Helsinki by Design

by Dan Allen
Friday Apr 19, 2013

It’s not always winter in Helsinki. In fact, summers are downright glorious, with longer warm sunny days than you’ll find almost anywhere, and ubiquitous happy Finns gleefully shedding most (if not all) of their clothing to soak up as much brightness as they can.

But when it snows here, it snows. And though I’ve been here during my share of Finnish winters, I’ve never seen it come down quite as intensely as it did during my visit to Helsinki the December before last, just as the city was excitedly preparing for its role as World Design Capital 2012.

Of course the very day I’d scheduled my guided Helsinki design walk came smack in the middle of the monster snowstorm. I asked my local friend (and design freak) Kalle if he wanted to tag along for the tour, but he politely declined, having already committed to helping his brother shovel the snow - not from the driveway, mind you, but off the roof of said brother’s house, so it wouldn’t collapse from the weight.

And so it was that my design walk became more of a blizzard-like design trek, one I quickly subtitled "Arctic Artek" in honor of our first stop. But it was somehow fitting, because there’s undeniably something about the soft edges and beautiful stillness of winter that finds its way into much of Finnish design.

The Icons of Finnish Design

Whatever the weather, Artek is a fitting place to start any Finnish design immersion. Co-founded in 1935 by the country’s greatest and best known architecture and design icon, Alvar Aalto, Artek still sells Aalto’s incredible and incredibly timeless collection, as well as works by a handful of select other Finnish greats. Even if you don’t think you’re familiar with Aalto’s work, you’ll recognize it immediately - Ikea’s been knocking off its effortless form and function for decades.

Artek lies along Esplanadi, a one block wide and several block long park that’s one of the most treasured places in town among Helsinkians. In summer it’s a favorite picnic spot, with live music happening almost daily. In December, the park lights up with the 120 festive stalls of the St. Thomas Christmas market.

Directly across Esplanadi from Artek is the global flagship of another of Finland’s biggest design giants, Marimekko. As with Aalto’s work, whether you think you know Marimekko or not, you do: Jackie Kennedy wore it, Carrie Bradshaw wore it, Crate & Barrel’s been selling it in textile form through a unique partnership for decades, and since 2011, there’s even been a big U.S. flagship Marimekko at the corner of Broadway and 23rd Street in New York City.

The trademark flower print, rudimentary but boldly colored, is the line’s most recognizable symbol, and it’s typical of what makes Finnish design so attractive and alluring: a simple and always functional Nordic aesthetic that finds clever ways to infuse an Eastern-hinting Finnish past and ornateness.

A few doors down is the last member of the Finnish design super-triumvirate, Iittala (say it like a local: EAT-tah-lah). Though it’s been in operation as a glassworks since 1881, it took until the 1930s for Iittala to come into its prime, via gorgeous designs by none other than Alvar Aalto that are still some of the company’s best sellers. Few self-respecting Finns - and certainly no gay ones - are without their own personal collections of Iittala glassware.

Around the corner on Erottajankatu is Design Forum Finland, whose sole purpose for more than a century has been to promote Finnish design across the globe. It does this through a wide variety of projects, competitions, and exhibitions, and its Design Forum Shop is a great one-stop boutique for travelers in a hurry. Design Forum fittingly lies at the very heart of what’s been branded in recent years as Design District Helsinki, for which it publishes a free map with 190 locations to help you fashion your own city design walk.


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