Articles / Industry / Technology
Nokia owes much of its ethos to its industrial heritage, and the sparse but beautiful influence of Finnish design and culture.
The company asked me to write some features for a new book they were publishing on Finnish design. While researching these articles, I came to appreciate Finnish design and culture on a new level, and soon built up a wish list of objects of desire. (An Iittala fireplace, cast-iron Sarpaneva cooking pot and Eerno Aarnio bubble chair, in case Father Christmas is listening.)
I interviewed designer Tom Dixon about his long-term love affair with Finnish design, and heard about the collaboration between Jasper Morrison and Wataru Kumano for Finnish furniture company, Nikari.
I also talked to people from the surprisingly large Finnish community in Brighton. There I learned that Brighton has its own Scandinavian café (Northern Lights) and that you should never deprive a Finn of access to gin-in-a-tin. The story follows…
Helsinki comes to Brighton
Look beyond Brighton’s famous pier, the fish and chips and the seagulls, and you can detect something unexpected stirring in this quintessentially English seaside city. A subtle, but growing, Finnish presence.
You might notice Moomintroll books and Marimekko china in North Laine shops. Spot a school that offers Finnish lessons for children on Saturdays. Or see Finns crowded into a Scandinavian bar eating Finnish rye bread sandwiches, drinking Scandinavian vodka and watching ice hockey on the big screen.
Over the past few years, a small community of Finns has established itself in Brighton. Some first visited the city as teenagers for the summer language schools and moved back as adults. Others came to study at the university and stayed on, attracted by the sea and the city’s laidback yet lively atmosphere.
Pauliina Talvensaari, company director/restaurant manager at the Northern Lights Scandinavian restaurant and bar, arrived in Brighton from Helsinki 13 years ago. “I’ve always lived by the sea, so that’s one of the reasons why Brighton appealed to me. It felt like a vibrant fun city where it would be easy to settle in and find friends.”
Ambassadors for Finnish design
This little band of Finns are now acting as ambassadors for Finnish design along the south coast of England, one Iittala plate at a time.
Sirpa Kutilainen, a Finn who works in the Design Archives at the University of Brighton, knows more than most about the increasing influence of Finnish design in the area. She came to study in Brighton for a year when she was 17 and “forgot to go back”.
“My Finnish objects are always a talking point.”
In 2012, Sirpa organised a Finnish design project in Brighton. “We wanted to celebrate Helsinki’s designation as World Design Capital by showing photographs of Finnish designs from our archive,” she says. “We wanted to show iconic designs such as Aalto’s bent birchwood plywood table, Wirkkala lighting and Sarpaneva’s cast iron cooking pot.”
As part of the project, Sirpa photographed the Finnish community in Brighton and asked them to choose their favourite object from home. Treasured objects varied from a classic Aalto vase to a Fiskars cheese slicer and red tartan Reino slippers. “I enjoyed seeing what people picked,” says Sirpa. “I saw that other people also had something of their ‘blood’ in their house.”
“I sometimes wonder if my home here looks more Finnish than if I lived back in Finland. My entire house is filled with Finnish things. I have Iittala glassware and plates with ornamental owl patterns, Marimekko textiles designed by Sanna Annuka, and Aino slippers with a bobble on the end. My Finnish objects are always a talking point when English people come to the house. I feel as though I’m giving a secret education in Finnish design.”
Everyday understated classics
In Britain, Finnish design appeals to people who appreciate natural materials, pared-down lines and the folkloric pop of Marimekko fabrics and Iittala’s Taika pattern.
Finns, however, are likely to have a different mindset.
“Finnish design is practical first and beautiful second.”
“Over here, there can be an elitist feel to anything with the name ‘design’ attached to it,” says Sirpa. “But in Finland, our designs are for every day – they’re functional and pragmatic. We don’t put designers on pedestals. I’ll buy a Finnish design because I like the form, rather than because of the name of the designer. Over here, it can be the other way round.”
The egalitarian nature of Finnish society and character of the people are reflected in their designs, according to Sirpa. “As a nation we’re modest about our achievements. It’s a massive part of our psyche which feeds into the design world. We’re globally recognised as good designers, but we don’t shout about it.”
Pauliina, owner of the Northern Lights café, agrees. “Finnish design is practical first and beautiful second. Glasses are usually stackable, so they don’t take up too much space in your cupboards. It’s like the 1930s wooden skis we’ve got hanging on the wall in the bar. They’re very simple, they capture your eye immediately and you could still use them if you wanted.”
Wood and recycled copper
Northern Lights has been open for four and a half years now, and has become known for its design, as well as for its Midsummer and Independence Day parties when Finns gather to drink gin and grapefruit ‘Lonkero’ while singing karaoke and the national anthem.
In tune with the Finnish love of natural materials, the bar is made of wood and recycled copper plates, and the benches and walls feature fabric and paper in a Marimekko design by Maija Isola.
According to Sirpa and Paulina, the British often appreciate Finnish design without realising that it’s Finnish. “So many people have a pair of orange Fiskars scissors at home,” says Pauliina. “But they probably don’t know that they come from Finland.”
“People always talk about the Moomins, cold winters and reindeers when they talk about Finland,” says Sirpa. “People can have a very romantic idea of our country.”
But with the growing influence of the Finnish community in Brighton, that perception could be about to change.