Finnish Furniture Goes Global (The European 9/15/98)

If you’ve been casting envious glances at a colleague’s mobile phone recently, the chances are it’s a Nokia. While other mobile phoe manufacturers compete to see who can make the smallest, most high-tech hindset, the Finnish company Nokia concentrates on making phones that are easy to handle and beautiful to look at.

Such simple, functional beauty is the essence of 20th-century Finnish design and it’s back in the spotlight, thanks to a series of exhibitions in London, New York and Helsinki.

London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is currently staging an exhibition of Finnish studio glass; in New York the Museum of Modern Art is leading the international festivities in honour of master architect-designer Alvar Aalto’s centenary with a sweeping exhibition of his stylish furniture, while New York’s Bard Graduate Center is staging “Finnish Design: Utiopan Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930-97″. The newly refurbished Museum of Art and Design in Helsinki houses a new permanent collection that chronicles the country’s recent design history.

Design matters to the Finns. When Finland became independent in 1917 after a century of Russian Rule, design played a key part in fashioning the country’s new national identity.

The architect and furniture designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was a crucial figure in creating a distinctive Finnish version of modernism. While his contemporaries were building in steel and glass with straight lines and right angkes, Aalto — influenced by the countryside around him — worked in wood and designed objects with beautiful, flowing curves. His place in Finnish culture is underlined by the fact that his face apears on the country’s 50 markka banknote.

In recent years a new breed of Finnish designer has emerged. Some see Stefan Lindfors as the enfant terrible of Finnish design; others say that he is Aalto’s heir apparent. He first burst on to the then complacent Finnish design scene in 1987 when he was still a student. Given a free hand to fill a room of the capital’s Museum of Applied Arts in his own style, Lindfors responded by making “thrones” for the reigning superpower leaders George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Zhao Ziyang in the forms of a scorpion, a sea anenome and a symbol for the Aids virus, respectively.

In 1992, the Finnish government honoured its talented and increasingly disillusioned native son with its most lucrative cultural prize, the $80,000 Trailblazer Award. “Lindfors has always known what he wants and has not been afraid to take personal risks,” said the award citation, which also described him as the “Aalto of the 1990s”. That was bland and not enough to keep Lindfors from flying the stuffy Finnish design coop. In 1993, he accepted an invitation from the Kansas City Institute of Art to head its floundering design department. Many of Lindfors’ works are inspired by insects and reptiles — a slightly warped updating of Aalto’s constant influences from nature.

The three partners in the trendy Finnish design consultancy Snowcrash Teppo Askikainen — Ilkka Suppanen, Ilkka Terho and Timo Salli — have abandoned nature altogether. Their Snowblow lamp and the jack-in-thebox television stand created a sensation at last year’s Milan Furniture Fair. Salli, the designer, expects the stand to be available this spring for approximately $5,520. The upfront weirdness of Snowcrash is a far cry from the conservative forms of Aalto, but somehow one imagines that the Finnish master, a radical in his day, would definitely approve.

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