Friday, 13 April 2012

Helsinki, World Design Capital 2012

Having enjoyed Copenhagen so much a year ago, we decided to continue the Nordic knitting holiday theme by visiting Helsinki. We timed it well, because Helsinki is the 2012 world design capital. And in honour of that, we must start with a Helsinki architecture tour.

Outside the Helsinki Design Museum

I had expected Helsinki to look a bit like a mini version of St Petersburg, thanks to the German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, who rebuilt the city on Russian Neoclassical lines in the early 19th century.

Engel's masterpiece, Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral

But the real revelation, to me, was that Helsinki has one of the highest concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings in Northern Europe. The eclectic mix of wedding cake neoclassical with flamboyant Art Nouveau - with a dash of functionalist austere modern thrown in - creates a magically surreal architectural experience.

Selection of Helsinki Art Nouveau

We soaked up more design - in the Design Museum, naturally. Ignoring our Rough Guide's* complaint that it was 'outmoded' (the writer seemed to assume that design burst fully-formed, Athena-like, from a computer in the late-20th century) we found this museum well worth a visit. The downstairs covers the highlights of Finnish design, with the rest of the space set aside for temporary exhibits (DesignWorld and New Nordic fashion illustration were on when we were there). And most pleasantly, the whole place was infused with the scent of cinnamon buns, which we enjoyed in the cozy bright coffee shop accompanied by the inevitable cup of coffee (the Finns drink more coffee per capita than anyone else in the world), followed by a browse through the excellent museum shop.

We also found lots of design in the National Museum of Finland (which, again, the Rough Guide inexplicably found 'disappointing'**) covering the prehistoric era to the current period in exhibits of digestible size. I'm fascinated by prehistoric artifacts (which from a design perspective are doubly impressive, because before creating handmade objects the craftspeople first have to create handmade tools), and we happily wound our way through the displays, peering at stone tools, pottery sherds and mangled bits of bronze and iron. They had some fine Nordic boat-shaped stone axe heads, good examples of superior neolithic design.

Example of a boat-shaped stone axe head - sold at Christie's

Upstairs there were rooms full of peasant tools and folk crafts. Lots of cleverly carved items like these pieces:

Aren't you ready yet?

Pretzel chair

Finally, in the basement Treasure Trove we found a nice collection of international coins and medals. We were museum-ed out by the time we got down there, but I did check out the medals from the Helsinki Winter Olympics.

And finally, to pass from looking to buying, on one of our wanders we stumbled upon the second hand design paradise of Helsinki Secondhand and Fasaani Antik, where you can pick up Iittala glass, Arabia ceramics, and lots of other odds and ends at very reasonable prices.

I can't believe I didn't snag some of that glass!

I'll leave you with one last door - here are a couple of panels from the lovely National Museum entrance.

* I usually only buy Eyewitness guides - "The ultimate travel guides that show you what others only tell you" - mainly for the superior coverage of architecture, and yes, the pretty pictures. But inexplicably they don't have a guide for Helsinki or Finland! So we had to settle for Rough Guide, which I normally shun because of their condescending attitude, along the lines of: "You COULD go see the Eiffel Tower, but we can't imagine why you would want to". I was encouraged by their enthusiastic description of Finland in the introduction, but on further perusal we found it was full of useless information like descriptions of Finnish swearing habits (as if anyone buying the guide would even speak Finnish) and complaints about old-fashioned museums. Why do these guides assume all tourists are going on holiday to drink, party and hang out swearing with the locals, anyway? Personally, I'm going for the architecture and old-fashioned museums.

** The disappointment seemed to be linked to the fact that Finland does not have a long, glorious national history, having been dominated by the Swedes for centuries and then the Russias, only achieving independence in 1917. Obviously the writer did not appreciate all those stones, pottery sherds, twisted metal, peasant tools and folk objects that I found so intriguing. Rather, his favourite section was on the 20th century, where presumably he was finally able to see computer-generated design (we skipped that bit).