19 Oct 2012

Luxury Without Gloss

ALTHOUGH it has a small population – equivalent, at 5.4m, to the city of Philadelphia – Finland’s design culture, integrated into daily life, has touched the lives of a great many people. This year, while celebrating its 200th anniversary as the capital of Finland, Helsinki triumphed over 40 entrants internationally to become World Design Capital (WDC). The bi-annual accolade was previously bestowed on South Korea’s Seoul; Cape Town will be next.

At the Finnish Design Museum a gallery is given over to Everyday Beauty, while at a former power station, Suvilahti, the Everyday Discoveries exhibition features international icons submitted by various countries including road signage from Britain, an electricity meter from Lithuania, and Finnish Fiskars scissors with distinctive orange handles.
Outside in the shadow of a derelict gasworks which appears almost ecclesiastical from within, a static rollercoaster of wayward plants, inspired by a ride at Linnanmaki Amusement Park, undulates.
At the 23rd Habitare festival, comprising some 550 exhibitors, many of whom showcase steamed wood chairs, a forest – Finland is Europe’s most heavily-forested country – hangs near windows. Also special is the timeline of Finnish design, 1950-2000, featuring as many female designers as male. The exhibition ends, agreeably, in a Champagne bar.
“We don’t have the weight of tradition, so we’ve been free to experiment,” appraises the PR for Helsinki, Jarkko Jarventaus, while raising a glass. “Design is pure and simple – for the masses,” he adds, “and built to last. In fact, 80 per cent of houses have an Alvar Aalto vase.”
The timeline includes Marimekko fabrics – a company of 90 per cent female employees with wide eyes on Asia and the US. There is also a Tunturi exercise bike and cupboards full of table and kitchenware. Gazing at a litalla saucepan, out of its usual workaday kitchen context, framed by Perspex and lit by halogen, I suddenly feel especially close to it. What an intimate relationship we have, I ponder, with what we cook in it, when we clean it and how we store or move it when we make a home. Yet here it is shown as a clearly defined, designed item.
The showrooms of Amer Sports’–  makers of Atomic alpines , “the Vertu of skiis”, and Wilson clothing, basketballs and the tennis rackets preferred by Federer and the Serena sisters – are housed in a former Philip Morris tobacco headquarters. After a lap of the building, Jarventaus and I await a tram bound for the brand new university library at the Kaisa House. Jarventaus seizes the moment to tell me about a near–mythical red tram which smoothly oscillates the city – a pub on rails. My eyes widen but, alas, it fails to arrive.
Inside the main library, the atrium – Guggenheim museum-like and lofty – is lit by a prism of natural light, precious in this country. The top floor terrace is festooned with sunflowers, while intellectuals swivel in 1970s recliners and read a selection of the country’s 200 newspapers. A promotional film flashes the words “Silent but Steady” – a description of the Finns.
Parked in a car park between the Design Museum and the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the ephemeral highlight of Helsinki’s World Design Capital tenure is the Pavilion. Designed by Pyry-Pekka Kantonen, a student at Aalto University, as an urban garden, the retro birch hut with its straw or hutch-like aroma, provides a jovial setting for dancing, eating and drinking or watching films or reading under blankets. Tables are mounted on wheels while the corrugated triangular-panelled ceiling kindly filters the city’s silvery light.
Outside Helsinki’s gentrified industrial cityscape is the extensive countryside which gave rise to creations such as the pipe-smoking Moomins and wingless, slingshot Angry Birds.
“A commercial failure, but cultural success,” asserts Jarventaus. “I suppose I am,”  I nearly answer. But Jarventaus refers not to me but designer Matti Suuronen’s claim to fame – the flying saucer-like Future House. A colourful polyester-plastic chalet dreamt-up in the ‘60s, this example represents the first of nearly 100 built until soaring oil prices curbed production. It was recently restored from the damage wrought by Finland’s clearly defined seasons and now glows amid aromatic pines beside horizontal concrete skyscraper, WeeGee.
WeeGee was originally built as a print works. Today, five museums and a gallery span its pillars which spear the roof like masts. Accessible, with collections carefully wrought, it is yet another of the country’s ephemeral industrial spaces, successfully re-imagined in a creative context. Although impressive freshly built structures abound – most famously the arc-like, non-denominational, Kamppi Chapel of Silence by Mikko Summanen – principally, it is these industrial structures, rehabilitated but still possessive of a certain handsome majesty, which most interest glass.
One such gentrification project, however, is less successful: the former Nokia cable factory, where a seemingly unsupervised curator has hung up a massive, noisy, inflated heart at the entrance – on a whim. Inside, students play with Lego whilst muttering about how awful it is that half the world lives in cities. The only redeeming feature is a bowl of dried fish – flaky, linen like – which I chew while shooting schnapps of Icelandic birch.
A highlight – or indeed a “lowlight’ – of WDC is ‘in-mine fine dining’.  Over the three-week period which comprise design week, 1,000 people are wined and dined deep down Tytyri, a mine of two billion year-old limestone situated an hour’s immaculate coach ride from Helsinki. Chef Timo “Lintsi” Linnamaki normally holds reigns at Muru, Helsinki’s two year-old Restaurant of the Year, but tonight he works over coals in a draughty kitchen, sheeted from dust and stones by a tarpaulin rig.
Also at the city’s outskirts is the bohemian Turntable Urban Garden. Here, home grown hemp hummous and spicy soup is followed by chewy brownies flavoured with home harvested honey – all served at tables made of distressed old doors.
Antto Melasniemi is another chef who understands that cuisine can be a great means to communicate a culture. In September 2010, Finland chose London, and then Stockholm, to showcase its food through a fanciful, almost fairytale like, pop-up eatery called Hel Yes! It was masterminded by Melasniemi, a populist Helsinki restaurateur and one time musician of Helsinki rock band HIM. 
Located in Helsinki’s brick wholesale market, Abattoir is Melasniemi’s latest restaurant project which locals hope will be a catalyst to the gentrification of the area – a legacy of the WDC. Barely visible under candlelight, the ceiling is so high it would intimidate someone who watches their heating bills. Stainless steel doors lead to former cold rooms – one used as a bar – while a communal barbecue outside is available to Finns who bring their own steaks.
Glass looks forward to the next stage in Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital – what is billed as a Culture Sauna – the sauna belonging to the Finnish way of life, and comfortably furnished often ...