Arctic flowering in Finland

In its ninth year, Helsinki’s Design Week is a showcase for some of the world’s most exciting and innovative concepts in a country crazy about design

A tree grows in the tower at one end of the long, stainless steel dining table and, at the other, dangling in a turret are lamps whose shades were woven in Colombia. By the light of swaying candle flames and the vibrant basketry of South American lights, Kari Korkman, the founder and director of Design Week in Helsinki tells us how he ended up operating from this majestic brick customs house.

As with many glorious buildings, no one wanted it, in this case because it was neglected and had no heating. And so he filled it with design pieces, from both budding creators and established brands. “We just moved in,” he says, “without doing a thing.”

“We did clean up some pigeon poo,” admits a colleague.

“But I think there is still some on the top floor,” Korkman says with a grin. Design Week, which takes place in venues across the city every autumn, will be 10 years old next year.


One exhibit in the authentic, industrial Old Customs House – in the National Romantic style – is a dining table by Ikea with curtains around it so children can play beneath. The design is a result of consultation with families. So when children ask: "Can I get down now?" they could actually mean down under the table.

Designers Pekka Toivanen and Gregory A Perez, over at the Habitare furniture exhibition on the city's outskirts, point to a similar collaboration in the design of the city's new children's hospital.

“Would you like to go to hospital?” asks Toivanen, provocatively but not unkindly. “Er, no.”

“Would you want to go to hospital if your child was there?” Good point: if people we love are in hospital then we want to be there too. You need to involve users in the design, says Perez, a senior designer at IDEO in America who develops user-centred solutions.

I ask if he has an example of design success from the consultation and he talks of an MRI scanner that children were terrified of. Most needed sedatives before they went in. So they turned it into a pirate adventure. Children went sailing into the tunnel and all the machines noises they heard? They were other pirate ships. Excitement went up and sedative use went down: by 90 per cent.

At the fair, Maarit Miettinen is recalling a childhood experience, clambering over a chair designed by her father Ahti Kotikoski in the 1960s. It won an award in a 1968 competition whose judges included Robin Day and Arne Jacobsen. The low-lying plastic chair was discontinued during the 1970s' oil crisis but she is resurrecting it, much to her father's delight. "He is very, very touched by it," she smiles.

Family company Fleimio has created a log trolley with adjustable shelves and, in the eco section, winning woodworks run from a chaise longue that has barely evolved from its tree-trunk roots, looking like a challenging but exhilarating sit, to a delicate, finely balanced mobile inset with strip lights. Next door, one winner of a Dream Space contest, Mira Koymari, has found a future for newsprint by creating a sit-in globe from rolled-up dailies.

It creates the effect of shifting shards of lighting hitting the interior.

Meanwhile, Helsinki Design museum is displaying the latest additions to its vast collection, chosen by a panel of illustrious judges. "There is a huge appetite in Finland for design," says Jukka Savolainen, director of the 140-year-old museum."

They do this each year, calling in pieces – launched in recent years – which range from those by big names, such as Ligne Roset, to lesser-spotted items such as a stool with legs comprised of stacked Russian dolls.

I say the best design often involves a bit of wit and he tells me that when Alvar Aalto was creating his curvaceous vase he referred to it as “Eskimo trousers”.

An architect at a PechaKucha night that evening shows a slide of a lake that mirrors the vase shape. Nature is so evident in design in Finland, itself 70 per cent covered in trees and a third taken up by Lapland, and its traditions remain strong: ply is much in evidence, as is sustainability and strong colours, from primaries to deep purples and bilberry pinks.

These brilliantly counteract the greying skies as drizzle pours cold water on the late-summer sun.

Natural talent
In the Marimekko shop in town we are shown its ethereal new collection inspired by the weather: and a contrast from the bright, bold shapes synonymous with the fabric brand, whose iconic poppies are about to turn 50.

The weather is not the only similarity Finland has with Ireland. The country, with a population of about five million,was also colonised – by Sweden and Russia, and it too had a civil war, in 1917.

The Finnish seem to have turned much of their energy since into design. They are devoted to their big brands and those companies respond by building on tradition: while launching new collections with the seasons they also devise new colourways for old favourites such as the poppies.

Nearly every Finlander owns a piece by Iittala, with crockery graced by the Moomim cartoon characters a common gift for important birthdays, while its glassware, cutlery and crockery decorates restaurant tables everywhere.

Cafe chairs are often by Artek, the furniture company founded in 1935 by architect Alvar Aalto (who has a number of buildings in Helsinki including the Finlandia Hall) with his wife Aino, Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Design is easy to find, the major brands, from Eero Aarnio to Kartell, all have shops in Helsinki, many in the Design District near the city centre or, for a one-stop-shop, at the Design Forum. You can also stay in a Design Hotel here, the Klaus K.

The recognition of tradition’s value was underscored recently when Artek bought a secondhand furniture store on Lonnrotinkatu Street.

Artek 2nd Cycle is a gathering of used Artek pieces and those by other 20th-century furniture maestros in an underground white-brick cavern. One stool they sold came with a history and, on enquiring who had owned it before, the buyer found out that it had belonged to his grandfather.

The company has just linked up with Vitra, which will see its products become even better known globally.

Yet along with reverence for the old, there is admiration and encouragement of the new. At the Arabia factory and Iittala outlet, I meet Elina Aalto (no relation ) who had just created – with her husband – a ply storage box for Iittala.

The couple also worked on the Ikea kitchen design in collaboration with children: part of the new generation of designers encouraged by established companies.

Helsinki Design Week
Helsinki Design Week 2014 will be held on September 4th-14th next year. The week is run by Luovi, a design service agency founded in 1995 by Kari Korkman which began by making bags and laptop cases.

Luovi started launching new collections as exhibitions, with other companies exhibiting in parallel, and so Helsinki Design Week began, officially in 2005. The goal was to develop the city as an environment for creative industry.

It took on the Old Customs Warehouse (see story) in 2010 to use for exhibitions, events, PechaKucha nights, concerts, fashion shows, fashion and design shoots, a film location, parties and a Finnish Design Shop pop-up store. It is the the main venue for Helsinki Design Week .

Helsinki Design Week wants to develop further and collaborate internationally: take note Ireland.