Industry's new competitive trump: design
Back in the 1950s and 60s, design was Finland's most important cultural export. Finnish design became a concept, one that has featured in the pages of this magazine many times in the past four decades. We had glass, ceramics, furniture, lighting fixtures, textiles, garments, and so much more. We had Aalto, Wirkkala, Sarpaneva, Isola, Franck. There was an industry that mass-produced design articles, which became part of everyone's everyday life. Of course there were also splendid and expensive one-off products, but the items for which Finland was especially admired abroad were those that brought design and beauty into every home.
How fares Finnish design now, in a new millennium? "Well", replies Design Forum Finland's (Helsinki) Managing Director Anne Stenros. "Now Finland has become a leading country in industrial design. Design no longer has the same kind of role in building the whole country's image as it had 40 years ago. Now it is being used to build up the brands of Finnish companies that are major actors on the international scene. For these producers of advanced-technology products it represents a competitive advantage and substantial value-added."
Design is undeniably a feature of Nokia and Benefon cellphones, but no less so of Valmet paper machines. Not to mention various hobby- and leisure-related devices, such as Suunto's diving computers and compasses and Tunturi's fitness machines.
"The problems that designers had to tackle several decades ago were very practical everyday ones, but today they are more likely to be complex, often connected with information technology. A product must be something that a consumer will want and so simple that it is easy to use," is how Anne Stenros explains the change.
Traditions the driving force
Stenros says there are at least a dozen rising names, representing the whole spectrum of design. "Industrial design is quite good, clothes are on the way up, furniture has always been a Finnish forte, glass is strong and ceramics coming along behind it. In the textile industry, promising new inroads are being made, especially to do with carpets. The situation is a little more problematic with art handicrafts, which are seen more as a lifestyle thing than as an occupation, but I believe that also on that side there is potential for production in small series.
A lure designed for Finlandia Uistin by Tani Muhonen.
"Young designers' products are no longer the whole nation's products in the sense that they were during the 'golden age'. They reflect young people's own lifestyle. But still the red line of tradition that runs through Finnish design can be seen there, too. The best products of young designers are today's interpretations, but what underlies them is the strong simplification characteristic of Finnish design and the materials used are the same as well," says Stenros.
She believes that the great strength of Finnish design in the past flowed from the fact that the country lacked the kind of wealth found in some of the Central European countries or even Sweden. The starting point was healthy and good; everyone should be able to use design products. "Now we can again see signs that the hype of the early 90s - an excessive lavishness in materials and colours - has caused a backlash. The idea that design ought to be more democratic has been voiced. In my view, it would be healthy to talk about serial production of design - about a design economy."
Practical, right, true, necessary
Klubi, a suite of glasses designed for Iittala by Harri Koskinen.
Does Anne Stenros, who has made working with design her profession, have any favourites of her own?
"The first criterion is that the product is as neutral as possible and does not add visual fuss in its surroundings. I have very few objects at home; a little Aalto, a little Kaj Franck. Those products are like sea stones, from which everything superfluous has been worn away with the passage of time. Franck himself has defined beauty: practical, right, true, necessary. That is very close to me. I like classic products in general. When times change they stay the same; it's easy to be with them.
"I do not passionately seize a new product; instead, I wait and see what becomes of it, whether there is any permanence and continuity about it. I look for the same in young designers and their creations. Passing fads don't really interest me. I can see among the young designers some that will clearly produce classics," she believes.