April 2, 2012

Finland – Origins of a Design Nation

Finland is considered to be one of the design nations of the world. What has made this small country with a population of five millions a design nation?

It all started in 1875 with the founding of the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design. Its principal aim was to enhance local industry and the manufacturing of goods. A school for teaching manual skills was founded and a collection of industrial products to serve as models was designed. They have later evolved into the University of Art and Design Helsinki (now Aalto University’s School of Art and Design) and the Design Museum. Today, the Society still exists maintaining the national design promotion organization Design Forum Finland.

Finnish design exhibition at Milan Triennials, 1954. Stand design: Tapio Wirkkala.

Public Relations of Finnish design

In the 1940s and `50s the international reputation of Finnish Design was established. Finland participated in Milan Triennials and other design exhibitions, receiving both prizes and fame. This was mainly due to activities of the Society whose CEO H.O. Gummerus personally knew many influential persons and journalists around Europe. Design-oriented companies such as Arabia and Iittala were also eager to take part in this promotion work. The designer Tapio Wirkkala won three Grand Prixs at the Milan Triennal in 1954, and Finland received more awards than any other country participating at the fair.

The promoter of Finnish design, Herman Olof Gummerus, launched his famous campaign at that time and succeeded in communicating major Finnish political and economic messages to the international public. In honour to the life`s work of H. O. Gummerus the Finnish Design Museum organized the exhibition Design Diplomacy. The new promotional campaign for Finnish design was renewed at the beginning of the new millennium.

Design as the reflection of lifestyle

The characteristics of Finnish design – functionality, clear and minimalist language of form and genuine materials – went well with the aesthetics and lifestyle of the time. Finnish design was more and more present in the media and designer names such as Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva, Antti Nurmesniemi and Alvar Aalto, already a world-famous architect, were established. During the decades, design has been an important cultural factor in Finland, along with architecture, music and sports.

Artek shop in Helsinki. Photo: Musta & Valkoinen.

At the turn of the millennium, it also gained significance as a major competitive business tool. The traditional industries based on wood, metal and engineering were no longer able to grow and manufacture was slowly moving abroad. The depression of the 1990s and the credit crunch of the 2000s also enforced many enterprises to restructure their activities. Companies started to regard design as a means of enhancing their business operations. It had always been there, as part of Finnish culture, now it was utilised purposefully.

At the turn of the millennium design was accepted as the major business tool in achieving competitiveness.

In the late 1990s Finland had become one of the leading nations in technological progress, due to various development programs originated by the state. Combining innovations with design proved successful and led to new business concepts. Nokia (mobile phones), Metso (paper mills) and Kone (lifts) were  companies that made use of design as a strategic tool. Design also became included in official reports and strategies. In 2000, the Finnish Government drafted the Decision-in-Principle on Finnish Design Policy called “design 2005!”.

Kone elevator. Photo: Kone.

Today, design is supported by the state in several ways. It is part of cultural exports, with spearhead projects around the world. The Ministry of Employment and the Economy supports the use of design in small and middle-sized enterprises on the national level. The marriage of design and innovations seems to have been the right policy and it is further encouraged. Novel approaches have been e.g. implementing design in services and the Design Thinking principle. One of the results of this successful design politics is the nomination of Helsinki with its partners as the World Design Capital of 2012 with the theme “Embedding Design in Life”.

Anne Veinola

The author is architect and art historian, working as the Editor-in-Chief of publications and web services at Design Forum Finland.

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