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Finnish Design

You can’t visit Finland and not be into design. For that matter, you couldn’t live in that far northern country and be ambivalent about it. So deeply entrenched is it in the national psyche that any given Finn (particularly those sporting full Marimekko ensembles) would likely be able to recite the A-to-Z of Finnish ‘starchitects’ or, say, the full pedigrees of various Fin-designed chairs, on the spot. They’re justifiably proud.

It’s got nothing to do with being design snobbish. The Finns are a pragmatic bunch, and as with Scandinavian design in general, practicality has always been central to their ethos. Democratic design, as in design for everyone, not just the preserve of an elite slice of privileged society. Design in everyday life, as a means to making it more streamlined, comfortable and efficient, while (seemingly effortlessly) cooler than cool in the aesthetics department. There’s a reason for all those clean, elegant lines, liberal use of timber, clever ergonomics. Form has always followed function (but never at the expense of appearances). So it is that design is everywhere in your midst in a city such as Helsinki, where I stopped off during Helsinki Design Week, part of the programme of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012. At the Habitare Furniture Fair, the Finnish equivalent to Milan’s massive furniture exposition, an exhibition entitled Timeline presented the perfect overview, a chance to sort the Alvar Aaltos from the Oiva Toikkas. A retrospective of Finnish design from the 1950s to the present day, curated by interior architect Kaisa Blomsted, the exhibition sought to reveal the evolution of Finland as a design nation. I loved these tableaux representing some of the different modern eras.

Admiring collections of classic design pieces in specially curated spaces is one thing, but encountering more of the same – this time in a real home – is a pleasing surprise. At a reception at the central Helsinki home of art and design collectors Rafaela and Kaj Forsblom, we were invited to explore both the public and more private rooms to view some of their impressive original pieces of Finnish design.

Apart from housing a definitive collection of furniture and objets, the Forsbloms’ home is also a private gallery, featuring some pretty stupendous works of contemporary art

Including a selection of Damien Hirsts…

In an upstairs living room, I spotted an original brass chandelier by lighting design ‘luminary’ Paavo Tynell (1890-1973) from the 1950s.

Incidentally, saw a similar piece (this time a wall sconce) by Tynell in the Finnish Design Museum, rescued from an old movie theatre… Something about it reminds me of Tord Boontje’s Garland light (which I adore, and have hanging in my own home).

The Forsbloms also have this beautiful brass table lamp, also by Tynell, in their collection.

And spotted it at Habitare, too…

So many timeless lighting designs have originated from Finland. I’ve always been a huge fan of iittala’s amazing glassware, and loved these mould-blown glass pendants by Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985), designed in 1960.

At Habitare, Finnish brand Artek presented a selection of their iconic (truly iconic – I’m loathe to bandy this word around carelessly) furniture and lighting by a who’s who of designers past and present, including the 1951-designed TW002 pendant lamp by Wirkkala (suspended above the table – in the background is Alvar Aalto’s pendant lamp A331, designed in 1953).

Brilliant furniture designer Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914-1999) designed this stackable chair in formed birch plywood for Artek in 1946, now a mid-century modern classic - his exquisitely timeless furniture collection is now part of the Artek portfolio.

Spotted the same chair in a furniture store in Helsinki, and would have bought at least six home with me if I could have!

The multi-talented (as with so many of the pioneering Finnish modernists) Tapio Wirkkala also designed chairs, such as this bent birch wood beauty seen at the Design Museum…

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), one of the most influential architects of the Scandinavian modernist movement, designed chairs in addition to lights (and glassware, as you’ll see)…

Here, as seen at Habitare’s retrospective exhibition of Finnish design…

We might think it’s awfully new, and of course it’s been much copied over the decades, but the original Bubble Chair was designed by Eero Aarnio (1932-) in 1968, here seen at the Design Museum. Aarnio continues to delight with creations such as his Pony and Puppy sculptural seats/playthings for Magis.

At the Design Museum I was taken by the delicate line and comb-cut pieces of glassware by Tapio Wirkalla for iittala. (Incidentally, Wirkkala designed over 400 different art glass objects and glassware series for the brand.)

Not to mention spotting the original Aalto Vase, another design icon, unveiled at the 1937 Paris World Fair. It continues to be reproduced by iittala in a variety of colours and sizes.

Of course I was super impressed to see a definitive collection of Wirkalla’s pieces, all immaculately displayed, in the home of the Forsbloms!

Among a whole lot of other amazingly beautiful decorative glass pieces…

Of course, ceramics are also at the heart of Finnish design, with Arabia another of the country’s legendary brands. At the Design Museum, I fell in love with these tubular vases by Toini Mouna (1904-1987), one of the great pioneers of modern Finnish ceramic art, who worked for Arabia for four decades.

Lastly, another Finnish icon…and one, in retrospect, I’m furious I didn’t bring back with me! Timo Sarpaneva (1926-2006) was another Finnish design genius, credited for creating iittala’s recognisable logo, and a slew of beautiful, functional products – no less the classic and very clever Sarpaneva Pot for iittala, designed in 1960 and happily now back in production. Its detachable wooden handle means you can lift and move the lid with ease. It once even graced a Finnish postage stamp.

What’s not to love about Finnish design? Text and photographs: Leigh Robertson Read about Leigh’s take on Scandinavian fare here and more about her Helsinki travels here…