Ready to brave Baltic weather conditions and loaded with preconceptions of Scandinavian ‘IKEA’ modernism, we winged our way to Helsinki in search of an answer to a simple question that would guide this year’s V&A/ RCA History of Design study trip: What is Finnish design?
With an entire population approximately half that of London, and an independence won only in 1917, Finland is a young and small nation; despite that, the country packs considerable punch on the world’s design stage, and over the course of our travels, we sought to understand just how Finland carves out its national identity though design.
Gaining independence at a time when Europe was exploring early twentieth-century modernism, the Finnish appropriated the modernist ideals of progression and unity as the foundation stones of nation building. Local experts, all radiating a quiet and unassuming Finnish warmth, guided us through visits to iconic Finnish design studios and manufacturers: the national design museum; meeting young Finnish designers at Helsinki’s cutting edge art schools; and architectural tours through the city-centre and garden suburbs. We soon began to discover just how integral modernist design is to Finland.
It was perhaps a given that we would encounter the works of Finnish design heavy weight, Alvar Aalto; whether it was his home, studio, furniture store (Artek) or bookshop, his eye for detail and love of clean lines was palpable. In contrast to Aalto, we then took a tour through the bright and bold prints of Marimekko, stepping between buckets and puddles of colourful dye, and watching the huge rotary printers generate reams of their iconic 1960’s floral-patterned fabrics.
A second factory tour to Arabia, Finland’s best-known ceramic producer, saw us engrossed in the hypnotic repetition of vast mechanised production lines and also allowed us to explore the factory gallery space and collection including the glass marvels of Iittala and Fiskars first class scissors and knives.
Finnish design is underpinned by high quality craftsmanship that lends an integrity and timelessness in which the nation clearly takes pride. Finnish design distinguishes itself by its understated mastery of materials and playful use of colour. Where the typically modernist materials of concrete and steel make their bold, distinctive mark, they are continually softened by local natural resources such as pine and granite.
And finally, to offer ourselves a comparative design history of the Baltic region, our penultimate day saw us sailing over to the port city of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, where we spent the morning exploring the collection at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art & Design and talking to the pioneers of the Estonian Design Centre about their work and the future of Estonian design in the city’s up and coming national cultural hub, housed within the renovated remains of a former energy plant. By the afternoon, delving back into the cobbled streets of the old town to admire the early modern architecture of Tallinn provided a welcome contrast to the ubiquitous modernism of the week. Our earnest tour guide, the architectural historian and PhD student, Oliver Orro, persisted through the onslaught of rock concert rehearsals, inquisitive tourists, opportunist locals, and car alarms to show us Tallinn’s many churches, squares, medieval fortified ruins and even soviet era architecture.
By the end of the week, we came away from an exhaustive schedule, eager to change our walking shoes, but hold on to our Finnish memories filled with inspiration and a growing understanding of that cold northern corner of Europe. We have developed an ability to now visualise Finnish design and appreciate how it pushes and pulls against its Scandinavian neighbours, and enters into the European and global design discourses.
Alicia Farrow is in her first year at the V&A/RCA History of Design course, returning to study following her BA in Theatre Design for Performance at Central St. Martins, years of working as assistant set designer to Miriam Buether and teaching in Berlin. She has recently finished a paper on twentieth-century lie detectors in America and is currently hoping to explore issues surrounding theatricality and myth of urban space and architecture for her dissertation.