News Column

From Finland with style: A design exhibit at the MIA

May 8, 2014

By Mary Abbe, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)



May 08--With its myriad lakes, rocky coastlines, bracing winters and long summer nights, Finland can strike Minnesota visitors as a lot like home.

"Finns even do ice fishing; but they don't use icehouses," said Jennifer Komar Olivarez.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts associate curator shivered as she recalled seeing bare-ice anglers on a minus-20-degree day outside Minneapolis' sister city of Kuopio, Finland, a couple of years ago. She spied them while driving along a new parkway on an archipelago laced with cross-country trails and nature preserves. In typical Finnish fashion, the parkway incorporated bike paths and public transportation while leaving the natural landscape largely untouched.

"The Finns use design to analyze and shape issues and then to solve problems," said Olivarez, who organized "Finland: Designed Environments," a show opening Saturday at the Minneapolis museum.

The exhibit is part of FinnFest USA, an Aug. 7-10 celebration marking the 150th anniversary of Finnish immigration to the United States ,which semiofficially began with the 1864 arrival of Finnish settlers in Red Wing. Even today the Twin Cities claims to have the nation's largest concentration of Finns, some 44,000.

In true Finn style there are no icehouses in the exhibit, but there are architectural and urban plans along with furniture, lighting, textiles, glass and ceramics made in the past 15 years. Many of the products are made from recycled and sustainable materials. Urban plans are bicycle-friendly and blend contemporary buildings into historic neighborhoods rather than rebuilding everything from scratch or indulging in urban sprawl.

That practical design savvy has long driven Finnish design, making the small Nordic country a leader in the field. Downtown Helsinki, the capital, is a lively mix of 19th- and 20th-century buildings, including many by the late Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto, internationally known modernist architects. Their spirit permeates the plans that won Helsinki the title World Design Capital 2012, a biannual award presented by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

"Finns recognize the longevity of design and continually tweak it to respect current needs, but they retain the DNA of the original concept," Olivarez said.

Practical designs updated

Plywood has been a big deal in Finnish design at least since the 1930s, when Aalto designed inexpensive bentwood stools and chairs that are still marketed through his Artek production company. Younger designers recall that legacy in pieces like Harri Koskinen's lounge chair, an upscale birch plywood seat, painted black and upholstered in leather. Artek produces Koskinen's chair and a clever design by Shigeru Ban, whose simple L-shaped modules can be bolted together to form the legs, back and seat of a chair.

As for recycling, the prize for simplicity goes to Tapio Anttila for a rustic stool that could double as a low table. Manufactured in the Finnish city of Lahti from scrap wood, it looks like a bundle of neatly trimmed firewood fastened by a metal turnbuckle. In a pinch the stool could feed a fireplace.

Though it looks like glossy brown plastic, the molded shell of Samuli Naamanka's Compos lobby chair is a biodegradable combo of pulverized corn husk and linen. There are chairs made of cardboard and one fashioned from a recycled fruit crate. And Ritva Puotila crocheted a length of lacy curtain fabric from paper yarn.

Of course there are bicycles and energy-efficient light fixtures, including the Kubo, a cubistic light-therapy lamp designed by Eero Aarnio to brighten lives in a country where winters are even longer and darker than Minnesota's. Aarnio's "Double Bubble" lamp is playful fun, a sculptural extravaganza that's more than 4 feet tall and wide, and looks like fat, white Mickey Mouse ears.

In a nod to Finnish clothing and textiles, Olivarez included colorful panels of Marimekko fabric emblazoned with animals (elephant, polar bear) and of Vallila material printed with snow-frosted berries, urban scenes and a forested landscape. An evening gown introduces glamour while flexible bentwood shoes show inventive flair.

A "Maternity Package" reflects the country's social-safety net. New parents are given a choice of a cash stipend of about $250, Olivarez said, or a charmingly designed box of baby necessities -- lotions, diapers, sleepers, comforter, snowsuit. Originally designed in 1938 and updated periodically, the package comes in a box that can be used as a bassinet. The vast majority of families prefer it to the cash payment, Olivarez said.

"You can't buy one of these boxes anywhere in Finland because they're not for sale," she said. "But the Finnish government did send one to Prince William and Kate for Prince George."

Mary Abbe -- 612-673-4431

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(c)2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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