Northern cool

In the second report in our mini-series on Nordic design, Will Sorrell follows up a visit to Helsinki Design Week with an investigation into the state of the design industry in Finland, a country with a strong international outlook

Finland is famous for design and has been for more than half a century. Marimekko’s prints, Alvar Aalto’s buildings and furniture, and Nokia mobile phones have put a country with just 5.3 million inhabitants on the map. Helsinki was recently named World Design Capital 2012 – an acknowledgment that the city and the entire country exploits design to create quality of life for itself and those it exports design to.

In talking to people at this month’s Helsinki Design Week, it became clear that design in Finland is undergoing a shift. Nokia’s leading place in the European and North American mobile markets came to an end with the iPhone. The beautifully designed Nokia phones with their simple, elegant handsets and separated buttons are nowadays taken up by only a few discerning countries. This does not include the UK, whose service providers are too cheap to buy the more sophisticated Nokia designs. Now, Nokia is focusing its attention on a new, emerging mobile market – the third world.

Another burgeoning market for Finnish design lies in Asia. Finland and Japan share a natural aesthetic, with value placed on minimalist style and the handmade. Product designer Harri Kosinen is venturing into architecture for a Japanese client, creating a pre-fabricated wooden house. The exchange goes both ways – fashion designer Samuji’s inaugural line is manufactured in Tokyo. Many Finnish design studios include East Asian designers.

Looking East instead of West is not a new thing for Finland. After some time as part of the Swedish empire, Finland spent much of the 19th century under Russian control, gaining independence in 1917. Although there are similarities between Finnish and Scandinavian design, Finns point out that they are a Nordic country and not part of the Scandinavian peninsula. They are perhaps less isolated as a result. English is much more widely spoken there than either Swedish or Norwegian. Soon, a high-speed train will link Helsinki with St Petersburg in under three hours.

This makes Helsinki a destination city for international design students, where students from East Asia make up a significant part of the campus demographic. This year, Helsinki’s School of Economics, University of Technology, and University of Art and Design merged with Aalto University. The university signalled its commitment to design by arranging a partnership with Shanghai’s Tongji University in which Finnish and Chinese students took part in an Ideo-organised workshop at the World Expo.

The merger is promising, but the problem remains that there are simply not enough jobs for design graduates, according to Laura Sarvilinna of Huippu Design Management. Imu Design collective is hoping to solve this. Calling itself the ’self-appointed national design team’, the group promotes emerging designers through the Protoshop exhibition at the Habitare trade fair, which is part of Helsinki Design Week. Last year – its first – three out of ten exhibiting designers were successfully matched with manufacturers. This is a respectable result.

The Finnish government strongly supports design, with funding coming from the Ministry of Employment and the Economy and the Ministry of Education and Culture. The government-run Foundation for Finnish Invention helps start-ups with mentoring from established designers, finance and market research, while the state-funded Finnish Institute in London commissioned the ’Hel Yes!’ pop-up Finnish restaurant during this month’s London Design Festival.

It is also a promising time for architecture in Finland, with plenty to design. Helsinki is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, welcoming 3500 immigrants a year. The city-planning department has moved shipping activity from three large urban ports to one location out of the city, freeing up room to create homes for 50 000 people and 20km of new public waterfront by 2030.

The design industry in Finland has an astute, international outlook. Hopefully, the predicted double-dip recession will not spoil the 2012 party, and the country’s ambitious urban redevelopment plan.

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