Helsinki is the epicentre of Finland's flourishing cultural scene. The country puts a high priority on the arts, especially music, in its education system. Writers and artists looking to the Finnish wilderness for their inspiration evoked a pride in Finland that became an important part of the movement that eventually led to the nation's independence in 1917. Venues throughout the capital showcase their talents, along with their successors, as well as emerging new artists across the creative spectrum.
Finland had a rich oral tradition of folklore, but written Finnish was created by the Reformation figure Mikael Agricola (1510–57), who wrote the first alphabet. Although written Finnish was emerging in schools, the earliest fiction was written in Swedish.
All that changed in the early 19th century with the penning of the Kalevala and the beginning of a nationalistic renaissance. Poet JL Runeberg wrote Tales of the Ensign Stål, capturing Finland at war with Russia, while Aleksis Kivi wrote Seven Brothers, the nation’s first novel, about brothers escaping conventional life in the forest, allegorising the birth of Finnish national consciousness.
Helsinki-born Mika Waltari is among the successful 20th-century novelists, gaining international fame with The Egyptian. Finland’s most internationally famous author is Helsinki-born Tove Jansson, whose books about the fantastic Moomin family have long captured the imagination. Paavo Haavikko was at the forefront of the emerging modernist movement after WWII, and published his first poems in 1951. His most famous work is his poetry collection The Winter Palace, published in 1959.
Notable living Helsinki writers include the versatile Leena Krohn, Mikko Rimminen, who has attracted attention for both novels and poetry, and Leena Lehtolainen, the author of prize-winning crime novels set in Helsinki.
Finland’s music scene is one of the world’s richest and the output of quality musicians per capita is amazingly high, whether a polished symphony orchestra violinist or a headbanging bassist for the next big death-metal band. Summer in Helsinki and across the country is all about music festivals of all conceivable types.
Jean Sibelius’ work dominates Finland’s classical music. The great composer lived just outside Helsinki in the lake region of Tuusulanjärvi, and his home, Ainola, and his grave in its garden can be visited today. Partly thanks to Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, Finnish musical education is among the best in the world, with homegrown conductors, singers and musicians performing with some of the world’s top orchestras.
Finland has one of the most storming metal scenes around, and Helsinki is ground zero. The city's biggest exports are HIM with their ‘love metal’ and darkly atmospheric Nightwish, whose former vocalist Tarja Turunen is also pursuing a solo career. Catchy light-metal rockers the Rasmus continue to be successful. All genres of metal, as well as a few made-up ones, are represented, including Finntroll’s folk metal (blending metal and humppa), the 69 Eyes’ Gothic metal, Apocalyptica’s classical metal, Children of Bodom’s melodic death metal and Stratovarius’ power metal.
Local hip-hop, known as Suomirap, also has a dedicated following, thanks to artists such as Elastinen, Heikki Kuula and Pyhimys, and there's always some new underground project.
Lighter music from the city and its surrounds includes surf-rockers French Films, Espoo-based pop-rockers Sunrise Avenue, the Von Hertzen Brothers, emo-punks Poets of the Fall and melodic Husky Rescue. Past legends (still going in some cases) include Hanoi Rocks, the Hurriganes and the unicorn-quiffed Leningrad Cowboys. While singing in English appeals to an international audience, groups singing in Finnish include mellow folk rockers Scandinavian Music Group. There’s also a huge number of staggeringly popular solo artists; you’ll hear their lovelorn tunes at karaoke sessions in bars and pubs citywide.
Jazz is also very big in Helsinki, with dedicated clubs and a huge festival at Espoo each April.
Painting & Sculpture
Modern Finnish art and sculpture plays with disaffection with technological society (think warped Nokias) and reinterprets the ‘Finnishness’ (expect parodies of sauna, birches and blonde stereotypes).
Although contemporary art enjoys a high profile in Finland, it is the work produced by painters and sculptors active during the National Romantic era that is thought of as Finland’s ‘golden age’ of art. The main features of these artworks are virgin forests and pastoral landscapes. The most comprehensive collections are displayed by the Ateneum and Kansallismuseo.
Renowned Finnish artists who lived and worked in and around Helsinki include the following:
Fanny Churberg (1845–92) Created landscapes, self-portraits and still lifes using ahead-of-her-time techniques.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) An important figure in the National Romantic movement, drinking companion of composer Jean Sibelius and perhaps Finland’s most famous painter, who had a distinguished and prolific career as creator of Kalevala-inspired paintings. His home in Espoo is now a gallery.
Pekka Halonen (1865–1933) A popular artist of the National Romantic era. Thought of as a ‘nature mystic’, his work, mostly devoted to ethereal winter landscapes, is largely privately owned, but you can visit his studio, Halosenniemi, in the lakeside region of Tuusulanjärvi.
Tyko Sallinen (1879–1955) The greatest of the Finnish expressionists, Sallinen is often considered the last of the golden-age artists.
Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) Considered Finland’s greatest artist by many contemporary observers, Schjerfbeck is known for her self-portraits.
Ville Vallgren (1855–1940) A notable golden-age sculptor, Vallgren is most famous for creating Helsinki's Havis Amanda statue.
von Wright, Magnus (1805–68), Wilhelm (1810–87) and Ferdinand (1822–1902) The brothers von Wright are considered the first Finnish painters of the golden age, most famous for their paintings of birds.
Artistic innovations are also front and centre of Helsinki's design scene.
Sidebar: Music Finland Website
The website Music Finland (https://musicfinland.com) is a fantastic resource for Finnish music across all genres, with articles, information on artists and event listings.
Sidebar: Written Finnish
As well as compiling and writing the Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot’s work in creating a standard Finnish grammar and vocabulary by adopting words and expressions from various dialects was of great importance. Finnish has remained very much the same ever since, at least in written form.
Sidebar: Notable Helsinki Sculptures
- Havis Amanda (Kruununhaka & Katajanokka)
- Sibelius Monument (Kamppi & Töölö)
- Bear on the Anthill (Kallio)
- Reflections (Kallio)
Even in the busy capital, the rustle of the birch or waterbird's splash on a lake are never far below the surface of a Finn's soul, and they have taken this closeness to nature and melded it to a solid Nordic practicality to create a unique design tradition. Finnish designers evoke both the colourful optimism of summer and winter's austere minimalism in work that ranges from traditional Suomi design icons to avant-garde modern creations testing the limits of 3D printing.
The Roots of Creativity
City-dwelling Finns are far more in touch with nature than most of their European equivalents and this almost mystical closeness to the wilderness has always underpinned design in Finland. It’s rarely been a self-conscious art, though. However high Finland may climb on the lifestyle indexes, its design still has its roots in practicality. Indeed, it is a practicality originally born of poverty: the inventiveness of a hand-to-mouth rural population made life easier in very small steps.
Finland’s location, and its historical role as a pawn in a long-running Russia-Sweden chess game, have given it a variety of influences and a certain flexibility. As a meeting point between east and west, it has traditionally been a place of trade, a point of tension and, therefore, a point of change and innovation. Its climate, too, is a key factor, as it has meant that efficiency has always been the primary requisite for design of everyday objects. In bald terms, if that axe didn’t chop enough wood for the winter, you wouldn’t survive it.
The forest is ever-present in Finnish life, so it’s no surprise to find that nature is the dominant and enduring motif. Timber remains an important material, and reassuringly chunky wooden objects adorn almost every Finnish home (and summer cottage).
Alvar Aalto was for many the 20th century’s number-one architect. In an era of increasing urbanisation, postwar rebuilding and immense housing pressure, Aalto found elegant solutions for public and private edifices that embraced functionalism but never at the expense of humanity. Viewed from the next century, his work still more than holds its own, and his huge contributions in other areas of art and design make him a mighty figure indeed.
Aalto had a democratic, practical view of his field: he saw his task as ‘a question of making architecture serve the wellbeing and prosperity of millions of citizens’ where it had previously been the preserve of a wealthy few. But he was no utilitarian; beauty was always a concern, and he was adamant that a proper studio environment was essential for the creativity of the architect to flower.
Born in 1898 in Kuortane, near Seinäjoki, Aalto worked in Jyväskylä, Turku and Helsinki before gaining an international reputation for his pavilions at the World Fairs of the late 1930s. His 1925 marriage to Aino Marsio created a dynamic team that pushed boundaries in several fields, including glassware and furniture design. Their work on bending and laminating wood revolutionised the furniture industry, and the classic forms they produced for their company, Artek, are still Finnish staples. Aalto’s use of rod-shaped ceramic tiles, undulated wood, woven cane, brick and marble was particularly distinctive.
If the early 21st century is a new golden age for Finnish design, the original one was in the 1950s and 1960s. The freelance designers producing marvels in glass for Iittala, ceramics for Arabia, cookware for Hackman and furniture for Artek won international recognition and numerous prestigious awards, particularly at the Triennale di Milano shows. Though times were still tough after the war, and the country was struggling to house refugees from occupied Karelia, the successes of these firms, together with the Helsinki Olympic Games of 1952, helped put a still-young nation on the map and build confidence and national pride, which had been weakened after the gruelling battles with Russia and Germany.
The story of the Iittala glass company could be a metaphor for the story of Finnish design. Still producing to models imported from Sweden in the early 20th century, the company began to explore more homegrown options. Glass design competitions were an outward-looking source of ideas: from one of these came Alvar Aalto’s famous Iittala vase, which he described as ‘an Eskimo woman’s leather trousers’. Then two giants of postwar design, Tapio Wirkkala (1915–85) and Timo Sarpaneva (1926–2006), began to explore textures and forms gleaned from Finnish lakescapes. Coloured glass fell from use and the classic Iittala ranges were born, with sand-scouring creating the appearance of cut ice, and Wirkkala’s impossibly fluid forms seemingly melting away. The opaque look, which resembled ceramics, was a later creation as a new generation took to the field. Harri Koskinen (b 1970) and Annaleena Hakatie (b 1965) were among the leading lights, though the company has never been afraid to commission foreign designers. Iittala is today under the same ownership as Hackman, the long-established cutlery and cookware producers, and Arabia, which roughly paralleled Iittala’s glassware trajectory with ceramics.
Clothing has been another area of success. Finland, unlike its Nordic neighbours, has tended to beat its own fashion path. It’s traditionally been a place where teenagers can wear a jumper knitted by granny to school, and though new and exciting ideas are constantly created here, they tend to be built on solid, traditional foundations.
The godfather of Finnish design, Kaj Franck (1911–89) took ideas from traditional rustic clothing for his pared-back creations, but it was the birth and rapid rise to prominence of Marimekko, founded in 1951, that made an international impact. Optimistic, colourful and well-made, it bucked contemporary trends, focusing on a simple and unashamed beauty. Though the company went through a difficult period, it’s back at the top these days, as the retro appeal of its classic shirts, bags, curtains and fabrics fills wardrobes with flowers once again.
Other well-established Finnish names include Aarikka, whose wooden jewellery and other accessories have always had a cheerily reassuring solidity and honesty, and Kalevala Koru, a byword for quality silver and gold jewellery. Pentik’s wide range of interior design and homeware products includes the recent Saaga range, inspired by the designs of Sámi shaman drums.
A strong design tradition tends to produce good young designers, and Finland’s education system is strong on fostering creativity, so Suomi is churning them out at a fair rate. New names, ranges and shops crop up in Helsinki’s Design District like mushrooms overnight, and exciting contemporary design is being produced on all fronts. Fennofolk is the name for one broad movement that seeks, like the original giants of Finnish design, to take inspiration from Suomi’s natural and cultural heritage, adding a typically Finnish injection of weirdness along the way.
There are exciting things continuing to happen across all fields of design. Paola Suhonen’s IVANAhelsinki clothing label combines innovation with practicality and sustainability, while Hanna Sarén’s clothing continues to go from strength to strength since being referenced in Sex and the City. Julia Lundsten and Minna Parikka are head-turning young stars of the footwear world.
In industrial design, Harri Koskinen is a giant; his clean-lined minimalism produces objects that are always reassuringly practical but quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Helsinki bristles with high-quality graphic-design studios that are leading lights in their field.
Sidebar: Iconic Designs
- Artek’s bentwood Aalto chairs.
- Aalto's Iittala vase (aka Savoy vase).
- Marimekko Unikko (poppy) bed sheets.
- Aino Aalto's 1930s ringed tumblers.
Sidebar: Design Resources
The website www.finnishdesign.com mostly sticks to the well-established names, but it’s a good introduction. Design Forum Finland’s webpage (www.designforum.fi) has useful links; its awards are another good way to keep tabs on the scene. Helsinki's Design Museum is also a superb source of information.
Sidebar: Helsinki's Top Alvar Aalto Buildings
- Finlandia Talo (Kamppi & Töölö)
- Savoy (Punavuori & Ullanlinna)
- Akateeminen Kirjakauppa (City Centre)
- Kosmos (Kamppi & Töölö)
Sidebar: Helsinki's Design Foundations
In 1875, when Finland was under Russian control, the nationalistic Finnish Society of Crafts & Design formed in Helsinki, establishing a school, collecting international arts and crafts, and initiating construction of the Ateneum. The society went on to found the Museum of Art & Design, now Helsinki's Design Museum.