardings they can use as canvases, while new housing developments allocate up to two per cent of the budget for each building to public art. Art works at the redeveloped Arabia Factory site included poetry on bricks, leaf patterns printed on glass windows, bronze casts of birds perched on rocks and a sauna shaped like a giant bird’s nest, tucked under the eaves of a tower building.

Helsinki’s small population (601,000) helps the city maintain its creativity, says Milla Visuri of World Design Capital Helsinki. “The fact that we’re so small makes everything so easy. It’s a very creative town where things happen quickly. If you have a project and ask one person, “Who should I talk to?”, they’ll quickly come up with five to 10 names.”

According to Visuri, one quarter of all jobs in Helsinki relate to design. However, the nature of Finnish design is changing. While contemporary Finnish designers such as Harri Koskinen, Ilkka Suppanen and Tapio Anttila continue to be in demand with clients around the world, few would describe their work as typically Finnish.

What’s more, the areas in which Finnish designers excel are changing. Where once Finns concentrated on furniture, industrial and fashion design, new industries are developing. Digital design is one booming area: a Finnish company created the Angry Birds game that millions of people are addicted to. Service design – the processes that ensure services are delivered effectively – is another. Helsinki’s newfound confidence is palpable. International recognition plays a part, of course – hip magazines such as Monocle regularly celebrate the many joys of Helsinki, while the city’s restaurant scene now has several Michelin stars – but the change seems as much internally driven as anything else.

“Finns are not insecure about their identity, we are ready to embrace international ideas and concepts,” says the Design Museum’s Jukka Savolainen, “We understand we don’t need to fit a certain mould, that we can be ourselves and do our own thing.”

Pressed on what has led to these kinds of changes, Savolainen lists a range of factors, including everything from an increase in tourist numbers to the international success enjoyed not just by designers but sportsmen and politicians as well – former president Martti Ahtisaari
was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008. That is all very well, but Savolainen may be missing something crucial.

In 2006, Finland finally won the Eurovision Song Contest thanks to flamboyant heavy-metal performers Lordi, long considered an embarrassment by many Finns. Surely this must be significant? He smiles. “Well, yes, that clearly played a role as well.”

Source Qantas The Australian Way November 2012
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