While creating excellent product is second nature to Finnish designers, marketing has never been their strong point – until now, when a new generation is preparing to take the world market by storm. ‘We Finns used to think that it was simply enough to create a good product, so we’ve never been particularly good at marketing our design internationally like, for example, the Swedes,’ says Tuija Aalto-Setälä, head of marketing for the Iittala glassware company. ‘Even Nokia has always presented itself more as a multi-cultural brand. But the younger generation of Finnish designers thinks differently and has the right attitude to go into the international market now.’
Denmark can boast Georg Jensen, Royal Copenhagen and Verner Panton, and Sweden, of course, the global force that is Ikea. However, Finland’s product design heritage has been somewhat overshadowed by those of its neighbours, or has been buried in a single generic ‘Scandinavian’ design language. But that is changing. Helsinki Design Week is increasingly becoming a must-visit for international design store buyers and in 2012 the city takes on World Design Capital status. Small wonder, then, that the Finnish government and Design Forum Finland are backing a number of initiatives to raise the country’s design profile abroad. Satellite operations started in Madrid last year, followed by this year’s Hel Yes! campaign in London, with others in New York and Tokyo to come.
‘The Finnish design community may have been less business-minded than those of other countries,’ says Hanna Harris of the Finnish Institute, organiser of Hel Yes! ‘With only 5m people here, there’s a very small domestic market, so there are fewer well-known companies, even though collectives working across design disciplines are on the rise and look set to put that right.’ Harris adds that, while Finns take good design as a given, the country’s design prowess is also increasingly becoming a lure for visitors, who are seeking out both new designs and vintage pieces.
Finnish classics are always worth looking for, including, for example, pieces from the likes of furniture brand Artek or textiles company Marimekko, both of which celebrate their 75th anniversaries this year. Marimekko’s most renowned designer, Maija Isola, established a style of geometric prints based on botanical motifs and folk art that helped define 60s interior style and still influences Finnish design today. Artek pioneered a bent plywood style before the Eameses made it famous and this fostered a number of design icons. The best known is Artek founder Alvar Aalto’s Paimio armchair, designed to be comfortable without the expense of upholstery.
The post-war decades were ‘a golden time for design in Finland’, according to Finnish product, interior and set designer Linda Bergroth. ‘That rich history is still prevalent in design education here and fosters an approach that is very much about finding solutions to problems. It took a spell working abroad in France to really appreciate that myself.’ In other words, classics aside, the work of new designers should not be overlooked. Harris recommends the likes of Imu and Aivan!, 2010 winners of the Design Forum Finland Young Designer of the Year prize, and Harri Koskinen, Finland’s rising design star.
Is there a distinctive Finnish design style? This question remains controversial for Finland’s evolving design industry. Finnish design certainly shares certain qualities with those of its Scandinavian neighbours: an emphasis on modernism, functionality, natural materials and a democratic approach that sees design as being for all rather than a luxury for the few. According to Katja Lindroos, design curator for the Helsinki University of Art and Design and founder of the Idealist collective, Finnish design is arguably the most craft-oriented and sparse of all; a product of Finland’s history of scarce resources and the resulting need to use these as efficiently as possible. But that is not to say it is humourless. A playful edginess and an countervailing irony are also characteristic. Aamu Song and Johan Olin, who work together as Company, create witty prototypes such as the FormFoam chair, supplied with a needle so purchasers can punch in their own pattern, the Sofa’s Friend pillow, which is human shaped and human size, and the Banchan Sang table, made of polished steel pots.
‘Finnish design has a strong craft base that may have mitigated against large-scale commerce but that has not stopped it being visually arresting. It has been about making the biggest impact with the least economic means,’ says Lindroos, who cites Marimekko’s bold, colourful prints as a case in point.
In fact, ‘updated tradition’ may be an apt summation of Finnish design style, a middle way that is only now being fully embraced. According to Iittala’s Aalto-Setälä, young Finnish designers are seeing ‘the benefits of working in the Finnish tradition without being traditional, working with a mind to heritage but also being original in one’s own way.’ The conclusion to be drawn? Finnish design, drawing on solid heritage and an eager stable of up-and-coming youngsters, is about to become a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.