Finland becomes a modern design powerhouse

With a third of its mass sitting above the cold confines of the Arctic Circle and a population of only five million, Finland would seem an unlikely wellspring of world-renowned product design. Yet some of the finest creative talent and most enduring examples of 20th-century craftwork came from the tiny northern European country.

Names like Saarinen, Aalto, Wirkkala and Marimekko are synonymous with practical, simple yet elegant examples of architecture, furniture and table goods that have withstood the tides of time. And the love affair with Finnish design is undergoing a passionate resurgence. Collectors and designers snap up Aalvar Alto’s iconic vases and bentwood chairs, Tapio Wirkkala’s leaf-patterned trays and icily beautiful glassware, Eero Aarnio’s white Ball chair, and Marimekko’s vibrant cotton prints. At the same time, new designers are getting a global audience.

At a recent exhibit in New York City’s meat-packing district, 25 up-and-coming Finn designers displayed their newest concepts, chosen by curator Ilkka Suppanen.

Industrial designer Janne Kyttanen showed the large yet airy Palm pendant fixture, comprising 38 individual palm lights and following the foliage pattern of a real palm tree. Her Freedom of Creation company in Helsinki pioneered the use of technology to create innovative 3-D designs, which were also shown in a leaf-print textile sculpture in crimson wool by Anne Kyyr Jo Quinn.

The high-tech ideas fit the blending of nature and modernity pioneered by their countrymen.

Alvar Aalto’s tripod stool and curvilinear vase put Finland on the global design map in the 1930s, but it was in the middle of the century that Finland’s artists firmly established themselves as Nordic stars. The 1950s brought design awards in Milan and on the pages of influential shelter magazines like House Beautiful. The furniture pieces were functional; the tableware was beautifully purposeful; the fabric patterns were colourful, livable.

This was design at its most inventive and most efficient.

Finnish style has “almost a split personality — but in a positive way,” says Ben Horn of FinnStyle, an online (www.finnstyle.com) and bricks-and-mortar retailer of Finnish design work.

“Modern Finnish design of the mid to late 20th century is characterized by timeless, clean, simple designs often inspired by nature and using natural materials,” he says.

“On the other side of the spectrum, but equally Finnish, are the bold bright designs from Marimekko, which have been popular for over 50 years.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the Tiger Electric Shoe, originally a commission for the Japanese company Onitsuka, which contained a miniature city within its LED-laced structure.

A dress fashioned from hundreds of linked metal circles demonstrated how technology could reverse the garment design process; rather than cutting a design from a bolt of fabric, the computer would envision the design and create the material.

Yrj Jo Kukkapuro and Henrik Enbom displayed their state-of-the-art LED and forged steel table lamp with a minimalist, industrial esthetic suited to a contemporary home office.

The Kinos ceramic sushi set from Tonfisk Design was an interesting cultural crossover; “kinos” means snowdrift in Finn, and the dish set was rendered in snowy white porcelain.

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