Great Design is About Giving a S **t
Making something beautiful is easy. The real challenge is to make it work beautifully
Everywhere I look in Helsinki I see beautifully designed objects and spaces. My digs at Aallonkoti are sleekly furnished, and everything in there — from the shower fittings to the self-sufficient plant ecosystem that purifies the air I breathe — does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and does it extremely well.
As my host Ossi Kivimäki showed me around the compact studio, there seemed to be hundreds of thoughtful touches and unexpected features that made being there even more of a pleasure, such as the fact that the glass panels on the balcony slide and fold back independently so that you can let in exactly as much (or as little) of the weather as you like.
In a country of extreme weather, where for months on end you only get a few hours of natural daylight, it would be understandable if their building were squat, closed dwellings with small windows that easily kept the heat in during those long winters. But that’s lazy, and the Finns are anything but. Instead they come up with the most efficiently insulated buildings you’re ever likely to come across, and somehow make them feel like airy beach villas, so you can sit back and enjoy those ridiculously long summer days.
While it’s no secret that Scandinavians have a great tradition in minimalist functional design, Finland is perhaps not the first country that comes to mind for that. The Finns are a naturally modest people, which is perhaps why their louder Swedish cousins tend to take most of the credit.
Whenever you sit on a chair over here, whether it looks like school furniture or something out of a Salvador Dali painting, it will feel GOOD
As Helsinki’s guest resident blogger, I had the chance to talk a few locals about that, and although bragging doesn’t come naturally to them, they are fiercely proud of their culture, aesthetic heritage, and craftsmanship.In fact, their design of everyday objects tends to reflect the principles that are at the core of Finnish culture and psyche.
The Finns are, first and foremost, a practical people. They love functionality, but that doesn’t mean compromising on aesthetics. It just means that whenever you sit on a chair over here, whether it looks like school furniture or something out of a Salvador Dali painting, it will feel GOOD.
Let me stress that, because it’s something you don’t often think about it. Most furniture is actually pretty uncomfortable. We’re just so used to it it’s become the status quo. As it turns out, it needn’t be. Good design can turn the most Spartan-looking chair, with no hint of padding in sight, into your very own happy place. Your back doesn’t ache; Your bum cheeks don’t go dormant, your knees feel fine, and cramps aren’t inevitable.
By refusing to compromise on comfort they are challenged to come up with much more innovative ways of pushing the envelope that wouldn’t come up if one were designing for looks alone
The bar where I’m writing this article is a case in point: Its assortment of tall and short bar stools, arm chairs and sofas all look different, yet fit together somehow. Maybe it’s the respectful, purposeful way they all use high-quality materials such as wood, leather and brass. They manage to make it look really good and really casual at the same time, but like the perfect messed-up hairdo, it takes a lot of thought and effort to get it just right.
One of the pioneers in this way of thinking was legendary architect Alvar Aalto. He approached design in a holistic way, making furniture, lighting, glassware and furnishings as well as the buildings themselves, weaving everything into a “total work of art” concept.
This idea of looking at the big picture is actually the secret sauce of Finnish design: By refusing to compromise on comfort they are challenged to come up with much more innovative ways of pushing the envelope that wouldn’t come up if one were designing for looks alone.
What goes for furniture also applies to everything else: Crockery is hard-wearing yet elegant; Lamps are beautiful yet still provide the correct light for you to read by; furnishing will keep you cozy and brighten up your home. Not for the Finns is the concept of locking away your best china in a cupboard, or not sitting on the furniture. Being useful is an integral part of the beauty of Finnish design.
Walking around the design district, I came upon an Aladdin’s cave called Plootu. Although they had me at “vintage Scandinavian design furniture” the clincher is that they’re also a café serving delicious drinks and cakes to be consumed all over said furniture. That’s the key: Objects are there to be used. So use them.
At which point we probably should address the elephant in the room: A lot of this stuff is what you’d call freaking expensive. Yet although I’m glad — for the sake of my credit card — that none of it will fit in my suitcase, I do think that prices, while far from cheap, are mostly fair. What you’re getting, if you choose wisely, is exquisite craftsmanship, quality materials, and something that’s build to last, with oodles of TLC. In a world flooded with expensive crap, this is still good value for money.
Being useful is an integral part of the beauty of Finnish design
What the locals tend to do is buy less items, and do so very thoughtfully. Many homes are, at first glance, rather sparsely furnished, but that generally translates into less clutter, and clever use of space and resources.
And resources are probably the final piece of the puzzle if you want to truly understand the heart of what makes this type of design really special. There is a palpable sense of respect for the materials, and that, as I’m told by my Helsinki guide Hanna Toivonen, comes from the deep connection they have with nature.
Before the green living and organic movements went global, Finland was figuring out clever and elegant ways to use less water and energy
Finnish people love being outdoors, even at times when the weather would deter normal folk, and they are constantly aware of their impact on the environment. Way before the green living and organic movements went global, Finland was figuring out clever and elegant ways to use less water and energy. It also means the streets of Helsinki are kept freakishly spotless; You’re more likely to find a Finnish word with no double letters than a piece of rubbish on the pavement (what they economize in energy they definitely splurge in extra letters, never using one where two will do just as well).
There is a palpable sense of respect for the materials they use
As I finish — no pun intended —writing this while sitting in yet another extremely comfortable chair, all I can say it that it’s rather refreshing to find a culture so dedicated to creating beauty with purpose, and it’s about time someone sang their praises — because they sure won’t.