Championing the minimalist, refined style of Finnish design

A solid cardboard box containing a light mattress and cotton blanket provided by the state is what every Finnish baby born since 1938 encounters upon leaving the protective custody of the hospital.

"You could say that this is a very good metaphor for Finnish attitudes to life," says Ms Laura Sarvilinna, director of Finland's biggest furniture exhibition, Habitare, which runs from Sept 7 to 9 this year.

"It's the gates that every mother and every child has to pass through. Everybody starts the same way, everybody starts equal."

What has this to do with Finnish design? Everything - in a way, from the concept of social welfare long-entrenched in Scandinavian societies that has informed the ethos of consumer product development, to the fuss-free functionality of cardboard that can also be found in the ecological recyclability of Finnish furniture.

Finally - the fact that someone thought of this cardboard maternity care package at all, and implemented it so as to better everyday life in a simple way, points to the funda- mental undertaking behind Finnish design.

Finnish designer Alvar Aalto's vase for iittala. PHOTO: IITTALA

In the midst of a global worshipping of Scandinavian style in recent years, spurring the thirst for mid-century Danish furniture and bleached wood decor, Finnish designers have benefited from as well as become subsumed by the larger wave of a consumer and aesthetic trend.

But Finnish design is not just Scandinavian design, apparently, as The Straits Times finds out during a recent media trip to Helsinki organised by the Finnish government to push the city as a design centre in Europe. 

"It's more Nordic, more northern," says Timo Ramu somewhat cryptically. He is one half of the design duo Musuta, which recently shot to prominence in the animation world for coming up with the unforgettable smoking gun logo for the website opening credits of the latest James Bond film, Spectre (2015).

"It's like cuisines - you see the same basic ingredients, but there's always a difference in the way we prepare things and the difference is subtle," he adds.

To some, like Jopsu Ramu, the other half of Musuta, the difference in the design world comes in even more pared-down, minimalist and refined approaches that surprisingly find parallels in Japanese style.

"There's a lot of interest in empty space, light and flow," she explains, pointing out that it is not by mere coincidence that her firm holds a number of important accounts in Japan, including projects with cosmetics giant Shiseido.

"I look at all our graphics and animation projects and I am fascinated, in retrospect, to see how it all begins with a dot. And the dot becomes a line, and then it becomes a cloud; a plane - and finally full-blown concept and a scene."

Crucially, as Ramu also adds of designed objects, Finnish design distinguishes itself from the "rawness" of better-known Danish design and also from the ubiquity of Swedish furniture via the household brand of Ikea.

But still, as Habitare's Sarvilinna asserts, Ikea has "done wonders for the public image of Scandinavian design; it has changed conservative tastes in France and Germany". She sees Finnish design as standing on the shoulders of this globally known Swedish aesthetic and only now making its separate presence felt in the past few years, via more aggressive marketing campaigns and wider participation in international furniture fairs.

She says: "Until recently, we remained people of the north, people of the forest, we didn't venture out and waited for others to come to us.

"But that is perhaps what informs our simple and streamlined approach. Things are slowly changing, however, as we are reaching out to people."

More recently, the Finnish state has also started up initiatives such as appointing a chief design officer for its capital city and getting the 11-year-old Helsinki Design Week onto the international map.

Taking place in September, the design week will see local and international exhibitors congregate not so much to show their wares in a tented space than create an environment in which design objects, concepts and processes can be experienced and partaken of as play.

True to the city's self-proclaimed beliefs in all things family-friendly, one major highlight of the fete will be installations and workshop activities for children, curated by children's book publisher and design studio Etana Editions.

Deceptively simple projects have been planned, involving getting children (and their parents), for example, to play with sticker shapes first to create personal stories on paper - "letting the shapes narrate the idea" - before writing words down.

These activities have been collectively dreamt up as part of jazzing up sensible book-making projects with crafty approaches.

Indeed - for even in the seeming commitment to fuss-free simplicity, there is still space for whimsy.

For Finland, this has historically been better known to the world at large through the cheery prints of fabric design store Marimekko or the curly swishes of national architect Alvar Aalto, who put his hand to creating the famous puddle-shaped glass vase for crockery manufacturer iittala. However, lesser-known names are rising to the fore with grand projects.

ALA Architects' much-lauded Cloud City, in which a futuristic collection of high-rise white cubes for living quarters are inserted into the enclosed square within an old Nokia cable factory in the harbour area, comes to mind, as well as the slow but sure rise of Finland's state design and art galleries such as Designmuseo and the Espoo Museum of Modern Art.

The latter is gearing up to host a big retrospective show of the late Finnish master ceramicist Rut Bryk's small- and large-scale installations next month.

In every aspect of Finnish life - from the basic and mundane to the ambitious and splendid - design is present.

Mr Kari Korkman, director of Helsinki Design Week, muses: "Finland's economy is changing, and enterprise and start-ups appear to be the way forward. Design is always present and vital in many of these new changes, in every aspect of these new developments."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Championing the minimalist, refined style of Finnish design'. Subscribe