History of Finnish Design

photo © Visit Finland

When Finland became independent in 1917, a process of internal construction was begun, which brought a new emphasis and identity to the country’s architecture, and to its interior design. Finland’s previous occupants, Russia and Sweden, exerted a strong influence of the developing ‘Finnish Style’ initially, but a dialogue with nature was to become the prime force in the ongoing evolution of Finnish design. This relationship with Nature was much in evidence in early 20th century Finnish design, which actively expanded on the metaphors and motifs therein.

In 1930, the Stockholm Exhibition introduced international modernism to Scandinavia. Already, major public buildings in were being built in the modern style, by Alvar Aalto and other Finnish architects. Following the exhibition, the field of applied arts and crafts began to display the influence of modernism, particularly in the glassworks of Iittala, Karhula and Riihimaki and later the ceramics of Arabia. By the end of the 1930s, Finland’s international reputation for great design was established, thanks in no small part to the work of architect and designer, Alvar Aalto who had been designing innovative furniture and new forms of glassware throughout the decade – designs still popular today.

Following the end of WWII, there was an increase in exhibitions globally, and by the 1950s Finland had established itself as a force for innovation in design. At the famed, and highly influential, Milan Triennales of the 1950s and 1960s, the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design created the Finnish section. This exposure, and the prizes won, helped spread the fame of Finnish design, particularly the names of Wirkkala, Sarpaneva, and Franck – who all studied at the Society.

Finnish design began to develop alongside that of its neighbours, Sweden and Denmark, joining to create a new ‘Scandinavian Design’ brand. This partnership allowed the three countries to promote their designs on the international stage, peaking with the ‘Design in Scandinavia’ exhibition which featured in 24 museums across the U.S. between 1954 and 1957, and which brought Finnish design to a new audience of over a million. The ‘Scandinavian Style’, the use of colours, materials, the combination of crafts with industrial production, the obvious influence of the organic, all created a stir of excitement.

The 1970s saw the use of new materials like plastic, synthetics, and fibreglass being combined with advances in manufacturing technologies, allowing designers in Finland to expand their range of colours and forms in mass production. Finnish industry paid more attention to the importance of design and more professional designers were employed in more significant roles than previously. Towards the end of the 1980s, the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design established Design Forum Finland, whose mission was to promote design internationally, and among SMEs at home.

The 1990s brought new challenges for Finland. Economically, the country was in severe recession, facing rising unemployment, a major banking crisis, inflation, and having to deal with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been its greatest partner in trade. However, Finland’s government was forward thinking, and introduced policies that would transform the country from being an essentially natural-resource based economy into a highly competitive knowledge based economy, where investments in education and R&D became the priority. This unique strategy of investment in long-term solutions rather than the usual politically convenient immediate solutions would propel Finland to the top of the list of competitive countries in the World Economic Forum. (According to the 2009 Prosperity Index which was issued by the Legatum Institute, a British-based think tank, Finland is now the best country in the world to live in.) Key to the Finnish recovery was their policy for design, which was begun by SITRA, the Finnish National Fund for Research and Development, culminating in the publication of Design 2005!, a policy ratified by the government in 2000. Thanks to the government’s policies, Finland exited the 20th century as a highly competitive knowledge-based economy, a country with the highest investment rate in R&D in Europe (3.5% of GDP), with specialised high-tech industries.

This commitment to the evolution of design can be seen in the Committee for Design and in  Designium, a research centre for innovation in design. Part of the University of Art and Design Helsinki, Designum organises surveys, gathers data, and benchmarks design strategies from other countries, supplying the Finnish government with invaluable data. Finland’s place on the international design stage today is evidenced by the designation of Helsinki as the World Design Capital for 2012 by the ICSID, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, coinciding with the city’s 200th anniversary of becoming the nation’s capital.

Discovering Finland sourced information for this piece from ‘A comparative analysis of strategies for design in Finland and Brazil’ published by Gisele Raulik-Murphy, Gavin Cawood, Povl Larsen and Alan Lewis (2009). Design Research Society Conference 2008, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK, 16-19 July 2008