The words “Scandinavian design” have become a shorthand for sleek, understated and beautiful minimalism. But when it’s not dressed in Cos basics, Scandi design is far from a catch all term; as each nation would attest. This is certainly evident in Helsinki Design Week, the annual event that both celebrates and carves out a distinct stance on the matter.
As seemingly with most things in Finland, designs are delivered with sincerity, craftsmanship and a touch of eccentricity that shows the Fins take things simultaneously very seriously indeed, but always with a certain playfulness. It is about beauty, but also about functionality: most importantly, these never have to mean they aren’t about fun. This is no more evident than in the work of 83-year-old, permanently cheerful designer Eero Aarnio (www.eeroaarnio.com), inventor of the iconic 1963 Ball chair. His modernist studio and home in the forests around Helsinki acts like both a miniature museum and busy workspace. Despite being at an age where most would settle with repeats of Midsummer Murders, Horlicks and telling young people to get a haircut, Aarnio is as busy as ever, working on numerous new prototypes and harbouring dreams about designing an electric car.
Works like Aarnio’s Ball and Ring chairs and glistening Puppy pieces don’t become classics by accident. Down to their very core they speak volumes about play and joy: the bright colours, the shining materials, the rounded forms say something fundamental about enjoying life through enjoying objects and aesthetics. But they’re more than items of frivolity, they’re durable, functional and thoughtful too.
This triumvirate of design qualities has permeated throughout Finnish construction more widely, as attested by many of the pieces at this year’s Habitare design fair, a vast product, furniture and interiors showcase. Ranging from the quintessentially Finnish Moomin lights (moominlights.com), designed by Harri Koskinen and made in Finland by Melaja, to Helsinki-based artist Man Yau’s adorable Toystory (www.manyau.fi/toystory.html) range of glass blown dildos to Lumo Kids’ fun, Nintendo-esque Mushroom Stool (www.lumokids.com); cute is never at the cost of class and functionality.
The Mushroom stool exemplifies another trope central to much Finnish design: modularity and multi-functionalism. Helsinki isn’t a cheap city to live in, so space is at a premium, and designers are increasingly focusing on making pieces that save space and easily metamorphose. Think sofa beds for the design crowd. While the “s” word – sustainability – is less loudly on people’s lips at HDW, the use of sustainable materials and processes is very much the backbone of Finnish design. Materials are made to last, and the simple yet slightly eccentric aesthetic makes pieces timeless. As Tanja Sipilä, the founder of Helsinki-based design and lifestyle store Tre (www.blog.worldoftre.com) surmises, life – like design – must be enjoyed. If possible, the objects we surround ourselves with should be transparent in their meaning and ethics, and inspiring in their appearance.
Of course, design products at fairs are about aspiration: there’s no suggestion we can all afford such beautifully functional objects. But one of the most important things we learnt from the Finnish design community wasn’t about acquisition or luxury, but about a sense of community and relaxation. Combining superb forms with togetherness and tradition, the new Loyly Design Sauna, created by avanto architects, is a sensitively drawn yet viscerally modern structure in the city’s archipelago area overlooking the sea. The main materials are black concrete, light Scandinavian birch wood, blackened steel and wool, and as well as three public saunas–unusual in their mixed-gender, swimming costumed rules–there’s a gorgeous restaurant and lounge, with interiors by Joanna Laajisto Creative Studio. But beneath the carefully curated materials and well-groomed clientele lies rather more timeless sensibilities: of socialising (you can’t take a phone into a sauna, or the sea), time out and simple pleasures. In the often fraught world of modern life, and modern design, it’s just the sort of reminder you need that the devil might not always be in the details, but in delight.
Find out more about Helsinki Design Week: www.helsinkidesignweek.com which ran from 1-11 September.
1. Eero Aarnio Studio Home. Courtesy of Emily Gosling and Helsinki Design Week.