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Europe's New Design Capital

Helsinki is making news with brash designs that eschew blond-wood clichés. After all, why shouldn't a dresser drawer double as a suitcase?

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.

Renvall knows Helsinki's emerging design scene well. A leader of Imu, Finland's self-appointed National Design Team, she promotes experimental Finnish design around the world. The Finns pride themselves on their sisu, or "guts," and it's clear that Renvall has it. She is determined to push some of Imu's pieces into production, if only the designers would cooperate: Getting them to manufacture for the market, she said, is "like pulling a bag of bricks."

If Imu is any indication, Finland's design vanguard is losing patience with Scandinavian clichés like blond woods and organic lines, not to mention Ikea. Instead, Imu champions young designers like Klaus Aalto (no relation to Alvar), who created a dresser with white plastic drawers that double as suitcases. Another rising star is Johanna Hyrkäs of Anteeksi, a collective of irreverent designers whose name means "excuse me"; one of her signature pieces is a crocheted rug embedded with lights.

Anteeksi couldn't care less about the bottom line, Hyrkäs told me at Kuurna, a new restaurant she helped design that reinterprets classic Nordic cuisine with dishes like a warm pike terrine. (By painting the walls olive green and stripping the vaulted ceilings so that they flaked, Hyrkäs purposely created a space that doesn't look designed at all.) She went on to describe the group's mock furniture fairs set in street kiosks and amateur fashion shows, like one displaying a coat festooned with stuffed animals. "Everything we do is just for fun," she said.

Anteeksi's designers do sell a few products. Their T-shirts—Hyrkäs's is silk-screened with an image of her dog and station wagon—are available at Myymälä2, a three-year-old subterranean art gallery and shop that's become a haven for Helsinki's youth culture. After two failed attempts, I finally got inside (the store's posted hours should not be taken literally) and discovered novelties like vintage-style wallpaper printed with graphic green elephants, but nothing like the raw-meat sculptures that made the gallery notorious for a while.

Across the street, the designers of the clothing line Pusipusi recently co-founded the store Lux, which sells repurposed pieces like jewelry made from flea-market finds (including a brooch with bits of costume jewelry, military ribbons and a James Dean cameo) and freakishly cute, bunny-shaped pillows stitched together from secondhand clothes. Secco, another new shop nearby, carries things like glass votives created from melted-down computer screens. Was that a Louise Nevelson sculpture on the wall? Nope, try circuit boards that had been painted gold.

Eventually, I emerged from the side streets and made the obligatory trip to the Esplanade, home to Finnish design's big three: Marimekko, Iittala and Artek. All the punchy, Pop-hued poppies one could ask for—on bags, trays, linens and mugs—can be had at Marimekko's three Esplanade locations. Alongside such well-known classics as the undulating Aalto vase, said to be inspired by the shape of Finland's lakes, Iittala's flagship showed off new glassware like the colorful triangular Tris candleholders by the Swiss designer Alfredo Häberli. And at Artek, which was founded by a group that included Alvar Aalto in 1935 and still produces his bentwood furniture, I admired a new collection of rugs with organic lines and abstract shapes—part of the company's recent push to update its look under the direction of the British design star Tom Dixon and Finnish veterans Eero Aarnio and Harri Koskinen.

On my last day in Helsinki I met up with Ilkka Suppanen, an innovative Finnish designer who has worked for Saab and the Italian furniture maker Cappellini. Quiet and reserved, but with a shock of shaggy blond hair, Suppanen gave me a preview of his Colors chair for the Italian manufacturer Zanotta. Resting on thin wire-frame legs, it consists of three oblong cushions in mix-and-match fabrics. It's an elegant and simple design that has just hit stores in the United States. For nearly everything else, however—well, that just might require a trip to Helsinki.

Aric Chen writes frequently about design, art and travel for the New York Times, I.D. and Art + Auction.

Published April 2006
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