Finn-spired design: a brief survey of innovation

This year, as Helsinki celebrates its bicentennial as Finland’s capital – and its status as World Design Capital 2012  – we can’t resist the urge to contemplate and enjoy the diverse, innovative, and colorful universe of Finnish style.

The Design Capital designation is not surprising given Finland’s impressive roster of internationally acclaimed creative work: Alvar Aalto’s flowing vase, Tove Jansson’s hippo-like Moomin forest trolls, bold and bright Marimekko fabrics, and even the addictive mobile phone app “Angry Birds” are all global sensations.

But what makes Finnish design special? What sets it apart from its Scandinavian neighbors, who are also known for their artful combinations of aesthetics and functionality, sustainability and style?

Alvar Aalto – a name synonymous with modern architecture and design – is a good starting point. Iittala Glassworks has created millions of Aalto vases since the design’s 1937 unveiling, making it one of Finland’s top exports. Aalto is also celebrated for his furniture – iconic stools, chairs and tables – and convention-defying architectural works, like his futuristic, marble-clad Finlandia Hall.

But perhaps the most powerful aspect of Aalto’s legacy is his belief that good design is inclusive. That it should make life better for ordinary people and be accessible to all. Aalto also preached sustainability long before it became a buzz term and, in 1935, co-founded the company Artek, which continues to bring his theory to life. Many others, including interior architect Pirkko Stenro (b.1928), who has designed furniture for the Finnish company Muurame since the 1950s, and up-and-comer Harri Koskinen, known internationally for his Marimekko and iittala work, subscribe to Aalto’s intelligent, user-focused approach.

But inclusive design is just the beginning of Finland’s style mantra. Perhaps it’s the country’s remoteness or proximity to the East (the company Elinno Design explores the East-West connection; iittala’s new Sarjaton tumblers do, too). Or the long winter nights, which leave ample time for contemplating and, evidently, innovating. In any case, Finnish design often combines Eastern influence and novel thinking with fine traditional craftsmanship, sophistication – and color. With “pops of color” dominating today’s fashion and interior design scenes, it is probably not a coincidence that the home of Marimekko is also the world capital of design.

The joie de vivre approach to using color has defined the work of Eero Arnio’s (b. 1932), who broke away from design conventions in the 1960s, working with plastics, bright colors and organic forms to create playful pieces like the Ball, Pastil, and Bubble chairs. And many of iittala’s glass classics, like Oiva Toikka’s (b.1931) colorful glass birds and Timo Sarpaneva’s (1926-2006) icy-crystal Festivo candleholders, serve as antidotes to darkness.

Finally, there is Finland’s heritage of logic and simplicity. Designer Iimari Tapiovaara (1914-1999) felt that furniture terrorizes people’s lives – and created surprisingly beauti-ful stacking chairs to help clear up the problem. In a simi-lar vein, Eero Saarinen (1910-1961) developed an ever-popular remedy for the “ugly, confusing, unrestful … slum of legs underneath typical chairs and tables”: his single-pedestal-leg Tulip Collection. Today, the new company Magisso showcases the Finnish problem-solving gene with ingenious designs like its one-step, cut-and-serve cake server (naturally available in lime green and purple).

Can you picture Finland’s bright, smart and modern pieces in your home? Search for your favorite Finnish designer on today.

Anastasya Partan, a Boston-based freelance writer, is a guest blogger for She was born in Moscow, raised in the US, and has lived in New York, Washington, DC, London, Paris, and Copenhagen. With both a corporate and creative background, she writes for international brands and explores topics related to lifestyle, culture and the arts.

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1 Response to Finn-spired design: a brief survey of innovation

  1. jdblee says:

    Thanks for your Finn-coverage that is quite informative!

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