Recognising and respecting individual and cultural core values distinguish a design in the global market. How can design reflect trust and universalism, the central cultural values of Finland?
TEXT HEINI LEHTINEN
”Beauty always comes from total integration. Some architects try to achieve a beautiful building, but they misunderstand beauty as a contrast with the environment. I don’t believe in the beauty of a building. Beauty is integration.” –Architect Kengo Kuma
In 2016, the Nordic pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale staged the exhibition ‘In Therapy: Nordic Countries Face to Face.’ Its curators, David Basulto, founder of the online architecture platform ArchDaily, and architect James Taylor-Foster, challenged architects from Finland, Sweden and Norway to evaluate their work, motivation and the relation of their work to Nordic society. As the title of the exhibition suggests, they set architects and architecture in therapy, into a state of self-reflection. The exhibition was also a subtle critique of the Nordic mentality — the curators applauded social initiatives and high quality of the Nordic architecture, but also expressed their concern over the attitude of playing safe, lack of experimentation, and fear of failure.
This mindset of experimentation and lack of fear of failure, familiar from the Netherlands where Taylor-Foster resides, is an essential element of awe-inducing wow design that boldly stands out from its surroundings. Every now and then we hear the cry for more wow design or architecture in Finland; a desire for something bolder and flashier than we naturally seem to lean towards. Much like the curators of the Nordic pavilion, we blame ourselves for designs that we consider too understated and not daring enough to satisfy the urges of the novelty-seeking design consumer with a three-minute — or three-second — attention span.
Milan Design Week is known to cater for the latter. Some hundreds of thousands of people visit the most eye-catching of spaces to see an endless stream of showy designs and to wander from a massive, immersive installation to another — wow design in its most obvious forms.
In 2016, next to glittering design installations and showrooms, Marimekko furnished a very Nordic apartment in the heart of the most commercial location of Milan Design Week. With Marimekko products and accompanying visiting brands such as Artek and Tikau, the apartment could have been inhabited as such. One evening, like most other brands at the design week, Marimekko threw a party — a cosy house party with a DJ in the corner of the living room and Kyrö Distillery’s Napue Gin with blueberries in the glasses. The atmosphere was casual, intimate and inviting, far from flashy. The line to the party was a long one — longer than to many of the see-and-be-seen showroom parties of the design week.
In the recent years, questions of values, purpose, authenticity and locality have become prominent in contexts ranging from wellness self-help to business management to politics. The Wired World in 2015 report by Wired magazine predicted that a wellness-driven search for individual core values and purpose would reach the interest of serious financial investments. In the following year, rapid political changes have triggered inevitable discussions about values and value leadership.
In business management, core values and purpose can be defined as fundamental reasons for the existence of an organization; they form a steady and timeless foundation that guides and inspires. In the field of wellness self-help, a search for the qualified self drives individuals into endless self-reflection to discover a core purpose and an inner guiding light. In both, and in politics as well, the core values that are called for are something so fundamental that an individual or an organization could hold on to them regardless of being paid for doing so or not; they are the base that should still be relevant hundred years from now.
Individual core values are a messy compilation of one’s personal history, cultural values and zeitgeist. Due to this individual variety, defining commonly shared values on societal or cultural level is challenging. Still, in his 2015 book about Finnish values, emeritus professor Klaus Helkama distinguishes certain values that differentiate Finns from other Europeans — even from those residing in the other Nordic countries. These values are universalism, conformity and safety. Universalism can be understood as appreciating nature and equality; conformity as compliance to the rules of the community. In addition, an element typical of Finns is honesty — as stated by the author, Finland is the only country in Protestant Europe in which majority of the people state that other people can be trusted.
A challenge of core values is that since they are in many ways so close to oneself, obvious and mundane, they are not the easiest to appreciate. Trusting people, equality, nature, following the rules, looking for security; the same old…where is the excitement, the novelty?
Familiarity easily drives people to look for greener pastures and to long for external features. Designers have long wished to be storytellers, although perhaps communicating the core and the values in a visual or other form instead of inventing stories would create the strongest narrative. After all, one’s core is not familiar or obvious to anyone else — on the contrary, it is what makes a designer, a company or a design unique. It makes one what one is.
The Finnish values described in Helkama’s book inherently include the features for which the curators of the Nordic pavilion both commended and criticized Nordic architects. To be true — the playful and experimental take on design that is familiar from Dutch design hardly stems from these values. Should it? Subtle Northern designs might steer away from the wow effect of the experimental Dutch counterpart, but why should they be the same? If values of universalism, conformity, security and trust lead to high-quality societal designs that are integrated in their contexts instead of intentionally contrasting them, shouldn’t it be something to cherish and develop? Wouldn’t it make sense to focus on what comes out from within, developing that into its best and leading in terms of strengths instead of following what others have or can do better?
Perhaps the introspective observation — therapy — that Basulto and Taylor-Foster propose wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The values above are, after all, hardly obvious on a global level.
In Finland, my country of origin, design based on equality and trust has been successfully applied on the societal and governmental level. Participatory design processes have been crucial in designing the new Oodi Central Library in Helsinki up to the point of citizens affecting decisions about the budget. The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra is testing a tool for civic discourse called Erätauko in collaboration with Demos Helsinki to enable constructive societal dialogue between different perspectives. The tool is planned to be available for a variety of organizations in 2018. Moreover, the City of Helsinki appointed its first Design Chief Officer Anne Stenros in 2016 to further integrate design on the structural societal level.
In product or fashion design — just to name a few examples — labels such as Samuji or Anna Ruohonen are based on slow rhythm and an understated, no-fuss aesthetic and attitude; the unisex clothing label Nomen Nescio on gender equality and also non-seasonal collections. The designer-maker duo Paja & Bureau combines mythologies and traditional production methods into products and an unapologetic attitude in the international market; graphic designers Kustaa Saksi and Klaus Haapaniemi draw from Slavic tradition and translate it for global clients. At the level of brand identities, distilleries such as Kyrö Distillery, Helsinki Distilling Company and Tenu Ventures tap into both an international phenomenon of craft beverages and their local contexts: landscapes, habits, industries, history and mythologies.
Many of the values familiar to Finns are also basic elements of cultural, environmental and social sustainability. In architect Kengo Kuma’s words, sustainability is born out of the harmony of the environment and materials. Sustainable design rarely contrasts with its surroundings but is integrated to it. Instead of aiming for the wow effect, it is often subtle. Much like the introversion often related to the Finnish character, it may not trigger a 3-minute fireworks of novelty, but once introduced and familiarized, it has a good chance to form a lasting, sustainable relationship. Perhaps it is an intimate house party in the midst of glittery galas. Perhaps it is subtle beauty integrated into its surroundings.
To a large extent, calling for core values is a call for locality. Sectarianism, some could say. Staying in the comfort zone, someone else could state. Without genuine interest, openness, respect and willingness for a dialogue with the external — be the external other people or the global market — pursuing one’s cultural and individual values do threaten to become a one-view echo chamber. The internal and the external, or local and global, do not oppose each other, but the internal is a starting point to interaction with the external, and the local is a foundation for the global.
The essay is a part of ‘Design for Connectedness,’ an overarching concept of Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Design for Connectedness’ looks into the experience of connectedness to ourselves, others, the environment, time and energy as crucial elements of well-being, and as a method of design research.
The essay was originally written for exhibition Enter and Encounter at Design Museum in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. The author is a co-curator of the exhibition. The essay has also been published in Slanted Magazine #29 — Helsinki in May 2017.
COLLINS, Jim and PORRAS, Jerry I. 1994/2004. Built to Last. Harper Business.
HELKAMA, Klaus 2015. Suomalaisten arvot — Mikä meille on oikeasti tärkeää? Helsinki, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.
LEHTINEN, Heini. Kengo Kuma: All architecture should be integrated. TLmagazine Online, 28 September 2015. (15 Feb 2017).
LEHTINEN, Heini. Nordic architecture looks in the mirror — challenged by rigid thinking and masters of the past. Helsinki Design Weekly, 17 June 2016. (15 Feb 2017).
STRECHER, Victor J. The search for purpose begins. The Wired World in 2015. p. 76. Wired 2014/2015.