Looking Forward: Finland in the 21st Century

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A new exhibition in Minneapolis explores contemporary Finnish design

Who doesn’t covet an Alvar Aalto bentwood Paimio chair? And what’s not to like about Iittala glassware designed by Aino Aalto, or Kaj Franck’s iconic mid-century Teema ceramic cup for Arabia, or a striking stretch of Marimekko fabric? And those orange-handled scissors by Fiskars are everywhere. Of course we embrace these things: they are all twentieth-century examples of Finnish design burned into our aesthetic consciousness.

Innovative, elegant, and to-the-point design has long been Finland’s international calling card, and the new exhibition Finland: Designed Environments at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts provocatively reinforces this idea. Organized by Jennifer Komar Olivarez, MIA’s associate curator of decorative arts, it is the first in-depth museum exhibition in the United States since the 1990s to explore Finnish design. It takes us well beyond the twentieth-century object and thrusts us into the more comprehensive notions of twenty-first-century Finnish design.

“The legacy of Finnish design runs deep,” Olivarez says. “It is a step above what we normally consider good design. The Finns continually find ways to improve upon design ideas of the past and always ask how design can meet the needs of the people. How can design address the problems of today?”

Designed Environments handily demonstrates the ways in which, over the last fifteen years, the Finns have incorporated thoughtful design into virtually every aspect of their daily lives. Accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue, with essays by Olivarez, Jukka Savolainen, director of the Design Museum, Helsinki, and Juulia Kauste, director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki, the show is divided into five thematic areas: “The City Redefined”; “Relax, Recharge, and Reflect”; “Artful Living”; “Design and the Body”; and “New Design Realities.” Topics addressed include the ways in which urban design is reshaping the quality of Finnish life; the significance of summer homes, saunas, and recreation to Finnish notions of well-being; how well-designed domestic objects are integral to daily life; contemporary ideas of fashion; and innovations in areas of sensory design, graphic design, food, and systems design.

Birch Octo 4240 lamp designed by Seppo Koho, 2005, manufactured by Secto Design, Espoo, Finland.

Birch Octo 4240 lamp designed by Seppo Koho, 2005, manufactured by Secto Design, Espoo, Finland.

Helsinki was designated the World Design Capital 2012 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, an award that highlights accomplishments of cities that use design to improve social, cultural, and economic life. Designed Environments will feature several projects from this event, including photographs of the 2012 pavilion, designed by Pyry-Pekka Kantonen and the Aalto University Wood Program as a temporary “living room.”

Several other architectural designs are also represented, including Olavi Koponen’s Sauna and the Kamppi Chapel of Silence by Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, and Mikko Summanen. Bridging Finnish and American design thinking is the Bagley Nature Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, designed by Finnish-American architect David Salmela.

In terms of objects, Olivarez says, “Alvar Aalto’s legacy of strong, clean lines with an organic feel in form and material is still apparent in Finnish design. However, ideas of creative sustainability and non-material design are increasingly explored.” The Orange Box chair by Hannu Kähönen, for example, is made from wooden fruit crates to draw consumers’ attention to waste and recycling. Japanese architect and designer Shigeru Ban, recipient of the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize and globally renowned for his sustainable design thinking, has created a modular 10-Unit System chair that is manufactured of recycled material by the legendary Helsinki design company Artek, founded by the Aaltos in the 1930s.

Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Helsinki, by K2S Architects (Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, and Mikko Summanen), Helsinki, 2008–2012.

Kamppi Chapel of Silence, Helsinki, by K2S Architects (Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, and Mikko Summanen), Helsinki, 2008–2012.

The array of innovative functional objects includes Esa Vesmanen’s sleek Balance chair, a chaise longue that integrates a personalized audio system into its “sound pillow.” Savoy, a limited edition ceramic dinner service by Karin Widnäs, honors the seventy-fifth anniversary of the still celebrated Aalto-designed Savoy Restaurant. The long tradition of Finnish textiles is continued by Vallila Interior’s colorful fabrics, screened with images that bring elements of the outdoors inside. Two bicycle designs, so important to the twenty-first-century city, make an engaging appearance, including the 2000 update of the classic 1965 Jopo.

“One of my favorite pieces in the show is the Sukupuu (Family Tree) Maternity Package,” Olivarez says. “The World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 wanted a fresh new design for a maternity package, and a student, Johanna Öst Häggblom, won the competition. It’s not necessarily the first thing people think of when they think of contemporary design, but it has everything needed for a newborn and shows how design is a part of the lives of even the youngest Finnish citizens.” Affectionately called the “baby box,” it is distributed to new parents by Kela, the Social Insurance Institution.

Olivarez is also inspired by contemporary Finnish lighting design. She notes that the Octo 4240 by Seppo Koho “shows how wood is used in ways that we don’t think of for lighting—as the integral fixture and shade.” Likewise, she thinks the Kubo light therapy lamp by Eero Aarnio “will be revelatory, since most of the lamps treating SAD [seasonal affective disorder] available in the U.S. look like makeup mirrors. Innojok, the manufacturer has really evolved the SAD lamp from medical equipment to sculptural lighting.” Mikko Kärkkäinen’s birch LED1 lamp is futuristic in feel but made from wood, perhaps Finland’s most revered design material.

Sense Light swing designed by Alexander Lervik, 2005, manufactured by Saas Instruments, Helsinki.

Sense Light swing designed by Alexander Lervik, 2005, manufactured by
Saas Instruments, Helsinki.

Information technology plays a role in Designed Environments too. Who knew that what may be Finland’s biggest worldwide export, the video game Angry Birds, was designed by Jaakko Iisalo in 2009?

But what might be the quintessential twenty-first-century object in this cornucopia of Finnish design is the Sense Light swing by Swedish designer Alexander Lervik, made from acrylic and LED lights by Helsinki’s Saas Instruments. In a country that spends much of the year in darkness, what better way to generate a little breeze and the sensation of a shooting star on a warm summer night?