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Creative capital

Design District Helsinki offers a perfect introduction to contemporary and classic Finnish design, while nearby Kallio showcases edgy styles of the future.

By Andy Round

Fragment of facade of Helsinki main railway station with sculptures, Helsinki, Finland.jpg

‘In Finland, good design has always been a way of life,’ says Aino Vepsäläinen, project manager at Finland’s Design Forum. ‘Form follows function. The aim of design is simply to make products and services do their job better. Design is not a luxury in Finland. It is for everyone.’


Design is embedded in Helsinki’s DNA. It is so good you do not think about it. It is as ubiquitous as a Kaj Franck coffee cup, as cutting edge as a Tapio Wirkkala knife and as effortlessly cool as Eero Aarnio’s bubble chair. Helsinki was voted World Design Capital in 2012, but the Forum has been promoting Finnish design with the Society of Crafts and Design since 1875.


Today the Forum’s shopping outlet is based in the heart of the neighbourhood known as Design District Helsinki. It sells work by more than 300 Finnish creatives, ranging from bulbous lamp designs by Kariin Nuutinen to ceramic-glassware by Pia Wüstenberg.


Bold new ideas


‘Helsinki might give a stark first impression but you’ll soon discover a city packed with open-minded people and bold new ideas,’ says Linda Bergroth, who with the arts-design collective OK Do, won Design Forum Finland’s Young Designer of the Year Prize 2012.


Many of these creatives are in the heart of the Design District, a neighbourhood of 25 streets, which has become a hot spot for cool designers. It started in 2005 with 50 members, but is now packed with more than 200 stores, workshops and galleries.


Imagine the creative shops of SoFo, the designer area South of Folkungagatan in Stockholm, mixed with the vintage store vibe of Amsterdam’s De Negen Straatjes and you get a good idea of what Design District Helsinki is about. But best of all it is ideal for anyone looking for a crash course in Finnish creativity.


Start with the district’s 140-year-old Design Museum to see how Finns took on the challenge of manufacturing everything from scissors in the 17th century to the mobile phone designs that defined the 1980s, then go in search of some take-home vintage classics.


Here in the centre of a giant underground space is a ‘beehive’ lamp by the legendary Alvar Aalto. ‘What price Finnish design? A new version of that lamp would be 700 euros,’ says the store’s Timo Penttilä. ‘But an edition from 1950 was recently auctioned for 60 000 euros. Prices for classic Finnish design have soared in the past few years.’


The district’s streets are the perfect hunting ground for the design classics of tomorrow, whether it is the staple-gun art of Sasha Huber at photographer Katja Hagelstam’s Lokal gallery, the ‘paint-splashed’ shoes of Minna Parikka, the contemporary glass and ceramic of Anu Penttinen, or the bubble jewellery of Anna Heino.


‘I think one of the reasons we have a vibrant design tradition is that we have a strong history of crafts and we are inspired by the nature around us,’ Heino says.


Natural inspiration is a creative thread for many of the district’s designers. Ilona Hyötyläinen’s new range for Miun features fabrics printed with nature photography, while Paola Suhonen’s latest collection is inspired by the countryside of the 1930s.


Suhonen’s label IVANAhelsinki significantly redefined Finland’s design landscape when she became the first Finnish fashion designer to be featured in Paris Fashion Week. And that was only in 2007.


So what is the appeal of her style? ‘Finland is at the crossroads of Slavic and Scandinavian cultures,’ she says. ‘This has led to an interesting mix of dark and light, pure shapes and traditional handcrafted details. It’s a mix of melancholia and pure shapes.’


International buyers


‘People like Paola made a difference,’ says fashion designer Mirkka Metsola. ‘International buyers know about Finnish design now and that helps people like me.’ Mirkka, who was formerly part of a group of fashion designers known as FEM, now creates two ranges per year and even showcases the work of a collection of Dutch creatives known as Designers On Tour.


However, Metsola prefers her workshop and store to be based on the edgy streets of nearby Kallio. ‘It feels genuine here,’ says her neighbour Anna Jaakkola, who customises bicycles. ‘Yes, the street life is colourful,’ grins graphic artist Teemu Keisteri. ‘But Kallio is a great base for my work.’


Nearby is the labyrinth of cooperative creativity known as ‘Made in Kallio’. Here, workshops accommodate jewellers, printers, shoe designers, bicycle makers, graphic experts, photographers and videographers. In rooms behind the café, robotic arms draft giant graphics, three-dimensional printers pop out plastic figurines and hydroponic plants are controlled remotely.


‘Customers can enjoy a rare level of interaction here,’ says co-founder Jon Sundell. ‘They can see the products and also spend time with the people who produced them. We add another dimension of creativity to the city.’



Design for living

In 2013 the Finnish design legend Arabia celebrates 140 years of producing quality tableware. Why should Arabia matter? ‘In Finland we have grown up with Arabia items around us,’ says the company’s Concept Manager Irina Viipola. ‘We inherited these affordable functional pieces from our mothers and grandmothers.’


Legendary designers such as Alvar Aalto created glass for Arabia in the 1930s, while Kaj Franck revolutionised tableware in the 1950s with multifunctional pieces that were perfect for tiny post-war apartments where space was precious.


Today this tradition of creativity continues. In the studio of

Kim Simmonsson there is a ceramic girl with an elephant head; in Pekka Paikkari’s workshop reconstituted glass is prepared for an installation and in the atrium Aimo Katajamäki’s sinister ape heads greet visitors.


‘Arabia continues to support top level Finnish ceramic art by providing studios and materials to artists,’ says Viipola.


Social support

Financed by Helsinki Social Services, Uusix in Kyläsaari is testimony of how creativity can help society. In 13 workshops, more than 150 people in rehabilitation are producing works as varied as jewellery from old keys, bags from ancient yacht sails, toys from donated uniform fabric and place mats from abandoned VHS tapes.


‘Creative work and the discipline needed to produce can help people get their lives back,’ says Uusix designer Mario Ewerbeck. ‘But it’s not enough just to make things. We produce goods to be sold. That is a tangible reward for creativity.’

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