Juliette Spertus | Travelogue

Dispatch from Helsinki

My brief introduction to Finland came several days shy of the winter solstice when dawn breaks after breakfast and dusk comes right after lunch. I was worried about not seeing much of this place I knew so little about. Driving east out of the city in the half-light I was surprised at how beautiful the landscape is, and how sparse. This highway was more reminiscent of the American West—narrow stands of conifers growing out of rock outcroppings and lichen—than my Mediterranean-centric vision of the Old World.

An example of Marimekko's collaboration with FinnAir in-flight service | photo: FinnAir

Most everyone is familiar with Alvar Aalto’s bentwood furniture, and Marimekko is so prevalent that their prints even grace the napkins on FinnAir flights (Marimekko has even adapted some of its patterns as FinnAir livery). I went to Finland confident that I would be impressed by the high standard of home furnishings that Americans associate with Scandinavian design, but I had never considered how important design actually is to Finland. After my in-flight meal, I saw Marimekko everywhere, next to the perfume and cigarettes in the duty-free magazine and in pink poppy-papered airport shops. Helsinki is a small city—only half a million inhabitants—and there is one main esplanade, a Nordic Ramblas lined with upscale boutiques, that opens onto the harbor. Marimekko is there. So is Artek, the design company that Alvar and Aino Aalto started in 1935 to market the furniture and housewares they were producing. 

The Helsinki Artek store in 1955 | photo: Artek Open Archives

Driving toward a factory in Kotka—more on this next time—our naval-architect guide reminded us that the road we were on led to Saint Petersburg, traveled by the Czar’s army on its way to capture Helsinki from the Swedes. Finland has only been its own country since 1917, but was most valuable to its occupiers as a buffer and its small population of foresters and fishermen were pretty much left alone. Swedish was the official language until, in the nineteenth century, Finns campaigned to modernize their own ancient non-Indo-European language. Our guide referred to his country as a little brother, culturally aligned, but fiercely competitive with big brother Sweden. 

A tunnel along the E18 Koskenkylä-Kotka motorway | courtesy Skanska

By the time I arrived in Helsinki I had already spent several days driving to newly developed cities and outlying industrial zones. I learned that as an urban nation, Finland is actually very young. In 1920 when half of the US population had migrated to cities, ninety percent of Finns were still living off the land. Twenty years later, on the front lines of World War II and again squeezed by Russia, Finland took the wrong side. Rebuilding would take that much longer. Only after the “The Great Migration,” when mechanized agriculture and forestry practices shifted the economy, were more Finns living in cities. I was fascinated by this place, the cadence of this language for which I had no point of entry, the sense of being on the edge of Europe and at the center of the Baltic Sea Region, Nordic, but not actually Scandinavian. We heard that when the ruble is high the lonely highway to Kotka is a continuous line of Russians driving back in new cars. 

Now I was curious. If Finland is so far out there, if the cities are relatively young and very small, how did design become so central to the culture?  

I visited the Design Museum—a converted three-story school several blocks from the esplanade. The exhibition space is small, barely filling the nineteenth-century Gustav Nyström building. It was exciting to see the iconic midcentury pieces in context between the nineteenth-century arts and crafts objects and the kitchen appliances and table service created to outfit diminutive postwar apartments. In Finnish Design: A Concise History (2009), art historian Pekka Korvenmaa attributes the role of design in Finnish identity to two phenomena: the coherence of a small community of designers—all coming out of one school—responding to the unique history of their tiny country, and good timing.

Just as international modernist movements were blowing across its borders Finland was developing its image as an independent nation. From this fertile situation designers, writes Korvenmaa, evolved  “the successful tactics of a cultural periphery in which it utilized the ideas of major centres that created style while avoiding provincial plagiarism.” Finnish designers won a disproportionate number of awards from world’s fairs in Paris, Milan, and Barcelona, which led to a “feedback loop” of local interest: investment and then increased international success through the 1960s. Eventually Finnish designs were exported as exemplars of modern living in stores like Design Research in the US.

The Finnish design exhibition inside Alvar Aalto's pavilion for the 1937 Paris World's Fair | photo: Alvar Aalto Museum

Toward the end of the exhibit, less sexy ergonomic kneeling chairs and enormous mobile phones developed by Nokia are a reminder that Finnish designers continue to produce influential responses to everyday living. Skimming the surface of this fascinating design history it occurred to me that the seemingly conflicting impressions I had on the flight over and on the road—the significance of design in the country on the one hand, and the intensely sparse fringe location on the other—were actually part of a single phenomenon: the success and influence of Finnish designers was due, paradoxically, to their “outsider” status.

Nokia exhibit at Design Museum Helsinki | photo: Juliette Spertus 

Coming up in part II: The pneumatic comeback

Homepage image: Alvar Aalto's House of Culture, 1958 | photo by Juliette Spertus 

Juliette Spertus
Juliette Spertus worked as a designer in Boston and New York before shifting her attention to infrastructure. In 2010, she created the exhibit Fast Trash, which led to two state-funded studies on pneumatic waste collection. Her writing has appeared in Urban Omnibus, Bauwelt, and AMC and the peer-reviewed journals Waste Management and Flux. In 2014, she co-founded ClosedLoops to develop innovative waste and freight infrastructure projects that would not be built otherwise.

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