Finland has its own version of Argentinian tango, and each year a new ‘tango king’ and ‘tango queen’ are selected. Currently, the music scene phenomenon is Jukka Poika - a young man from the Finnish countryside whose melodies are derived from Caribbean Reggae, and his Finnish lyrics deal with life experiences in the rural north. Given Finland’s appetite for international influences what is Finnish culture, or Finnish design? I posed the question to fashion designer Vuokko Nurmesniemi (1930-) who has been at the center of its evolution since the 50’s. She told me that we owe it to the Swedes, that it all started when we received the idea of ‘every day beauty’ - the idea of extending design to every day things - from Sweden after the wars, and started innovatively building on that idea.
Todays Finnish design culture is alive and well, as demonstrated for example by the Design Colors Life exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (26.10.2012-9.12.2012). There are over 30 designers in the exhibition all of which practice internationally. The exhibition demonstrates beautifully how central design is to the common, everyday life of Finnish people. It also highlights how broadly and innovatively design is used in Finland, including household objects, furniture, lighting, mobile phones, electricity masts, public transportation, web applications, fashion, fabrics and sailboats.
Finland is inherently international, and it is innovation which is at core of the Finnish design culture, instead of styling, which characterises most of design today. Innovation differs from styling or modest improvement in that it refers to the notion of doing something altogether different (Lat. innovare: "to change") rather than doing the same thing slightly better. Innovation is crucial because diversity born out of innovation affects the survival of a design culture.
Today’s Finnish design culture has its foundation both in the work of the mid-century Finnish masters and our design education. The’ golden age’ of Finnish design (1950’s-1970’s) was intensely international: Finland’s best know industrial designer Tapio Wirkkala (1915 - 1985) was an enthusiastic traveller and worked in the mid 1950s in Raymond Loewy's (1893 – 1986) renowned office. Loewy was America’s best known industrial designer, who mastered the use of organic form. Finland’s most famous architect/designer Alvar Aalto (1898 - 1976) was heavily influenced by architecture in Italy and Japan, and well connected to the Modern Movement and its key figures. The second most famous Finnish architect Eero Saarinen (1910 –1961), is the actually an American who designed buildings such as the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York. Eero was the son of the Architect Eliel Saarinen (1873 -1950), who designed the the Cranbrook Academy.
The revolution in Finnish design education started In 1969 when Yrjö Sotamaa brought Buckminster Fuller and Victor Papanek to Finland, which had a big influence in the design discourse of the time. He then proceeded to direct the University of Art and Design (TAIK) for over 20 years. The school became became an intensely networked institution in the international design world, responsible for training practically all of todays designers in Finland, and many outside of its boarders. It broadened the scope of what design education is, and played a crucial role in giving design its current status within Finnish technology and business cultures. Yrjö Sotamaa’s work culminated in the foundation of a new innovation university, Aalto, which merged the universities of technology and business with the university of design.
The international history of education and practice of Finnish Design makes the use of a nationalistic framework for understanding design culture in Finland difficult, which does not mean that there are no such things as Finnish Design. On the contrary, the more global the world becomes, more interesting locality and local qualities are to the global audience. To talk about Finnish Design culture's is to talk about the relationship the well educated, and traveled people residing in Fenno-Scandinavian wellfare society have to materiality, which echoes their particular social and cultural attitudes in a globalised world. One might argue that the position of strength that design occupies in the Finnish society and business emerges from the historical necessity to innovate in order to survive in a harsh climate, and to create an identity in both geographically and politically challenging location between the East and the West.
The danger in having a ‘design culture’ is self content and resorting to modest improvements or styling based on earlier innovations. Styling and associated ‘good taste’ is the enemy of innovation. In order to survive, any design culture must reward risk taking and failure. The canonic figures of Finnish design such as Vuokko Nurmesniemi, Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala and Eero Saarinen were innovators. Attempts to emulate them, designing in ‘their style’ produces nothing of real value. Instead, sharing their international, forward looking attitude, and evolving their work through innovation is the best way to guarantee the survival of their cultural heritage. It is the way in which the Finnish Design culture will remain a vigorous and relevant participant in the global design scene.
Designers and architects should not worry about doing the ‘right’ thing, in the ‘Scandinavian’ or ‘Finnish’ style. They should both challenge the past and stand on its shoulders. It is not enough to just do something, do something else! Critical discourse surrounding design and contemporary material culture is an important aspect of design culture, which offers designers new perspectives on how their practice affects their professional field, the society and the environment in a globalised world.
The most exciting promise for the future of design culture in Finland lies in the newly formed Aalto University which combined Universities in business, technology and design into one new entity in order to produce a new innovation environment. Already, a number of cross-disciplinary design innovation hubs have emerged: the Design Factory, Venture Garage, and ADD (Aalto Digital Design Laboratory) are a few examples of new platforms which merge creativity in design with technology and business. The contemporary Finnish cultural premise is fertile ground for new innovation, and it is in the design innovation that the future successes both Finnish culture and business lie, not styling. When we combine technological and design innovation with business we will get killer products that a few countries and companies can create. We are at the cusp of a new ‘golden age’.