Race to the Finnish

Distinctive, contemporary and at one with nature, Finnish design is finding a new global fanbase, reports Emma Crichton-Miller.

October 15 2009
Emma Crichton-Miller

Hold onto your chairs, everybody. The Finns are coming. Anyone with an interest in modern design will be familiar with the postwar triumphs of Nordic design. What may come as a surprise is to discover a whole new generation of contemporary Finnish designers who are pushing the boundaries of the Nordic aesthetic in several directions at once – and winning a global audience.

Since the end of the summer the Finnish Design Forum, together with the Finnish Institute in London, has been unfolding a series of events that will build through next year to culminate in the autumn when Helsinki Design Week relocates in its entirety to London. So what does the new Finnish design have to offer?

Over the past year or so, a series of special exhibitions have given us a taste of things to come. Last year in New York, Hardcore: New Finnish Design opened during Design Week in the downtown Meatpacking District. Curated by Ilkka Suppanen, one of Finland’s new design stars, its centrepiece was a citadel of three-legged stools, planted in the middle of Gansevoort Square, gleaming in the sunshine. Made from untreated blonde birch, these 100 simple stools were in fact celebrating their 75th birthday: the Stool 60 (£159 from Skandium) was designed back in 1933 by the legendary Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, pioneering a technique of bending wood that would become a trademark. This quintessential item of functional furniture is a design icon. Still produced today by Artek, a company co-founded by Aalto, the stool exemplifies our prevailing idea of Finnish design: modest, ingenious, hardwearing, satisfyingly sensuous and yet parsimonious in its use of beautiful natural materials.

Far from being a memorial, this installation was testimony to the continued vitality of Finnish design values. It also spoke of a renewed confidence on the part of the Artek brand, now co-owned by British designer Tom Dixon and Swedish investment company Proventus. These stools were flagging up a show celebrating the energy of current Finnish design and the versatility of Finland’s young designers, whose expertise lies as much in fashion, graphics, computer games and new technology as in the traditional strongholds of architecture, furniture, textiles, lighting and tableware.

There were no mobile phones on show, but visitors were introduced to a smooth, immaculate, mushroom-shaped portable sound system, designed by the award-winning Harri Koskinen, and developed for the high-end Finnish audio-equipment producer Genelec (the 5040A subwoofer retails for £439). This year’s winner of leading Finnish design award, the Fennia Prize Grand Prix, the product suggests a sensibility at ease with contemporary materials, technologies and processes.

Also drawing attention was Latva (€470), a tree-shaped, metal coat rack by Mikko Laakkonen, joint winner of this year’s Design Forum Finland’s Young Designer of the Year prize. There was also a glamorous Palm Chandelier, designed by Janne Kyttänen using 3D software in tandem with the computerised Rapid Manufacturing process (£377 to £6,997, from Chelsea Lighting Design). This contrasted strikingly with Mikko Paakkanen’s minimalist fibreoptic Medusa chandelier for Saas Instruments. To the unsuspecting viewer, these products combined wit, function and glamour in a way that both intrigued and beguiled.

This May the Finns returned to the Meatpacking District with Playful, showing a different side to their design. Terhi Tuominen, this year’s winner with Mikko Laakkonen of the Young Designer of the Year Prize, presented her ingenious Powerkiss Jazz tables and chairs (from €2,354), which incorporate a built-in wireless charging system for mobile phones and laptops. In the same spirit of colourful fun, Suppanen for Marimekko produced his Kivikko seating (£105-£375), a flexible, soft-shaped range, appealing to children of all ages. For Saas Instruments, meanwhile, Koskinen had come up with a charmingly simple TV-Light, which resembled a large, gently glowing ice-cube.

In between these two New York events, a show in Paris had revealed yet another side to the Finnish sensibility. Let’s Take a Walk in the Woods, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, showed many of the same designers. Koskinen was represented by his streamlined Muu table and chair, designed for the Italian company Montina (the chair won the Italian Compasso d’Oro design prize in 2004); Tonfisk offered its homely Warm Tea/Coffee Set, with oak or walnut cuffs for the white ceramic cups and teapot (from £21). Also on display were Markku Kosonen’s exquisite pussy-willow baskets (£300-£3,000), the furry catkins intact, and Kristina Riska’s magnificently austere one-off ceramics (a recent example of which, at Flow Gallery in London, cost £5,850).

Here was Finnish design that was as adept as it was contemporary, using more traditional materials, wood and clay, mixing craft with factory manufacture, exploring a distinctly Finnish feel for nature: spare yet imaginative. From a single tradition we thought we understood, Finnish design is breaking out with new energy in many directions.

For many years Finnish design was almost overwhelmed by its own history. After Aalto’s international successes in the 1930s, the triumph of the Finns at the Milan Triennales in the 1950s and 1960s firmly established other leading names, such as Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, Kaj Franck, Ilmari Tapiovaara, Vuokko and Antti Nurmesniemi. Their ceramics, glass, lighting and furniture became part of an idea of modernity that was democratic, forward-looking, unostentatious and practical. Married with the bold, colourful, patterned textiles of Marimekko and Fiskars' ubiquitous orange-handled scissors, the design aesthetic of the leading manufacturers – Artek, Iittala and Arabia – became the international face of Finland and a significant contribution to the popularity of Scandinavian Modernism.

Given such success, it is no wonder that Finnish designers found it hard to break new ground. Then, in April 1997, a bold quartet of young designers burst on the scene in Milan with Snowcrash, an epony­mous experimental collection. Teppo Asikainen and Ilkka Terho of Valvomo, a creative think-tank of architects and designers, along with designers Timo Salli and Ilkka Suppanen, came up with a series of quirky, high-tech objects with, as their press release promised, “no bent plywood… only visionary articles for an age of networks”. The group picked up that year’s Young Designer of the Year Award in Germany, and in 2000, its creative director Ilkka Suppanen (together with Harri Koskinen) was named Design Forum Finland’s Designer of the Year. Snowcrash has since broken up, but the momentum these designers generated has lasted.

The effect on the old, established companies has been dramatic. At Artek, Tom Dixon and managing director Mirkku Kullberg have pursued a three-fold strategy – putting creative energy behind the marketing of their classic pieces, searching the archives for unmade designs, and embarking on new collaborations, including work with maverick designer Eero Aarnio – this year’s winner of the Kaj Franck Design Prize. Aarnio is a veteran of Finnish design; his bubble chair was a 1960s icon. But his ebullience and audacious invention, his love of plastic as much as wood and glass, have had to wait until today to be embraced as part of the Finnish mainstream. For Artek, he has produced both the Rocket Stool (from £146 from Skandium) and Bubble Lights (from £433).

Koskinen, too, has contributed his deceptively minimalist Lento chairs (from £248) to Artek’s new product line. With their bent legs and smooth wood, they look like classic Aalto – until you notice the extra wedge at the top of the legs, creating the illusion that the tabletop and chair seats are floating, without visible means of support. Three years of intensive R&D have also yielded Bambu (chair, £394; table, £1,688; bench, £394; side table, £242), a beautifully svelte new furniture range designed by Henrik Tjaerby, made in that most ecological of materials, bamboo. “It is stronger than concrete, yet more flexible than steel,” says Dixon. “It’s a superior plant for the 21st century in my view.” Just as Finnish design flourished in the austerity of postwar Europe, so perhaps it will appeal to a new generation turning its back on extravagant consumption.

“Against Throwawayism” is, in fact, the tagline of another great Finnish institution: Iittala It has embarked on the magnificently risky course of advertising “design to last a lifetime”. Part of this has to do with a revulsion against waste and a celebration of a pared-down aesthetic. There is an easy commerce between past and present: the grooved glasses by Aino Aalto (Alvar’s wife) from 1932 (£12 a pair) sit happily alongside Timo Sarpaneva’s archetypal casserole from 1960 (£169), and find their natural heir in Aleksi Perälä’s Ote glasses from 2007 (from £13 a pair).

There is a new note, too, however. Ilkka Suppanen has designed for Iittala a freestanding open glass fireplace (£749), a witty and luxurious creation that combines the primal focus of a camp fire with sleek, clean-lined urban containment. Young graphic designer and illustrator Klaus Haapaniemi has taken the pure Taika tableware collection designed in 2006 by one of Iittala’s grandmasters, Heikki Orvola, and covered it in quirky, romantic designs inspired by eastern European storybook illustrations. The plates become dense forests filled with owls and peacocks, monochrome good taste giving way to mystery, narrative and colour (items between £7.50 and £59).

We should not be surprised by such departures. As designer Timo Salli, a Snowcrash founder, now head of applied art and design at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, has explained: “We like to believe that we are these functionalists, but we’re not. We Finns are even stranger than we think we are. We’re isolated, we have a strange language and we still have one foot in the forest.”

Increasingly, Finnish designers are daring to explore these wilder reaches of their imaginations. Such idiosyncrasy has combined with a zeal for innovation and a sensibility attuned to ecological concerns to bring the work of Finnish designers back to international attention.