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.

Historical Collections and Cutting Edge Designers

For a deeper dip into Finland’s design past, just a couple blocks further on is Design Museum (DesignMuseo), housing more than 75,000 pieces in its permanent collection, and hosting the city’s best design-related temporary exhibitions. Around the corner is the Museum of Finnish Architecture, which some visitors find disappointing owing to the smallness of its permanent collection (called "Decades of Finnish Architecture 1900-1970"), but which does put on some exciting temporary shows, like the upcoming "Light Houses: Young Nordic Architecture" in June.

But back to the shopping: Just across the street from Design Forum Finland is Aero, which stocks the best Finnish furniture creations, old and new. Of course, squeezing a new sofa into the overhead bin on the way home might prove tricky, but never fear: Aero carries countless smaller and fairly irresistible home d├ęcor items as well.

Aero lies at the gateway to Helsinki’s Punavuori neighborhood, where you’ll find the most exciting new stars of Finnish design. Must-hit stops in these blocks include IvanaHelsinki, the ultra-hip line that’s the only Finnish label to show at Paris Fashion Week, and which was just celebrated with its own exhibition at Design Museum.

Another not-to-miss Punavuori shop is gTIE on Pursimiehenkatu, the exciting neckwear and accessory line from Jenni Ahtiainen that’s gained international fashion acclaim with its array of modern rock-edged pieces. It’s a ruggedly elegant mix of leather, lace and steel, and nearly everything here is black, white or vibrant red.

Eco-Luxury and Beyond

Over on Fredrikinkatu, EDEL City is a super-cool emporium of ecologically minded fashion and home interior items. Under the motto "Spoil yourself without spoiling the environment," EDEL (which stands for Ethical Design and Eco Luxury) offers unique green creations like lizard brooches made from a recycled computer motherboards, and ties crafted from former car seat belts. They also stock the yummy Austrian organic chocolate line Zotter.

A few blocks north on Eerikinkatu is Helsinki10, perhaps the coolest place in town to shop for design, fashion, art, music and books all in one spot. This is curated shopping at its hippest, with everything from unique upstart lines to high fashion names like Martin Margiela to the only Helsinki collection of Topshop items.

Should your tastes run more mainstream - or if you’re just looking for the top consumer highlights of Finnish design together in one place - Stockmann department store is the city’s undisputed shopping epicenter. It offers seven huge floors of pretty much everything, and also serves as a common meeting point for Helsinkians - and a not uncommon cruising point for the gay ones.

Not surprisingly for a city with such a rich design culture and heritage, Helsinki’s stint as World Design Capital last year was a smashing success. Fortunately, some of its best events are actually lasting well into this year, including "Made in Helsinki 1700-2012", a free exhibition at Hakasalmi Villa (part of the Helsinki City Museum) that runs through Sep. 1. September also brings the city’s biggest annual design extravaganza, Helsinki Design Week, a line-up of galas, exhibitions, fashion shows, workshops, seminars, and studio visits that this year runs from the 12th to 22nd.

For more information about traveling to Helsinki, check out VisitFinland and VisitHelsinki, the latter of which also features its own design section here.

Dan Allen covers travel and gay culture for numerous outlets around the world including, Yahoo Travel, Queerty, Westways, Passport, The New York Post and Private Islands.


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