On a cloud map of Finland, you would likely find Santa, saunas, snow, reindeer, Northern Lights. An impressive 75% of the land area is covered by forests. It has over 180,000 lakes, and a population that’s keen on hiking, foraging and generally being active outdoors. It’s not surprising, then, that tourism there is in large part connected to nature. But there’s another, differently rewarding way of exploring Finland: as a design hub.
Design has always been a big part of Finnish culture. There are brands that have been around for over a century. Furniture legend Artek was founded in 1927, Iittala began as a glasswork shop in 1881. The very popular Marimekko is a relative newcomer, starting in 1951. More recently, in 2012, Helsinki, Finland’s capital, was designated World Design Capital for that year, and in 2014 was named a “City of Design” by Unesco.
One of the founders of Artek was Alvar Aalto, the starting point for any discussion of Finnish design. Aalto had a profound influence on the evolution of modernism, working on everything from buildings to his famous furniture and glassware. You can visit Studio Aalto in Helsinki, or the Aalto Museum in his hometown of Jyväskylä, some 270km away, to get an idea of the breadth of his artistic practice. Aalto—like many Finnish artists—drew from nature and indigenous cultures. The inspiration for the billowing shape of one of his famous pieces, Savoy Vase, has been variously attributed to ocean waves and the skirts of Sami women.
“Finnish design has oftentimes been put in the same box as Scandinavian design, which is not true,” collector Kyösti Kakkonen said in a 2022 interview to the art website Widewalls. “In fact, we have a characteristic design of our own that shows a particularly distinctive relationship with nature.”
In 2022, Kakkonen lent some 1,300 works to EMMA—Espoo Museum of Modern Art. I saw the collection when I toured Helsinki and Espoo in October 2023, on a trip organised by Visit Finland and Finnair, which celebrated its own centenary in 2023. The collection was a terrific introduction to Finnish ceramic and glass art. I was especially charmed by Birger Kaipiainen’s Bead Bird (Curlew) (1960), and Kim Simonsson’s beguiling Reading Sleeping Moss Girl (2022), from the sculptor’s series of “moss people”. You can see how nature filters through most of these works, lightly, playfully.
This connection with nature shows up in a much more modest piece of design. I first saw it on a foraging expedition, when our guide Anna handed out what looked like wooden cups and poured us “mushroom tea”. I drank from these cups again at Finland’s southernmost reindeer park in Nuuksio, and bought a couple at the Finnish Nature Centre Haltia (after a bracing nature walk). It‘s a simple but fetching creation, made from a natural fibre composite, with a flat handle that unfurls from the cup, like a ladle. Kupilka, a Kontiolahti-based brand, has been making these since 2003, a modern, outdoors-friendly alternative to the traditional wood-carved kuksa cups of the Sami people.
For a more cutting-edge art experience, I’d recommend the Amos Rex museum in Helsinki. It’s mostly underground, beneath a functionalist building from the 1930s called Lasipalatsi, now a cultural hub that includes a café, shops and a cinema. The design of the museum is minimalist and striking, with vast, uncluttered rooms and halls and strategically placed skylights. The current exhibition, Ryoji Ikeda (ongoing till February), had five works by the Japanese artist, who began as a DJ and composer before branching into visual art. On screens ranging from TV-size to gigantic, scientific data from NASA, the Human Genome Project, CERN and other sources is interpreted as complex shimmering, mutating patterns accompanied by a reverberating electronic score. “Ikeda’s highly abstracted works are intellectually suggestive, but at the same time bring to the viewer an extremely physical experience,” writes US-based curator Mika Yoshitake in an essay on the exhibition.
You can get a bit of everything—history, innovative design, great sea views—at Hanaholmen, the Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre on the outskirts of Helsinki (it was founded in honour of Sweden cancelling Finland’s wartime debt in 1967). On a blisteringly windy day, we were offered a tour of their art park. The exhibits were all outdoors, on the lawns or under trees, as if they had naturally sprouted. I’d walked the grounds in the morning, and as I passed a particular spot, I was confused by a faint sound from a source I couldn’t place. It turned out to be a 2023 installation called The Mushroom, a bronze sculpture that emits the kind of sounds one might encounter in a meditative sci-fi film. In a happy coincidence, the artist, Gunzi Holmström, was there at the time of the tour, and explained that the sound was from biosensors that captured the transmissions of fungi, tree roots and other subterranean life. Here, literally, was nature talking to us.
Recently, I came across a Reddit page that posed the question: “Any truth to the saying that Finns design, Swedes build, Danes sell, Norwegians buy?’ The comments range from Iceland slander to the history of saunas to the sci-fi Western Moon Zero Two. Yet they mostly agree on one thing—Finns design.