Helsinki: City of Design

Helsinki, which is known for cutting-edge, world-class design, was the proud winner of the 2012, bi-annual World Design Capital award that is based on excellence in architecture, fashion, graphic arts, fine arts, industrial design and city planning. This was atop its 2000 honor of being named the Euro Capital of Culture.

Given this, we came to expect some wonderful design. Since then, the Finnish capital has continued its pursuit of design, especially in urban planning, renewed waterfront, renovated museums and revived industrial spaces.

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We also saw some nice contemporary art, textiles, consumer products and crafts in stores throughout the city. Surprisingly, however, we saw many fewer examples of cutting-edge design in the city’s Design District. More interestingly, we tended to find more interesting items in stores in other areas of the city.


The best education on contemporary design, however, came from a visit to a museum.

Design Museum

Helsinki’s Design Museum  devotes an entire floor to the history of Finnish design and its evolution from the 1870s through current times. It provides textual overviews and exhibits of clothes, furniture, home furnishings and arts through the decades and how design in each period was affected by economic, industrial and societal forces. It explained, and showed, for example:

  • 1870s and 1880s were characterized by the country’s transition from a craftsman-based, to more of an industrial economy and the growing role of glass and metals in the country’s products;

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  • 1890s and how the recession helped bring about the Arts and Crafts movement, which focused on quality workmanship and unadorned functionality;
  • 1900s and how the boom in Finland’s economy, rapid home construction and the popularity of Art Nouveau led to a boom in furniture and home furnishing and more decorative designs at home, and how Finland’s 1900 Paris World Fair Pavilion led to world-wide recognition and demand for Fin architectural and design skills and products.

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  • 1910s and 1920s, during which the boom continued, the government enhanced and began to formalize design education and training, the growing importance of and believe in science, the importance of international influences and an increased focus on the need for design to address social issues.
  • 1930s, where the global Depression led to a big decline in industrial production, but an increase in crafts-based skills as wealthy consumers continued to buy innovative and expensive products, even as middle-class consumers slashed spending.
  • 1940s, especially in the early part of the decade, represented the Golden Age of Finnish Design. The country’s international prestige and demand for Finnish design and products surged to record highs and where the austerity of Finnish design became integrated into the streamlining of designs and products. That, at least, was until the late 1940s when the victorious Russians demanded big war reparations from Finland, thereby dramatically slowing the country’s economy;

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  • 1950s, with a return to boom times and another resurgence of foreign demand for Finnish design and products, especially after introduction of the “Ball Chair” and great improvements in the country’s industrial efficiency and marketing.

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  • 1960s with a boom in mass production of television and consumer products, the growing importance of industrial design and Finland’s role in the “branding” of airplane flight, where airlines turned to Finnish designers to design everything from uniforms to cutlery. This decade also saw the growing role of the “youth culture” and a growing focus on ecology, both of which played to Finnish strengths.

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  • 1970s saw the emergence of the Pop Movement, the growing use of plastics and synthetic materials, of experimental designs and forms and bright colors. Although the oil crisis led a big increase in the cost of plastics and synthetics and led to another global recession, the trends toward ergonomics and unisex designs further helped the Finish design industry.
  • 1980s and 1990s were periods of growing affluence in Finland and across much of the rest of the world. This led to growing demand for furniture and all types of consumer goods. There was also greater interest in art for art’s sake and an increased convergence of fine arts, crafts and product design and a focus on textile design.
  • 2000-2010, which led to an even greater merger of crafts and crafts and visual arts in ceramics, glass and paper products and a focus on jewelry design. All of this with increased importance on recycling, both at the industrial and consumer levels.

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The Museum also had two temporary exhibits. One focused on the career and amazing output of Finnish furniture and consumer product designer Eero Aarnio, who came popularity with the introduction of the Ball Chair and a liberation of form in the design process. The exhibit not only demonstrates the imaginative output of a single designer, but also pioneers a new way of displaying objects in the museum. Many of the objects are mounted on electrically-drive platforms that move slowly around the gallery. When the soft Styrofoam platforms touch a person or object, they slide off and move in another direction.

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The second, and to us, less convincing temporary exhibit, named Objects of Desire, focused on the creation of one-off objects that are intended to appeal to a consumer’s emotions and create an intense desire for this and follow-on products, rather than to fill a particular need. According to the exhibit commentary, this approach has the potential of leading back toward a craftsman-like model and away from the production model. Although there is certainly a growing role of everything from craft food and brewing to craft art and furniture, I couldn’t see it from the displayed objects.

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