Anyone who arrives in the Finnish capital during these winter, icy and snowy days quickly develops the impression that there is nothing else to do, that it is the only thing the city has to show.
In 2009, the International Council of Industrial Design Societies (ICSID) chose it as the 3rd World Design Capital, after Turin (2008) and Seoul (2010) and among 46 cities in 27 countries.
Helsinki beat Eindhoven in the finals and, despite the title guaranteed, throughout the year of the event, it kept its competitiveness intact with the committed cooperation of the 4 partner cities: Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Lahti.
At the Helsinki-Vantaa airport tour desk, we had already noticed the unavoidable predominance of leaflets and brochures on exhibitions, itineraries and events related to design.
In the delegation in the center of the capital, the paradigm is repeated reinforced with the indications that the service employees are keen to provide and develop.
Emma – Espoo: Helsinki's First Unusual Contact with Design and Art
If you can't beat them, join them. The next morning we woke up with the chickens to peek at Emma – Espoo Museum of Modern Art.
An employee of the municipality waits for us at the exit of the bus and starts to look surprised “Oh it's you. I have to confess that I didn't expect them to be.
They are dressed like us. As a rule, journalists from southern Europe appear to us very poorly prepared for these temperatures, wearing jeans and shivering. “We laughed at the honesty of observation and exchanged a few more humorous remarks.
Meanwhile, Hanna Saari remembers her mission demand and cuts to an exhaustive briefing on Finnish design and her latest projects. It unwinds endless phrases full of terms such as sustainability, integration, nature, innovation, development and interaction, and does it with color and sauté, the result of careful previous study and repetition.
We don't tell her, but between us, we have to be as honest as she is. All that talk sounds like nothing to us. Confirming the suspicions, as soon as the third absolutely lay question we asked him, he already feels uncomfortable. The design is supposed to ensure the opposite: “You know, I recently took over.
I'm still getting familiar with these logics and terminology. I'm going to call a more informed colleague and I'll get back to you soon,” he tells us without losing his composure, and then puts his finger on the touchscreen of the third iPhone with which he betrayed his homeland.
For us, it wasn't even worth it. By themselves, Design theories would never get us anywhere.
In Search of the Heat of Finnish Design
We wanted to see real solutions and revolutionary parts. Beyond so much leaflet and spiel, Helsinki and its satellites are full of them.
We find the first at the WeeGee Exhibition Center – the building recovered from an old and gigantic graphic – organized under the concept of DesignEspoo!, around the urban model of that city and with a space dedicated to the active participation of residents who are invited to leave innovative suggestions on a panel already full of colorful post-its.
There are images of the house-OVNI Futuro, a house designed by Matti Suuronen with the aim of mass production, with unshakable faith in a technological, pleasant and nomadic future, also in the conquest of Space. Until, in the mid-70s, the Oil Crisis made fuel prices soar and, with them, plastic.
Futuro was withdrawn from the market, but today, around 50 copies survive all over the world. 001 belongs to Espoo.
The blue sky settles in and the cold intensifies with the damp, swift breeze that the Gulf of Finland throws over the city. We make ourselves strong. We explore the style epicenter of the capital, Punavuori.
The Design District of Punavuori
It is currently labeled as its Design District, even if only because it concentrates more than 150 bars, cafes, restaurants and studios with original decorations, environments and objects in a grid of streets that extends from the central avenue of Mannerheimintie to the antique shops from the port, confronted by the fortress of Suomenlinna and the Hietalahti Flea Market.
In the 70's, Finnish designers took Danish and Swedish design as examples and developed their own brands and a national identity with an exponent in the historical figure of Alvar Aalto, award-winning author of dozens of revolutionary buildings in Finland and the world and several award-winning pieces.
The products we find all over the place, from eccentric high chairs to minimal kettles, have prices to match this distinction, which are always marked in Euros.
If you're not a Scandinavian, a multimillionaire Russian or a Finn, you can hardly find a bargain.
Fortunately, we have become a kind of modern nomads. We value discovery more than comfort and home solutions, and we see this Helsinki atmosphere as one of many realities in the world, not as a commercial opportunity.
Helsinki's Obsessive But Not Far From Immaculate Design
We know, however, the limits of reasonableness. The Sokos Vaakuna hotel's buffet breakfast is diverse, nutritious, robust and, of course, served in Finnish-designed decor, furniture, crockery and utensils. But it doesn't hide the pains that formed during the night and bother us.
We are used to this type of problem in less developed countries and when a room is cheap. This is not the case and we have another 4 nights to go.
Before going out into the street, we choose our target among the employees lined up behind the counter and we talk in the best possible mood: “Sorry, but there's something here that we're not understanding.
We spend all day looking at design in this city and your hotel forces us to sleep on a mattress that sinks and ruins our backs? Do us a favor and change the bed or something.” The blond receptionist smiles and maintains his dignity. It gives us the idea that you've heard the complaint hundreds of times.
The answer leaves us disarmed: “Unfortunately all our mattresses are like this. It's a new model, American. They cost quite a lot but I admit that many of the customers don't appreciate them. I don't think I can help you.”
Helsinki had slightly smudged the paint. Still, we leave persistence for later.
Right next to the hotel, granite giants illuminate and protect the central train station designed by Eliel Saarinen.
They are said to have inspired Gotham City visuals in the first film in the Batman saga. Nearby, we find the unorthodox forms of the Kiasma museum, which houses a new gallery of modern art.
Next is the eloquent Concert Hall and, at the opposite end of the icy central lake, we glimpse another of Aalto's creations, the capital's Olympic Stadium.
Arabia: the New Mecca of Finnish Design and Street Art
In 1965, Soviet territory was inaccessible to American filmmakers. While we admire the pragmatism of the rule and square of Senate Square, we realize why it served to make Saint Petersburg in David Lean's classic “Doctor Zhivago”.
There is much more divine architecture to explore around, but that afternoon we moved to the outskirts in search of a local Arabia.
As soon as we got off the bus, we saw in the background the emblematic chimney of the building of the homonymous porcelain, earthenware and clay factory, inaugurated in 1873 and which, like Vista Alegre, has earned a special place in the Suomi heart.
These days, the rejuvenated building and some complementary buildings have hosted a panoply of small design shops, a library and the Aalto University School of Art and Design.
The Arabia district and the surrounding area are also home to restaurants, cafes and some of the best equipped homes in all of Finland.
At the same time, an open-air museum is revealed, offering us a kind of proof of artistic orientation.
Armed with a map and over the course of two hours, we tried to detect the urban landscape and examine 24 works created and installed by famous characters from the various branches of art.
By way of confirmation and remembrance, we photographed each of the findings, of the “Seaside Magic Stones” to the little birds “viikki” camouflaged against a wall of the same shade, passing through the Tapio Wirkkala park designed by the American Robert Wilson.
The night sets, the cold tightens again and snow falls in abundance. We returned from Arabia chilled and recovered our temperature and energy in a cafe lounge in the center with impeccable style.
It is at these times that prodigious Finnish design makes the most sense.