Finnish Design (Blue Wings 4/13)

Revered design objects have given way to design thinking.
By Gordon F. Sander
Future cultural historians will no doubt look back at the mid-2010s as the time when Finns went gaga about design in all its forms and permutations.
Other observers have already spoken about this period as being the second golden age of Finnish modern design, the first being the incandescent, Marimekko-flavoured one of the post-World War II period when “Finnish” and “design” became synonymous.
“I suppose you can say that we are entering a second golden age of Finnish design,” says Mika Tolvanen, one of the better known of the new group of up-and-coming Finnish industrial designers who seem to crop up every ten or fifteen years. “Perhaps the mentality has changed,” says Tolvanen, who was educated in London before returning to Helsinki, where he grows a wide range of attractive and functional furniture and office products. Among these is the svelte Visu chair collection, which was featured at last year’s Milan Salone de Mobile, and his very handy and unhideable Hideaway Bin, both from Muuto design company.
“I am not sure how it came about,” said the 37-year-old, artisan residing in the Helsinki neighbourhood of Töölö. “It seems that we Finns are crouching less in our corner.”
An illustrious history
Of course, it is well to recall, design has been important to Finns both as a means of improving upon and illumining their lives, as well as an expression of national identity since the late 19th century and early 20th century, when the country was still part of Russia. The Finnish pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition designed by the great architect Eliel Saarinen, with its artful blend marriage of Art Nouveau and Finnish national romanticism, and botanically-inspired interior designed by painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, was conceived as a declaration of cultural independence from St Petersburg. It was also a three-dimensional mission statement for the Finnish plastic arts.
A perceptive review of the pavilion that appeared in the French arts magazine, Art et Decoration, underlined the organic link between design and the ascendant Finnish nation. “The Finnish pavilion is one of the most alluring and profoundly interesting structures of the whole Exhibition,” the writer declared. “The Finns take inspiration in everything surrounding them, including their own natural environment. We are in the presence of a genuine national art!”
So he was. International exhibitions and exhibits continued to play a pivotal role in bringing Finnish design to the world, as well as elevating the status of individual Finnish designers and architects throughout the decades to come. The 1936 Milan Triennale, where Alvar Aalto’s celebrated Savoy vase won the competition, was a milestone for both Finland and the polymorphic architect-designer’s career, as was the northern lights inspired, “magic box” pavilion he designed for the 1939 World’s Fair. In the meantime, Ainar Aalto, Aalto’s gifted wife and fellow architect, was making her own mark in the “arts and crafts” world, as it was called then, with Bolgeblick, her corrugated, pressed-glass series, which soon found its way into almost every Finnish home (and still can be found in many).
Tapio Wirkkala’s nature-inspired glass creations, for which he received the Grand Prix at the Milan exhibitions of 1951 and 1954, helped pave the way for the first golden age of Finnish design. These years also made Wirkkala a celebrity designer, along with his fellow giants Timo Sarpaneva and Kaj Franck, amongst others. Fortunately, by this time Finnish industry had also wisely decided to incorporate and utilise design talents in the post-war reconstruction of the country.
Design was not only a national art; it was a national sport, as Finns cheered on the achievements of their favourite designers in the international design area. Eero Aarnio brought a much-needed touch of whimsy to the dour and dark Soviet-shadowed years of the 60s and 70s with his goofy-groovy Ball Chair, while Vuokko Nurmesniemi, the gifted textile designer did the same with the flower-adorned dressed she whipped up for Marimekko and which Jackie Kennedy promptly adopted and made famous. The Society of Arts and Crafts, the predecessor of Design Forum, and its visionary director, Herman Gummerus, played a pivotal role in disseminating Finland’s design genius to the world.
In the 1990s, icon-busting Stefan Lindfors took the century old, biomorphic theme of modern Finnish design to its extreme with his insect-inspired creations, and became Finland’s first rock star designer in the process.
Enter design thinking
Finnish enthusiasm towards design dates back more than a century. What has changed for Finns of late is that the concept of design has altered so that is now takes in the shaping of, well, just about everything. It’s called “design thinking.”
“The definition of design is definitely changing to include not only goods but also services and even experiences,” says Raoul Grunstein, founder and managing director of Korjaamo, the multi-platform culture centre that Grunstein founded on the site of a former tram museum in Helsinki in 2004.
“Design is becoming more relevant in areas not traditionally associated with design, like food, restaurants and gaming. The rise of design and design thinking is not just a continuation of Artek furniture, Marimekko clothing and Iittala glass design – even if these are having a second life as we speak.” Korjaamo itself could be said to exemplify the new design thinking, particularly its new Third Space wing, a collection of thatched huts connected by wooden walkways, which Grunstein designed together with German architect Florian Kohl, as a means for giving Helsinki’s burgeoning population of “creatives” a zone of their own, somewhere between work and home, where they can create, interface and just plain zone out. Having spent some time in the Korjaamo dimension of my own creating, confabulating and zoning out, I can tell you that it works.
The World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 project served as an accelerant to the new design thinking boom, giving vent to the 925 project, whose objective is to re-imagine work routines with a design approach. Meanwhile, serving as a backdrop to and inspiration to the new design boom is Helsinki itself, which is now in the process of redesigning itself.
Design foreign aid
At the same time, established design stars like Ilkka Suppanen continue their prolific ways.
In time-honoured fashion, Suppanen crashed through to fame at the 1997 Milan Furniture Fair where he and his partners in the Snowcrash collective opened eyes with their Glowblow lamp and jack-in-the-box television stand.
For the busy Suppanen, whose motto could be said to be “form follows experience,” the journey behind each of his creations generally begins with immersing himself with his materials, along with a rough idea for the end object and/or its function. He then lets his prospective ingredients, whether they be glass, wood, fabric or metal, lead him to the morphological end point. Hopefully, the end product will also fulfil his intended function, but that’s not necessarily his principal objective. Of late, this process has led Suppanen in such fascinating – and commercially successful – directions as Kaasa, a hynoptic glass-enclosed fireplace he designed for Iittala. Suppanen leaves the execution of his cornucopia of designs to a squadron of eager beaver assistants drawn from around the world who make his bank vault-turned-studio in Alpila a constant beehive of activity, leaving him time to dream. “For me it all begins with the dream,” he says.
Lately the mystically-minded designer, a firm believer in giving back, has gone off in a decidedly undreamy direction, assisting poor communities via the agency of inspired design. In 2009, he spent several months consulting with the caste-less communards of Orissa, India on how to increase their income from basket making. The happy result of that design journey is a handsome and inexpensive appliance called the Tikau Lamp, which recently went on sale in New York (Finnair has collaborated with Tikau, a design company and humanitarian organisation). More recently, Suppanen has also been working with the homeless bottle-collectors of Sao Paolo to help them fashion discarded plastic bottles into more useful and commercial products.
I suppose you might call it design foreign aid. If that’s not golden, I don’t know what is.
Gordon F. Sander is the author of Off the Map: A Personal History of Finland (Gummerus).

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