Finland has long been regarded as the least flashy, and the most quirky and enigmatic, of the Nordic countries. Though Helsinki might be regarded as a younger sibling to the other northern capitals, it's the one that went to art school, scorns pop music, is working in a cutting-edge design studio and hangs out with friends who like black and plenty of piercings.
But this isn't a case of Helsinki adopting an arty pose or jumping on the bandwagon in order to keep up with design-savvy neighbours like Sweden and Denmark. Finland has an equally long and innovative design tradition - it's just that the Finns are more unassuming about their achievements. Once you arrive in the capital, however, you'll see there's much for Finns to boast about on the design front. So much so, the city has been recognised as World Design Capital for 2012.
Classic names to look for
Born in 1898, Alvar Aalto is ranked by many aficionados as the 20th century's number-one architect - and not just in the phone book. It's estimated that Aalto designed over 500 buildings during his career, of which around 300 were built (in Finland and around the globe).
Not content with just architecture, Aalto's activities encompassed town planning, interior design, and furniture and glassware design, together with his wife Aino. You will have seen his work even if you didn't know it was his: the curvalicious bentwood Paimio Chair; three-legged stackable birch stools with rounded legs; the asymmetrical Savoy vase that cradles flowers in its many crannies.
Artek is the furniture and homewares store founded by Alvar and Aino, and it maintains their legacy today. But design in Finland is so much more than just Aalto. Other local design icons include:
- Eliel and Eero Saarinen - a father-and-son pair of architects and designers. After moving to America, Eero designed the ultra-groovy Tulip Chair.
- Marimekko - renowned for its cheerful, colourful fabrics, made into clothing and home furnishings. The Unikko pattern (big bold poppies, traditionally in red) is the most recognisable design.
- Iittala - a global name in covetable tableware and glassware, with textures and forms often gleaned from Finnish lakescapes.
- Fiskars - the oldest company in Finland, and a brand that has managed to make an icon out of orange-handled scissors (who knew?).
What to see
The Finns' almost-mystical closeness to nature has always underpinned their design. If you prefer a scholarly approach to your masterclass in the uniqueness of the local craft (as opposed to, say, hitting the stores), start your familiarisation at the Design Museum, home to a permanent collection entitled 'Finnish Form'.
If architecture's more your thing, stop by the curvaceous Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma (www.kiasma.fi; Mannerheiminaukio 2). More than a decade after it opened, quirky Kiasma (designed by American architect Steven Holl) still stands testament to modern Helsinki.
From Kiasma, you're not far from the Finlandia Talo (Mannerheimintie 13), a design masterpiece from Alvar Aalto built between 1967 and 1972. The concert hall is accessible on guided tours - or better yet, snare a ticket for a concert in order to admire Aalto's incredible attention to detail.
Where to shop
Helsinki's harbourside kauppatori (marketplace) is the perfect place for mooching around in search of local culinary delicacies as well as tourist-oriented handicrafts and souvenirs.
Esplanadi Park runs west of the kuappatori, with popular strolling streets Eteläesplanadi and Pohjoisesplanadi on either side. Along here you'll find the flagship boutiques of established Finnish classics like Marimekko (Pohjoisesplanadi 33); Iittala (Pohjoisesplanadi 25); Artek (Eteläesplanadi 18); and nearby Stockmann department store (Aleksanterinkatu 52), where seemingly every Helsinkian buys everything…
For something less mainstream, make a beeline for Punavuori, Helsinki's design neighbourhood, southwest of Esplanadi. It's dotted with whimsical little shops, vintage stores, galleries and workshops of young designers.
Design District Helsinki (www.designdistrict.fi) is a loose confederation of innovative design shops spread through the central area, particularly between Esplanadi and Punavuori. Keep an eye out for the black-and-white sticker in the window of these places.