Helsinki, the World Design Capital 2012

In late-summer 2012, during a lunch staff meeting with a light agenda, one of my bosses spent close to an hour presenting a slideshow of photographs from his most recent trip to Helsinki. At the time, I knew very little Helsinki, let alone Finland, so I listened dutifully, like the entry-level employee that I was, while I ate my free lunch. He went on about the site for the future Guggenheim, his admiration for the city’s abundant bike paths, and X. While our organization worked quite closely with both the Finnish Consult in New York and the Finnish Cultural Institute, his trip was to celebrate Helsinki’s designation as the World Design Capital for 2012.

Having now toured the city myself, I see how deserving the city is of this title. Design in Helsinki comes in many shapes and sizes – from the superb examples of modern architecture to the small, but excellent museums dedicated to all things design, many of which were on my itinerary during my stay.

First, the Design Museo. The museum's permanent installation is dedicated to the history of modern Finnish design. Organized chronologically, I loved the super-graphics that acted as wayfinding throughout the galleries.

Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Design Museo / 10 July 2015

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the museum also had a temporary show on the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala.

Wirkkala Revisted @ Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Wirkkala Revisted @ Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Wirkkala Revisted @ Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Wirkkala Revisted @ Design Museo / 10 July 2015

AND a fabulous (and beautifully designed/installed) exhibition of Finnish fashion.

Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Classic Marimekko stripes on display! @ Design Museo / 10 July 2015

Classic Marimekko stripes on display! @ Design Museo / 10 July 2015

The Contemporary Art Museum, Kiasma, is located just off the main city center in Helsinki along the Töölö Bay, in a strange, ridiculous, and magnificent Steven Holl building. 

Kiasma by Holl / 14 July 2015

Kiasma by Holl / 14 July 2015

Above is the backside of the museum, with the glass facade letting light into 5 floors of galleries. You enter the building at the other end of the massively curved structure and are greeted with a grand atrium "corridor" through the doors. The ramps lead up to the galleries and form the main circulation system (and provide the best views!) throughout the museum. During my visit, I saw a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, a group show on portraiture by contemporary Finnish artists, and installation on the elements (earth, wind, fire, water). 

Kiasma / 14 July 2015

Kiasma / 14 July 2015

Stunning wall of Patti Smith portraits in the Kiasma's Mapplethorpe retrospective / 14 July 2015

Stunning wall of Patti Smith portraits in the Kiasma's Mapplethorpe retrospective / 14 July 2015

Mirror selfie @ Kiasma / 14 July 2015

Mirror selfie @ Kiasma / 14 July 2015

(I also saw a few fantastic shows at the Museum of Finnish Architecture - where several of the exhibitions I installed in New York originated! - but none particularly photogenic.)

And then there’s the shopping! Helsinki is home to a booming design district filled with fashion boutiques, chic cafés, home goods and décor stores, niche craft shops and the like. 

Not to mention the big international design retailers like Iittala, Artek, and Marimekko, all of which are available to varying degrees in the U.S. and have their headquarters/flagships in or around the city. 

For the curious, Artek is the furniture company founded by Aalto and his first wife Aino made famous by selling the iconic stacking stools and geometric textiles. Iittala is a Finnish design company, founded as a glassworks in 1881. It carries tableware designed by the Aaltos, notably Alvar’s vases and Aino’s glasses, in addition to products by other Scandinavian designers. And Marimekko is…Marimekko! The very very very iconic Finnish clothing and textile brand known for its striped shirts (<3) and bright, bold patterns. Some Iittala and Artek products are available in the MoMA Design Store and there is a Marimekko store in the Flatiron district in New York.

Marimekko outlet! / 13 July 2015

Marimekko outlet! / 13 July 2015

Discount textiles! Marimekko outlet! I bought some of the Helsinki pattern in the top image and am open to suggestions for how to put it to good use! / 13&nbsp;July 2015

Discount textiles! Marimekko outlet! I bought some of the Helsinki pattern in the top image and am open to suggestions for how to put it to good use! / 13 July 2015

In addition to a slew of stores, both Iittala and Marimekko have outlet stores in the area – the holy grail for design enthusiasts like myself! (Sadly, no such luck with Artek…but they do have a sample sale in New York in the fall.) Let it be known, that when left to my own devices on grey rainy days, when most museums are closed, I will trek out to the suburbs for deep discounts on designer glassware, textiles, and home goods. And I did just that. 

ALL the Aalto glasses at the Iittala outlet / 12&nbsp;July 2015

ALL the Aalto glasses at the Iittala outlet / 12 July 2015

The Arabia Gallery, just a few floors above the Iittala outlet. This display may have inspired me to start a teacup collection. / 12 July 2015

The Arabia Gallery, just a few floors above the Iittala outlet. This display may have inspired me to start a teacup collection. / 12 July 2015

Christmas in July! No really – Merry Christmas (and happy birthday, and congratulations on your wedding…) to all my friends and family, because chances are I purchased your gifts here.

Beatiful display of Aalto vases in an array of shapes and colors / 12 July 2015

Beatiful display of Aalto vases in an array of shapes and colors / 12 July 2015

All the Aalto...in Helsinki

If you’re wondering why I chose Scandinavia as my travel grant destination, the answer is quite simple. Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1978). Sure - I’m as enamored with Scandinavian modernism as the next architecture and design enthusiast and welcomed the opportunity to experience such classics in person. But, for me, the work of the Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto stands apart, elevated above a sea of imitations. 

I first encountered Aalto through his furniture, having grown up typing on a computer that rested on an Aalto table and filling Aalto vases with flowers for holiday centerpieces. I have fond memories of researching Aalto objects during my MoMA internship and a lunch break adventure with my boss to the Artek sample sale in New York. Now, I am the proud owner of two chairs (the first in my small but mighty modern chair collection) and a set of glasses, not to mention a set of Ikea knock-off stools. In large part, my hands-on interactions with Aalto design has been limited to furniture and design objects out of necessity, as the architect built almost exclusively in Finland, with a handful of projects around Europe and just two in the U.S. 

But you better believe I remember the Aalto lectures from my undergraduate days (thanks Sheila Crane!). The typical modern architecture survey gives a good, if brief introduction to his work, using the Paimio Sanatorium (on my itinerary for next week!), the Säynätsalo Town Hall (just saw today!), and Villa Mairea (sadly won’t make it to this trip) among others as a means of highlighting the Finn’s sensitivity to light, the peculiarities of a site, the surrounding environment (“nature”), and the vernacular building materials and techniques. Coupled with my love for Aalto design, I longed for the opportunity to experience the nuances of Aalto’s architecture IRL. And here I am - thanks CASVA!

As a result, Aalto’s work has defined my Finnish itinerary thus far and below are the buildings I saw in Helsinki. (Note – I’ve also seen lots of the furniture and design objects, in and out of museum settings, and will recap those soon.)

Aalto House - 1935-36

North/Street facade / Aalto House&nbsp;/ 11 July 2015

North/Street facade / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto House / 11 July 2015

South/rear facade / Aalto House&nbsp;/ 11 July 2015

South/rear facade / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto's home studio desk / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto's home studio desk / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Main living room / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Main living room / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Upstairs living room / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Upstairs living room / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto portrait by Calder / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Aalto portrait by Calder / Aalto House / 11 July 2015

Studio Aalto, just down the road from the house. 1954-56

Amphitheatre / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Amphitheatre / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Entry rail covered in flowers / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Entry rail covered in flowers / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

The studio, like the house, is of course outfitted exclusively with Aalto furniture, as well as prototypes, including a series of lamps seen hanging from the balcony and the plywood experiments hung on the wall.

Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

All the files! / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

All the files! / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Wood-binding prototypes / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Wood-binding prototypes / Studio Aalto / 11 July 2015

Hall of Culture (Kulttuuritalo) - 1955-58

Hall of Culture / 12 July 2015

Hall of Culture / 12 July 2015

Brick detail / Hall of Culture / 12 July 2015

Brick detail / Hall of Culture / 12 July 2015

Finlandia Hall - 1962-71

Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Lamp detail /&nbsp;Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Lamp detail / Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015

Finlandia Hall / 12 July 2015