There's a saying in Finland that if Scandinavia stuck to its strengths, the Finns would design, the Swedes would manufacture, the Danes would sell and the Norwegians (flush with oil money) would buy. Although Finnish design had its last heyday in the mid-20th century—when Marimekko introduced its graphic floral fabrics, Iittala became famous for its now-iconic glassware, and the legendary architect Alvar Aalto created his blond-bentwood furniture—the country is now rediscovering its edge. Last summer, an area of stores, galleries and restaurants in Helsinki was officially christened the design district, and it encompasses nearly the entire city center.
So when I recently visited the Finnish capital to check out some of its most interesting new designs, I naturally headed straight for the design district—specifically, to Klaus K, the city's first boutique hotel. I have to admit that somewhere between seeing my gazillionth groovy lobby and spending my umpteenth hour waiting for room service, "boutique hotel" had started to lose its allure. Since Klaus K was only a few days old when I checked in, my expectations were especially low. But the paint was dry, the service was prompt and the lobby—well, it was pretty groovy, with loungey white chairs, mottled-brown glass-mosaic columns and a large halo of tangled white metal floating above the reception desk like a cloud of snowflakes.
After dropping off my luggage, I made my way to Design Forum Finland, an exhibition space and store that showcases both new Finnish talent and classic pieces. There, I discovered a beautiful tea set—creamy ceramic cylinders wrapped in laminated oak and capped by cork—created by a company called Tonfisk. I also noticed the sensuously contoured wooden mortar and pestles from Tuulipuu, a small workshop in the forests of southwestern Finland, and Saara Renvall's Kukka brooch, a graphic flower with petals made of a reflective material "so people can see you at night," Renvall later told me.