The Finnish Invasion

Finland’s emerging designers are steeped in a culture rich in history, tradition, and innovation.

What if countries revered designers as national heroes? You might get something resembling Finland, a tiny enlightened state recognized for its quality of life and economic dynamism, two reasons why it (and its capital, Helsinki) seem to float to the top of those addictive “best places” surveys. Alvar Aalto, Kaj Franck, and Eliel and Eero Saarinen are as well-known to Finns as their Conan O’Brien–look-alike president, Tarja Halonen. Indeed, the country’s architecture and design pedigree has become an integral part of its identity, and Finland has done its best to foster successive generations of designers—providing top-notch design educations and government funding to future Aaltos.

That system has produced a few stars in recent years—Harri Koskinen and Ilkka Suppanen, to name a couple—but there’s also a promising constellation of Helsinki designers working below the radar. And while some, such as Mikko Laakkonen, aspire to carry the Aalto mantle, hewing to the modernist master’s maxim of pure functionalism, others, such as Aamu Song and Johan Olin, of Company, have cast off tradition in favor of a more conceptual, whimsical style. All, however, see themselves as part of a community, dedicated to raising the profile of Finnish design, even if that means overcoming their innate reluctance to market themselves. “Finns have many character traits that make them great employees, but not necessarily great entrepreneurs,” says Mikael Silvanto, of the design collective Aivan!. “We’re very averse to risk taking. And we’ve given away too much manufacturing.”

Next year, in recognition of Helsinki’s serious, comprehensive approach to design—from architecture and city planning to service design and
fashion—the city will be designated the World Design Capital. To preview some of the up-and-coming talents who will take part in the citywide program of events, visit the Scenarios exhibition, on view this month in New York’s Meatpacking District during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.

Klaus and Elina Aalto have been bouncing ideas off each other since they were students at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, but they had never formally collaborated on a project until 2009, when they decided to build a bunk bed for their two young children; it is a modular design inspired by tree houses. Even though the Aaltos (no relation to Alvar) have fielded interest from various companies, the bed remains a prototype—an obstacle Elina attributes to the dearth of Finnish companies manufacturing high-end products. A notable exception is the boutique factory Selki-Asema—it operates out of a converted railroad station in southern Finland—which manufactures products by homegrown talents, including Klaus’s City Boy, a portable grill with a no-nonsense design reminiscent of Dieter Rams. Elina and Klaus have both built active practices, with a mix of solo and team projects: Elina is one-third of the collective Imu and has an interior-architecture practice; Klaus does exhibition design. But they hope to get a joint project on the market soon. “To be a designer in Finland, as anywhere, you have to be proactive,” Elina says. “We’re trying to improve in that area and not give up after the first prototype.”

In 2007 Aamu Song and Johan Olin, the duo known as Company, asked a simple question: What continues to be manufactured in Finland? That prompted them to seek out the small, family-run operations making distinctively Finnish products that are well-known to Finns but less so to outsiders. Song and Olin ultimately collaborated with a few of those companies on designs infused with the couple’s disarming brand of playfulness. Their work often toes the conceptual line between art and design—take, for instance, their cartoonish “nonpoisonous” mushroom stool (literally in the shape of fungus) made of Finnish birch. But they say the objects they make are meant to be used—“not necessarily in the conventional way” but as conversation starters.

The results from Company’s first factory tour were displayed in 2007 as part of the exhibition Top Secrets of Finland, and since then the experiment, along with the pair’s trademark art-school quirkiness, has traveled to other countries, including Belgium and South Korea (Song’s birthplace). Still, they remain committed to preserving traditional Finnish industry, suggesting that one way microenterprises may survive is by joining forces with young, innovative designers—and possibly other businesses. For their latest project, Song and Olin arranged what they call a “blind date” between two companies (one making felt, the other hospital shoes). The relationship developed into a marriage and produced a child of sorts: a pair of thick-soled kicks with a homely hipster look equally suitable to the streets of Helsinki as to those of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Standing together, Jarkko Jämsén, Antti Mäkelä, Saku Sysiö, and Mikael Silvanto could be mistaken for a brainy indie-rock band. And like a musical group, they have an output shaped by the creative tension that arises from combining four strong-minded partners. “We’re very different and independent characters, all vocal and visible faces of the company,” says Silvanto, who nonetheless comes across as the front man. “We can agree to disagree. There’s an ‘I’ in our ‘we.’”

Although Aivan! has tackled everything from medical devices to stereo equipment and corporate branding, its primary focus is boat design (including that of the Finnish president’s official yacht) for local companies such as Marino, Paragon Yachts, and XO Boats. (They all share a penchant for the sea, and their office is located on an industrial dock.) For the World Design Capital events in Helsinki next year, the foursome proposed building quiet, energy-efficient boats that would offer city tours from the Baltic. “Currently, what you have for experiencing Helsinki from the sea is overcrowded tourist buses—noisy, ugly beasts.” Aivan!’s design is a retro-looking wooden vessel with an optimized hull (designed by Jämsén) and two electronic-propulsion systems (a team commission from Oceanvolt) that would allow the boat to cruise at 15 nautical miles an hour on very little power. “We take up to eight people out for a few hours with a great cake, a well-trained crew, and nothing but the sea for sounds,” Silvanto says. “We’re designing the business model, the entire vessel, crew outfits, and, of course, the cake.”

Like many Helsinki designers, Naoto Niidome works out of a storefront studio, a tiny workshop packed to the gills with prototypes of chairs, clothing samples, small-scale mock-ups, and stacked boxes filled with supplies and tools. The managed chaos is the embodiment of Niidome’s astounding versatility: he not only designs furniture but also fashion (he studied both at the University of Art and Design Helsinki), interiors, and, recently, prefab housing. And he manages to do it all, and stay afloat, without so much as a Web site. “I have been lucky,” the 36-year-old says. “I haven’t had to sell ideas myself so far. Usually companies ask me to collaborate.” Even so, about 70 percent of his designs remain prototypes, which he produces himself at considerable expense.

Niidome was born in Finland, his mother’s homeland, but spent most of his childhood in his father’s birthplace of Japan, and his work illustrates something the two cultures share: a subdued aesthetic that reveals a devotion to simplicity and nature. His latest fashion collection—cut from all-natural materials, including cloth derived from milk—explores the subtleties of different shades of gray. “Ecofashion,” he says, “doesn’t need to look green.”

“You have to leave the borders,” Mikko Laakkonen says. “You have to go to Milan.” Of the designers profiled here, Laakkonen has made the most headway in that direction: in addition to working with local producers such as Marimekko and Inno, the designer has partnered with several international companies, including Casamania (from Italy), Pasabahçe (Turkey), and Offecct (Sweden). Paradoxically, he is also the most conventionally Finnish, following Alvar Aalto’s example of putting function first. “I respect that tradition, because this attitude creates objects which have justice to exist,” the 36-year-old says. Regardless of his success, some manufacturers still seem just out of his reach. “The ideal project is a brief from a good, big, and vibrant company like Vitra, Magis, or B&B,” Laakkonen wrote via e-mail on his way to—that’s right—Milan.

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