A GLIMPSE through the window of a typical home in Finland can paint a vibrant picture of the Nordic nation’s creative history.
In the kitchen there’s certain to be a boldly patterned table setting from Arabia, the ceramics house that has been supplying Finland with its crockery since 1873. The glasses on the family dining table are likely to have been handcrafted by Iittala, the country’s oldest glass manufacturer. The living room may reveal a chair or stool from Alvar Aalto, a prolific architect and designer, primarily in the 1930s, who’s famous for everything from theatres to tea-carts (his famous curved Aalto Vase may also be sitting prettily on a Scandi-chic sideboard).
Throw open the wardrobe and the boldly patterned garments of Marimekko, the textile house that has been clothing fashionable Finns since 1951, are sure to occupy a hanger or two.
Design is fundamental to Finland’s heritage, with form and function considered to be of equal importance – household items must not simply be user-friendly but beautiful, and accessible to all. Much-loved pieces are handed down through generations; designers such as Marimekko and Aalto are celebrated as national heroes.
It’s little wonder Finland’s capital, Helsinki, was voted World Design Capital in 2012, beating the stylish likes of Berlin and Copenhagen to become the first northern European city to claim the title.
The Helsinki Design District – a creative cluster covering about 1sq km in the heart of the city – was created in 2005 and offers an accessible introduction to classic and contemporary designers and the opportunity to buy original pieces direct from the source.
There are more than 200 businesses, from boutiques and galleries to design hotels, workshops and museums; its members are identified by a round black-and-white Design District window sticker.
This compact city is perfect for walking and Esplanade Park, adjacent to Helsinki’s popular harbourside market, is my starting point. Armed with a Design District map – a fold-out guide that gives the location of each member on a grid (there’s also a free app) – I plan my route down the main “design streets” – Erottajankatu; Uudenmaankatu; Iso Roobertinkatu; and Korkeauvuorenkatu.
The streets flanking the park – Pohjoisesplanadi and Etelaesplanadi – are alone worth a few hours’ exploration. Marimekko’s flagship store is in front of the park on Pohjoisesplanadi; a few doors down is Iittala’s main outlet (perfect for stocking up on pretty votive candleholders or distinctive Oiva Toikka glass birds). There’s also an Aarikka store, which specialises in statement chunky wooden jewellery and homewares from artist Kaija Aarikka, who founded the company in 1954.
On the opposite side of the park is the holy grail of furniture, Artek, an expansive gallery-style space packed with classic designs from Aalto (who established the store with his wife Aino and other partners in 1935) and his peers, including Aalto’s iconic three-legged stacking stool.
Also on display are Paimio Armchairs, designed by Aalto for the Paimio Sanatorium in the 30s to help tuberculosis sufferers breathe easily as they sat (although I find it hard to imagine how this uncomfortable- looking cantilevered construction of bent plywood and laminated wood could have achieved its aim).
At the Marimekko flagship store, racks of women’s clothing, jewellery, children’s wear and endless bolts of material in familiar hues and patterns fill the ground floor. Everyone from Jackie Kennedy to the characters in television’s Sex and the City have been been photographed wearing Marimekko. Upstairs are boldly illustrated pencil cases and iPhone covers, bags, cushions and even shower curtains in Marimekko’s distinctive Unikko poppy print from the 60s. Brightly coloured oven mitts, socks, serviettes and umbrellas would make small but perfectly adorned souvenirs.
As much as it’s hard to leave the big-name design houses, the lesser-known operators within the Design District provide some of the most exciting finds. The excellent Design Forum Shop, a five-minute walk from Artek, is great for identifying up-and-coming creatives.
Established by the Finnish Society of Craft and Design to encourage emerging talent, the store features myriad homewares, from exquisite, eggshell-thin ceramics and pretty tea-towels to edgy streetwear, gift cards and wrapping paper, even designer sports goods. Its small cafe is a good place to rest and refuel; sweet tooths will love the cake buffet, an all-you-can-eat extravaganza featuring the likes of lemon meringue pie, blueberry cheesecake, choux pastries and carrot cake for €11.90 ($18).
For cutting-edge fashions, head for the flagship IvanaHelsinki boutique on Uudenmaankatu. Helsinki-born Paola Suhonen’s brand is widely regarded as the modern-day Marimekko; her bold designs have gained worldwide recognition and become collectors’ items among Finns.
This sleek boutique features multimedia installations of Suhonen’s collections (the designer also works as a Hollywood director) and her most popular prints have been exhibited in the nearby Design Museum.
Shoe designer Minna Parikka, meanwhile, is making waves around the corner from Marimekko with her out-there footwear. Helsinki-born Parikka has created individual pieces for the likes of Lady Gaga, and her window display features platform heels so sparkly and whimsical I half expect to see Judy Garland in a pair, clicking her heels and shouting, “There’s no place like home!”
Unlike Suhonen and Parikka, designer Sirpa Linnanmaki hasn’t hit the international stage, but her small, ecologically-minded store, Pore, a hike from the park down Korkeavuorenkatu, is equally worth a visit. Pick up brightly coloured Nepalese cushions, repurposed oriental carpets, organic tea-towels and other eco-sensitive pieces.
A stone’s throw away, Tikau is another small business with a heart, providing disadvantaged women in India with an income by combining Finnish designs with local production to create bamboo light-fittings, bangles, cushions and placemats.
After nearly a full day exploring, I have made barely a dent in my wish list. I make a note to return to the Design Museum and the Popot Sneaker Store (if my search for an attractive version of the world’s ugliest footwear doesn’t end here, I’ll give up hope), plus Taito (for traditional arts and crafts without a hint of kitsch).
In the meantime, I have stocked up on a set of pretty striped eggcups from Iittala, a one-off ceramic bowl from the Design Forum Shop and even a vibrant dress from Marimekko.
A few more additions to the line-up and my Sydney home may soon be in danger of being mistaken for a fashionable Finnish family pad.
This piece was written by Michelle Rowe, Deputy Travel Editor, Travel & Indulgence, The Australian and originally ran in Travel & Indulgence, The Weekend Australian on Saturday, 1 March 2014. Michelle Rowe was a guest of Finnair, Visit Helsinki and 50 Degrees North.