FT.com / Travel – A Finnish obsession with art and style

Posted: August 1, 2010 in Uncategorized

A storekeeper mans the counter at Caneli café and shop in Helsinki
Destinations in and around Helsinki’s Design District include the Caneli café and shop

At Helsinki’s library, they lend more than books. A large room in the basement of the building is filled with abstract and landscape paintings, wooden carvings and intricate golden-wire sculptures. For just a few euros per week, residents can use their library cards to take out valuable art and design pieces, and display them in their home until their mood changes and they fancy a change of scene.

Though this seems a bizarre (albeit romantic and noble) idea to me at first, after a couple of days in the Finnish capital I come to understand it completely. Art and design in Finland, I realise, are as integral to national identity as salted fish and the Moomins – something that has been recognised by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, which has named Helsinki World Design Capital for 2012. This is a country where architect and designer Alvar Aalto is afforded a status akin to that of Shakespeare in England and where, until recently, the government presented all newlyweds with crockery sets made by renowned ceramics producer Arabia.


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“Finnish design has never been elitist,” my guide at the city’s Design Museum tells me. “It has always had usability and functionality in mind, which is why it is central to everyday life. You could go to any log cabin up in Lapland or Karelia, and though it may not have running water, it will have Alvar Aalto furniture from Artek in the living room, and pots and glasses from Arabia and Iittala in the kitchen.”

You only have to walk down Uudenmaankatu or Iso Roobertinkatu, the arteries that feed the heart of Helsinki’s ultra-cool Design District, to realise how important colour, composition and clean lines are to the Finns. Icily beautiful girls in sculptural Finsk boots and red-and-pink Marimekko poppy-print skirts stroll beside blond boys, who hang Mhann bags from their shoulders and clamp leaf-thin silver Nokias to their ears.

At the end of August, Helsinki is holding its sixth annual Design Week – seven days of exhibitions, concerts, seminars and open-air auctions beneath summer skies that stay light long after most people have gone to bed. This year the proceedings will have the added impetus of being a dummy run for the World Design Capital celebrations in 18 months’ time. One of the highlights of the festivities will be a chance to see inside studios in the Design District, a loosely designated area around the central Esplanadi park, where around 200 boutiques, specialising in fashion, jewellery, interiors and art, share street-space with the city’s coolest bars and restaurants.

Two ladies examine a dress at Helsinki's My o My shop
The My o My shop

There’s a confident feel to this quarter. Window displays show off well-chosen selections of brightly coloured glassware, vivid block-print dresses or sinuous birchwood chairs, while those working inside look more like rock stars than down-at-heel artisans. Indoors, invariably against a white backdrop, designers take centre-stage. They hunch over their MacBooks in the fashion stores, twist metal at benches in jewellery boutiques and sketch furiously at desks visible from the shop floors of furniture emporia. The soundtrack they work to is one of a post-clubbing comedown: Sigur Rós, Air and Röyksopp.

Though these stores will undoubtedly be the focus of Design Week, the city’s creative spirit extends well beyond this fashionable frontline. Boutique hotels, such as Klaus K and GLO, have employed the finest Finnish design minds to create quirky, stylish spaces that fit Helsinki’s fresh urban vibe. And even the business-focused Hotel Haven, where I am staying, offers more than enough personality – witty dog-themed cushions in the bar, striking prints on sofas, and Bang & Olufsen flatscreens in the bathrooms – to appeal to the young Finn who I saw wearing two Trilby hats, one on top of the other.

The basic principles of Finnish design – simplicity, unshowiness and taking nature as inspiration – are also being applied to the country’s cuisine by a generation of up-and-coming chefs and restaurateurs. As a result, Michelin stars are starting to rain down on Helsinki.

And with the Baltic Sea lapping at the city’s pavements it’s not surprising that fish dominates menus. At the inappropriately named Grotesk – actually a refined space with glass walls, blond-wood furniture and an elegant tree-shadowed terrace – I eat a delicious, tangy take on the traditional Finnish lunch of herrings and rye bread, and follow it with butter-soft Atlantic char with potato pancakes and a horseradish foam.

The question, though, that I’m asked time and again during my stay in Helsinki is, “Have you been to Juuri yet?” This tiny restaurant’s tapas-style versions of Finnish classics seem to be getting in-the-know Finns very excited at the moment. So, seated beneath soft disc lights in its dark-red, bistro-like interior, I dip small pieces of smoked pike into nettle mayonnaise, slather home-made lamb sausage with vodka mustard and even find myself enjoying thin, sushi-like slivers of smoked reindeer heart. The tastes are earthy and strong, expertly complemented by the herbs in the sauces and dressings. It’s inventive without being pretentious, and a fascinating induction into one of Europe’s least-known culinary traditions.

Plates, bowls, tiles and other pieces at the Nounou Design showroom
The Nounou Design showroom

It’s design with a little more permanence that those arriving for Design Week will be looking for, though. And they won’t be disappointed. From the moment that visitors pass the gorgeous twisting beaten-copper wall installation on the way to passport control at Vantaa airport, they will be in no doubt about Helsinki’s aesthetic priorities. Beauty here is of a very Nordic variety – strong, uncompromising and utterly confident in its own appearance. You can see it in the blocky, art nouveau-inspired architecture of the central railway station, just as it’s there in the ultra-modern, Lego-like apartment complexes of the northern Arabianranta district, where, according to law, original artworks must be incorporated into any development.

Beauty seems to find its ultimate – and certainly most uniquely Finnish – expression, though, on the shelves of the Design District boutiques, in the window displays around Esplanadi or arranged across tables at the Arabia Center. Here, plates, cups and dishes adorned with clean, striking interpretations of plants and flowers, owls, crayfish and deer, sit next to cloud-shaped vases, bowls in the form of winter-leaf skeletons and glassware that mimics the effect of dew on early morning grass stems.

They may be an artificial representation of nature, but these designs still have the power to move you; to evoke sensory memories of dark-green moss and pine resin, sea breezes and snow-sodden earth. And, as Jorma Keurulainen, interior designer at Artek, points out, “Finnish design will be doing that long after Helsinki Design Week and the World Design Capital celebrations have come to an end.”



Helsinki Design Week

The annual event runs between August 26 and September 5 this year http://www.helsinkidesignweek.com For more information, contact Visit Finland (www.visitfinland.com) or Design Forum Finland (www.designforum.fi)

Where to stay

Hotel Haven (www.hotelhaven.fi) has doubles from €146. The GLO (www.palacekamp.fi) has doubles from €156. The Klaus K (www.klauskhotel.com) from €150

What to visit

Arabia Center, Hämeentie 135a, www.arabianmuseo.fi; Design Museum, Korkeavuorenkatu 23, www.designmuseum.fi

Buying a Helsinki Card gives you access to all the main museums and galleries, as well as unlimited use of trams, buses and public ferries. It costs €45 for two days €55 for three, see www.helsinkicard.fi

Where to eat

Grotesk, Ludviginkatu 10 – high-end brasserie-style dishes in a relaxed setting, tel: 358 104 702100; www.grotesk.fi

Juuri, Korkeavuorenkatu 27 – Finnish tapas in a laid-back environment, tel: 358 9 635732; www.juuri.fi

Toscanini, Bulevardi 2–4 – Italian cuisine with Finnish touches in the Hotel Klaus K, tel: 358 20 770 4700; www.klauskhotel.com

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