FINLAND: The Finnish article

If ever there was a country that has sought to define itself through design, it is Finland. Having been occupied by Sweden – with the result that all signs in the capital Helsinki are printed in Finnish and Swedish – gone through a civil war in 1918 and been invaded by Russia during World War II, the Fins are fiercely nationalistic and keen to express the country’s identity in a physical form.

One of the reasons that design has played such a big part in defining Finland – and particularly Helsinki – is that the country’s development in terms of population is relatively recent. Though Helsinki has a tradition for Art Deco architecture second only to Brussels, according to architect Marianna Heikinheimo of Helsinki-based Archtours, 80 per cent of all Finnish buildings are Post War.

But now, with companies like telecoms giant Nokia and fabrics and fashion retailer Marimekko established on the world arena, the Fins are looking beyond national boundaries to assert their identity. Design looks set to play a key part in this, particularly with branding, as Finland looks more closely to Europe as a market for its wares. With a collaborative culture that has shown it is not afraid of bringing in outside experts, it could well mean lucrative deals for UK design consultancies.

In the past Finland has shown its national pride through strong architectural statements. Eliel Saarinen’s Central Station in Helsinki, completed at the turn of the century, the 1952 Olympic Stadium by Yrjö Lindegren and Toivo Jäntti and Alvar Aalto’s magnum opus, the Finlandia Concert Halls, designed with his wife Elissa and completed in the late 1960s, are all evidence of this, categorised by pundits as following the folksy National Romantic or modernist Finnish Functionalism styles.

Finlandia and Helsinki’s opera house, completed in 1993 by Hyvamaki Karhunen Parkkinen, also tie in with the national passion for music, which is helping to boost tourism.

Today, the architectural tradition continues with a host of new schemes, largely residential and each with its own sauna, and a penchant in commercial buildings for what Heikinheimo describes as ‘double glazing’ – glass and steel blocks with an expressed glass façade.

But architecture aside, to the outside world, the country’s identity is largely based on design for manufacture. Nokia, Marimekko and manufacturer HackmanGroup, with its Arabia (crockery), Iittala (glassware), Hackman (cutlery and cookware) and Rørstrand (porcelain) brands, have all made a mark internationally. They look set to continue, judging by the volume of Marimekko poppy prints and Iittala vases you see on UK high streets, despite the downturn in the mobile phone market that has prevented Nokia from expanding into a new building in Helsinki as planned.

The focus tends to be on the craft side of design rather than branding, notably through ‘names’ like Arabia and Anu Pentik’s more niche tableware company, Pentik. This is borne out by a visit to the Design Forum Finland, which seemingly combines the functions of the Design Council and Crafts Council in the UK. Jewellery, fabrics and ceramics dominate the current exhibition Findesignnow 02, though there is some furniture and product. But there are fashion brands, notably Avenue, Pola and Karelia, making it into stores across Europe.

From a UK perspective, retail design, particularly in Helsinki, is providing interesting work – and a Finnish Tourist Board representative cites retail as one of the key activities in Helsinki. Corsie Naysmith and the former RPA Europe are among the UK groups that have worked on Helsinki department store Sokos, while Design Ministry is working on a standalone 30-outlet beauty chain for Helsinki’s ‘Harrods’ retailer Stockmann (DW 21 February). In 2000 20/20 created branding for convenience store chain Pikkolo, part of the Kesko retail empire.

Design Ministry managing director Valerie Lloyd says it’s very easy to work in Finland. ‘The differences in consumer requirements are very small [compared with those of UK consumers], and they all speak English,’ she says. But there is, she adds, a preponderance of small specialist shops with beautifully crafted displays rather than big chains. Street markets too are a key part of the culture.

Lloyd points to the prominence of women in the Finnish culture, which makes the female market interesting. Most women work and Finland has a female prime minister and parliamentary ‘speaker’, while Helsinki boasts a woman mayor. Lloyd also highlights ‘attention to detail’ as crucial to retail design there.

20/20 director Rune Gustafson adds that Finland is only just ‘waking up to brands, creating its own brands and exploring what it can do with them’. Proximity to Russia and a position ‘on the front line of the Cold War’ has traditionally made the Fins introverted, he maintains. Now, he reckons, it’s about providing them with more choice, in retail at least.

Kesko is typical of local chains in beginning to look at what’s happening in European retailing, ‘because the market is seeing more competition’, he says. The company is ‘open to new ideas and collaboration and has an inclusive management style’.

Gustafson adds that Internet and mobile communications use is much higher in Finland than in the UK, partly because the five million population is spread over a relatively large area.

Given this scenario it’s not surprising that digital enterprise is one of the factors driving Finland’s future, despite the blip in Nokia’s fortunes. The gutsy new canalside High Tech Center South by architect Kai Wartiainen in Helsinki’s newly developed Ruoholahti district, for example, is given over to small digital businesses.

But digital isn’t the only driver. On the other side of the coin is eco-design, an area where Finland is taking a lead. Again this isn’t surprising, given the locals’ love of nature. But the commitment is nonetheless impressive.

The focus for ecological thinking is the Viikki district of Helsinki, where experimental housing for students and families makes the best of environment-friendly materials and processes. A feature here is the Gardenia Center, by architect Artto Palo Rossi Tikka, which is a planting-related study centre for schoolchildren reminiscent of a mini-Kew Gardens.

Eco-design certainly transcends national boundaries, as environmental issues climb higher on the world agenda. With Finland keen to establish itself in Europe, and design leading the way, expect more to come from this sparsely populated, but heritage-rich, country.

Findesignnow 02 runs until 29 September. For further details contact www.designforum.fi

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