It’s nearly impossible to take a step in Helsinki without feeling like you’re on a design treasure hunt – and you’re winning. From the secret symbolism of Jugendstil Art Nouveau to the epic sweeping lines of Oodi library; from textiles to shapely furniture and witty accessories in exquisite shop fronts, Finns seem to embody good taste and cool style. The good news for the rest of us mortals is that the Finnish aptitude for good design is not necessarily something innate – it’s based on hard work. The Finnish Society for Craft and Design was founded back in 1875, to promote the skills needed to enhance local industry and manufacturing. Through the 20th century, the Finns actively grew their design credentials and reputation, causing a stir at international Triennials.
So, as we approach Helsinki Design Week, from September 1-11 (billed as the biggest design festival in the Nordics, which is no mean feat!), let’s take a closer look at just how they do it.
Finland’s 100th birthday gift to itself, Oodi is so much more than a library. From the outside its flowing lines mimic a ship or perhaps a glacier. Inside, as well as being a gloriously light-filled public space that loans books, it also offers all sorts of equipment and spaces: meeting rooms; music studios; 3D printers; button presses and sewing machines – ensuring that all sectors of the population have access to what they need to be creative. Oodi is a great example of Finland’s proactive strategy to use design to understand their citizens’ needs, promote participation and develop educational, civic, and cultural and leisure services.
2. The Design Museum
Opened in 1873 and hosting more than 75,000 objects, what better place to start exploring the Finnish relationship with design than here? A brave exhibition, Design for Every Body, is running until this autumn, scrutinising design, equality and who gets to design what and how. Reflecting how integral design is to the city and the country, other exhibitions are dotted in other locations, such as the Iitala and Arabia Design Centre to the north east of Helsinki, where the Finns’ leading role in glass and ceramics can be discovered.
3. Jugendstil and National Romanticism architecture
Jugendstil was very popular at the turn of the last century, with architects borrowing tropes from country castles, such turrets, towers and castellation and combining them with a love of natural forms. Eira, named for the nearby hospital (and Goddess of Healing) is a pleasant seaside district developed as a model neighbourhood. Once a place where people were ashamed to live, it’s now one of the most desirable spots. Stroll here and take in the variety of sturdy, pastel-coloured villas. Lift your eyes and see if you can spot the secrets inscribed in tiled panels and sculpture. Certain motifs, such as diving bluebirds, are thought to be subtle political commentary influenced by National Romanticism.
When Helsinki’s old cargo port was relocated in 2008, the railroad connecting the old port with the central station became obsolete. Visible several metres below street level, with seven bridges connecting neighbourhoods on either side, the railroad trench was redeveloped into a corridor for pedestrians and cyclists. On Helsinki Day (June 12th) 2012, Baana (Finnish slang for ‘railroad’) was opened. What was once a dark and unpleasant division between communities was utterly transformed into a glorious route for pedestrians and cyclists, totally free from other traffic, increasing accessibility for a range of neighbourhoods. Yet another example of design used simply and purposefully to improve every day life.
5. Senate Square
You mustn’t miss this central hub of Helsinki, where Finnish design thinking meets civic values to form the very fabric of the city. When Helsinki became the country’s capital in 1812, architect Carl Ludvig Engel (3 July 1778 – 14 May 1840) worked on the design for most of the buildings around the vast Senate Square, including, of course, the Senate (now the Palace of the Council of State), Helsinki Cathedral, the City of Helsinki Town Hall, and the library and the main building of Helsinki University. Thus he created an architectural symbol for political, religious, scientific and commercial powers at the heart of society.
For foodies, there are plenty of places to sample culinary design. Finnjavel, a Michelin-starred establishment in the heart of Helsinki, offers two experiences – one more relaxed and one more formal. Everything here is rooted in Finnish traditions and design, from the tableware to the cuisine. As well as the amazing food, I loved the beautiful airy drapes hung from the ceiling and softening the space, inspired by an old-fashioned Finnish method of decorating rustic homes.
Alternatively, during Design Week, this year’s host building will be Alvar Aalto’s Kanavaranta, also known as ‘The Sugar Cube’, which will be open to the public for the first time. There should be no shortage of interest – the building itself has been the subject of controversy ever since its neo-renaissance predecessor was dismantled in the sixties and replaced by Aalto’s work. Unusually there are no exhibitions in the main venue this year, the focus being on discussion, idea generation – and pleasure. Kuurna restaurant has been invited to cater. In a type of ‘booth’, diners will be served exquisite food, overlooking one of the best views in the city. The restaurant is fully booked but a wine bar (by Kuurna) will be open to all from 2 September, serving small portions and snacks. There are also guided tours available.
7. Little Finlandia
This temporary events space and restaurant near Oodi library and overlooking Töölö Bay, embodies Finnish design with its incorporation of 95 Scots pines as part of an attractive colonnade leading to the waterfront.
For Design Week, Anni Valkola, a designer specialising in sustainability, will create an installation entitled Nature Gallery in situ, consisting of plants and other natural products collected from nearby nature and displayed in a gallery-like wall that allows the viewer to see the treasures of nature up close.