Fiskars. Nokia. Marimekko. Angry Birds. Finland is a world leader in design. How did that happen?
There are several answers to that question. Most Finns attribute their concentration on making life at home better via creative design to their awful weather. Despite snow inundation and long winters, city sidewalks, buses, and trams operate normally. Schools, restaurants, stores, etc. thrive in January as if Helsinki was Miami. Finns have had to work hard for the good life, and that’s why thousands enjoy design careers in a dark, far north country of well under 6 million people.
Other factors that turned a large % of Finns into design fanatics include their love of nature, proximity to Russia and design focused folks like the Swedes, and their practical nature arising from a hardscrabble environment. As Lonely Planet succinctly points out in its exploration of Finnish design genius, “if that axe didn’t chop enough wood for the winter, you wouldn’t survive it.”
The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design based in Montreal, Canada, named Helsinki the 2012 World Design Capital. This was both understandable and a big deal. Every 2 years this organization honors a city with this designation. In 2010 it was Seoul, Korea. Capetown, South Africa, is 2014’s honoree. The ICSID notes that since more and more of the world’s population lives in cities, design has become key to making urban lives more efficient, pleasing, etc. Its 2012 World Design Capital booklet honoring Helsinki says ICSID “celebrates the accomplishments of cities that have used design as a tool to reinvent themselves and improve social, cultural, and economic life.”
Ruth & I were in Helsinki at the end of its year-long celebration. Most of the big WDC events were over. Luckily, on our first morning we went to the Design Museum at Korkeavuorenkatu 23. The staff was striking its special exhibit, but its permanent one was both opened and informative. The Industrial Age didn’t arrive in Finland until the 1860s when guilds were abolished. Freedom of Trade came in 1879. Glassmaking, ceramic production, etc. exploded. Both simple, utilitarian objects and luxury items found local and international buyers. The Saarinens thrived. This family’s second design generation went on to create icons like the St. Louis Arch. Finnish designs gained world recognition when its products showed up at fairs in Milan, Paris, and New York. lvar Aalto and Kaj Franck gained fame outside of Finland.
One of the many Finnish objects–chairs, tea sets, cocktail shakers–I most enjoyed seeing in the Design Museum’s historical exhibit was the clunky 1995 early Nokia prototype that evolved into the cell phone.
Ruth brought back few souvenirs other than objects of Finnish design–a Fiskars garden tool not available the US that was not fun to get through airport security, iittala (pronounced EE’ ta la) candle holders, Angry Bird trinkets, etc. For four days we were able to feast our eyes on Finnish design excellence wherever we went. I’ll tell about the best places to see contemporary Finnish design in and around Helsinki tomorrow.