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The rise of Helsinki as a city of culture

As the Guggenheim makes plans for a new outpost in Helsinki, discover how the Finnish capital has been quietly establishing itself as a centre of cool creativity

Hannah Lewis

Feature

by Hannah Lewis

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In 2011, the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation proposed Helsinki as the location for its next art gallery. Five years further on and an architect has been selected, plans have been drawn up and before long the city will be home to an outpost of a world-famous cultural institution. Yet while many have described the decision as surprising, those in the know feel no such shock. For years, Helsinki has quietly been building a reputation as a centre of cultural cool, making it the perfect choice for one of the world’s leading art establishments.

Design for life
The Finnish capital already has an established reputation as a city of design, the groundwork for which was laid decades ago, as Minna Särelä explains. She is executive director of Design District Helsinki, an association that was set up in 2005 to support the growing design scene in the heart of the city. ‘Its basis lay in the fact that the area already existed,’ says Särelä. ‘It just didn't have a coherent brand and headline to explain its content … It was this need that was behind its establishment – the need to tell people about the versatility and level of design available in this area.’

Located in the centre of the city, Design District Helsinki is home to nearly 200 creative businesses, offering shopping, dining, accommodation and experiences. The association behind the initiative supports and encourages creatives, as well as facilitating collaborations between them, and aims to educate visitors on the amazing design available to discover in the city. It brings together the best that the city has to offer, and Särelä and her team are passionate about the quality of work on offer, as well as reticent to take the credit. ‘Design District Helsinki is its members’, she says.

Flair for fashion
It’s not only product design that deserves attention in Helsinki, but also fashion. Helsinki Fashion Week is growing in popularity each season, and its unique character is representative of the city’s fashion scene as a whole. International influences and creatives are welcomed with open arms, but at its heart is a distinctly Nordic – in fact, distinctly Finnish – aesthetic.

Eco credentials
As the event’s roster of labels shows, sustainability is as important a concern in the fashion industry as it is elsewhere in Finnish culture – in fact, it was one of the main themes at this July’s shows. One of the leading labels committed to this ethos is Globe Hope, a brand that proves that recycled materials can be transformed into beautiful, stylish clothing and accessories. ‘We use a lot of unconventional materials to make our products: seatbelts, parachutes, army materials … We try to be as sustainable as we can,’ explains Miisa Asikainen, one of its designers.

‘People love the ideas we have and the creative ways we use recycled materials,’ continues Asikainen, whose latest collection shows just this creativity. One standout piece is a bomber jacket created from recycled advertisements. Its mixed prints and colours make for a luxurious and on-trend piece which perfectly encapsulates what Globe Hope has to offer.

Wining and dining
No cultural hotspot would be complete without an amazing food scene, and Helsinki is no different. A key player in the New Nordic movement which has dominated the region’s fine dining for the past decade or so, Helsinki is home to a variety of incredible eateries, with 29 recommended by Michelin in 2016, four of which hold one of the organisation’s coveted stars. One of the longest standing of these is Olo, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Award-winning chef Jari Vesivalo is inspired by the distinctive and unspoiled character of Finland’s nature, and its four distinct seasons, to create dishes that showcase the best of local, seasonal goods.

When Olo opened, it was something of a revolution in the city, says CEO Katja Henttunen. ‘At that time Helsinki was lacking a restaurant with ambitious Nordic cuisine,’ she explains. A decade later, the climate is very different, as more and more people embrace the creative spirit being fostered in the city. ‘The atmosphere in the city has turned more positive, innovative and international,’ says Henttunen. ‘People go out more, and new wonderful restaurants are opening all the time. Restaurateurs are brave enough – and willing – to follow their own vision.’

Bright future
What do the locals themselves feel about this idea of Helsinki as an under-the-radar capital of cool? Särelä has no doubt. ‘We have very high-quality, local and authentic brands and talented people in all creative areas from music to restaurants to design and art. The Finnish culture doesn’t really promote bragging even when it would be well deserved, so we’re very modest about our achievements. But now it seems that, little by little, our cool factor is being revealed to the world.’

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