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.
In addition to the permanent exhibition, the museum also had a temporary show on the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala.
AND a fabulous (and beautifully designed/installed) exhibition of Finnish fashion.
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.
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).
(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.
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.
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.