From the curvilinear furniture of Artek to the bold prints of Marimekko, Finnish design companies are synonymous with innovation. Building on that legacy, Helsinki has emerged as one of Europe’s design capitals in recent years. Those hoping to take in its greatest concentration of imagination and inventiveness should head straight to Design District Helsinki, the city’s creative heart.
Located just south of the centre, it stretches across 25 streets and includes more than 200 points of interest, from shops and galleries to design studios and hotels. Founded 10 years ago by a group of entrepreneurs and Design Forum Finland – the organisation that promotes Finnish design – the neighbourhood is trendy but not off-putting, bohemian yet smart. It reflects the heady mix of its residents, who include emerging and established artists, architects, craftspeople and designers.
‘It has managed to maintain a sense of authenticity and locality,’ says Minna Särelä, the executive director of Design District Helsinki. ‘Lately, it’s been interesting to see a kind of counter movement: growing brands from the district are taking over space from international players on the main streets.’
Among these local gems is Lumi, which makes sought-after designer handbags and accessories. Its tote bags are luxurious, yet respect Nordic ideas of simplicity. There’s also designer Marita Huurinainen, whose Wave shoes defy logic. Made of wood, they are light, elegant and stylish – a testament to Finnish ingenuity.
The district caters to all, including those who lean towards high fashion. Designer Katri Niskanen set up her label and boutique, Katrin, here after winning the first season of Finland’s version of the US TV programme Project Runway. She strives for sophistication, but also practicality. From sleeveless maxi dresses with beautiful pleats at the shoulder to chic sand-coloured biker jackets with diagonal zips, her versatile creations have gained must-have status among Helsinki’s fashion set.
Perhaps her greatest strength is rethinking classics to make them more dynamic and timeless. She describes her popular Ice overalls, with their waterfall draping, as an edgy alternative to the Little Black Dress. ‘I love to mix masculine and feminine edges, and I love one-piece clothing,’ the designer says. ‘My overalls are elegant and comfy at the same time. They easily transform from daywear to an evening look.’
Transformation also defines the sundry clothing and accessories available at Globe Hope, an innovative Finnish company that designs and manufactures ecological products – from winter coats and jewellery to phone cases – using recycled and discarded materials. Its motto sums up its mission of sustainability: ‘The world does not suffer from the lack of material but from the lack of mind.’
The stylish designs have won over devoted customers not just in Finland, but also in Germany and Japan. Those in need of a bag should consider the Olkakierto, which consists of recycled airplane seatbelts sewn together. The material is unlikely to wear out and its shimmering texture is surprisingly beautiful. ‘My favourite is the Badu beach bag,’ says Globe Hope sales associate Hanna Tammisto. ‘It combines recycled coffee-bean sacks from a local roaster, pieces of vintage leather jackets and cotton sheets from a hospital.’
Imagination is also to the fore in ventures such as Aito Helsinki, a collective of local jewellery designers and goldsmiths. The shop’s four designers each have a different speciality and expertise with different materials, including white and yellow gold, platinum, palladium and titanium. Their range of skills ensures they can meet nearly any request for custom-made pieces. ‘We each design our own pieces, but there are times when we share ideas and help each other out in order to come up with the best outcome possible,’ says jeweller Päivi Sohkanen. ‘Our design styles are fundamentally different and therefore our jewellery appeals to a wide array of people.’
Throughout a day of design discoveries, visitors can recharge at a wide range of coffee shops, cafés and restaurants. Among these is Spis, an intimate spot that serves trendy Nordic food – think ingredients such as juniper berry, liquorice and parsley root – and was recently named Restaurant of the Year by Suomen Gastronomien Seura (the Society of Finnish Gastronomes).
When you’re ready to toast your purchases, the recently opened Hotel Lilla Roberts offers old-world glamour with its art deco architectural features and chic but inviting bar. ‘It’s run by the best bar staff in town and specialises in innovative and fun cocktails made with high-quality ingredients,’ says general manager Elli Suutarinen. ‘It is a lively and stylish spot in the heart of the Design District.’