The Old Customs Warehouse in the Katajanokka district of Helsinki was the venue that was chosen for this year’s main Helsinki Design Week events. The 100-year-old industrial building, designed by Gustaf Nystrom, had been abandoned and left to lay dormant for the past 40 years, only occasionally used by the city for storage purposes. In its glory days it had been used to support the rapidly growing city and the increasing commerce flowing in and out of it. However, Kari Korkman, the founder of Helsinki Design week saw the potential of this sleeping beauty and decided that this year the time had come to awaken her.
The Old Customs Warehouse, Helsinki Design Week
The ground floor of the Old Customs Warehouse was used to host the international design exhibition curated by design expert and journalist Kaj Kalin. The wooden floorboards, the staircases and bare brick walls of the Old Customs Warehouse were on display, exuding a very industrial feel and the architectural details of the windows and the towers show a valued part of Helsinki’s design history.
The inside of The Old Customs Warehouse
Helsinki Design Week at The Old Customs Warehouse
The To Declareexhibition featured a small selection of new and open-minded designers from around the world, whose work is relatively unknown in Finland. Flying the British flag were designers Benjamin Hubert and Samuel Wilkinson.
The Pod Chair by Benjamin Hubert
Personally, when I first went in, I found the exhibition a little disconcerting. It didn’t have the same feel about it as other design shows I have attended. But then again, To Declare was not about aesthetics, value or selling to the public. It was about introducing new designers who have something to say other than: “Buy it or it remains unsold”. It took me a while to get my head round this but once I had, I began to enjoy the exhibition far more and appreciate it for what it was.
Audrey Headburn by Frederique Morrel
Losanges by Ronan & Erwin Bouroullec
This year, there was also a pop up shop at The Old Customs Warehouse, which was selling the items displayed in the exhibition.The plan is that this will be extended next year into a far bigger part of the festivities.
The pop-up shop
Next year, the plan is that further floors of the building will be used as well allowing more temporary exhibitions to take place. In a way, this year seemed to be more of a trial run for next year’s Design Week when Helsinki will take over the reins as World Design Capital 2012. The To Declare exhibition felt slightly reserved as if the hosts and curators were holding back. There was a distinct feeling of anticipation and hopefully next year the event will be able to reach its full potential.
Finland has a great reputation as far as design is concerned and I think that most Finns would agree that design plays a major role in all aspects of life in Finland. With Helsinki being selected as World Design Capital 2012, this provided the perfect opportunity for the city to demonstrate its attempt to inspire dialogue on how design can be used to make life better, easier and more functional. Helsinki wants to show the world that it is embedding design in life.
In addition to this, Helsinki had claimed the number 1 spot in Monocle’s 2011 Quality of Life survey, which ranks the top 25 cities in the world to call home. So it’s no wonder I couldn’t wait to visit. Whilst the Design Week activities were certain to be something to look forward to, I was also interested to explore the city and see for myself to what extent design was embedded in life as all the hype claims. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed.
On our first full day in Helsinki, Thomas and I decided to take advantage of the dry weather to visit the famed Design District. Located in the city centre, the Design District Helsinki is an area full of design and antique shops, fashion stores, museums, art galleries, restaurants and showrooms. Encompassing 25 streets and 200 spots on a map, Thomas and I obviously couldn’t even begin to cover all that ground so we limited ourselves to the purely interiors and design destinations in the district. Having picked up a map of the Design District previously, we went for coffee and planned our route, which you can see below.
The route we planned for our tour of Helsinki Design District
We started our tour at the legendary textile and clothing design company Marimekko, which was quite a treat. Renowned for its original prints and colours, the Finnish brand displayed a wealth of strong and distinctive product design throughout the store. I couldn’t take my eyes off all the fantastic fabrics in store, but then we ventured upstairs and my attention turned to the fantastic range of homewares that was on offer and I found myself hankering after a very attractive teapot.
The fabric selection at Marimekko was second to none in its vibrancy and colour
I am currently coveting this adorable teapot I saw in Marimekko
Upon leaving Marimekko, we popped into a little shop called Aarikka before heading straight for another Finnish design icon: Iittala. The company is famous for its honest, functional products that are inspired by everyday life. The store was packed full of simple and timeless objects for the kitchen, the table and the home. On my next trip to Helsinki, which hopefully won’t be too far in the future, I would love to visit the Iittala Glass Museum and factory to discover more about the company’s history.
The Iittala store in Helsinki
The next few places on our route were Pulu Design, Artisaani, Taito Shop Helsky, Okra, and Anki Design. But none of these matched up to a great little shop we discovered called Finlayson. The company manufactures and markets high quality home textiles for the kitchen and the bedroom mainly. Thomas and I fell in love with all the fabulous prints and the vibrant colours of the collection.
Finlayson brightened our day with a fantastic range of home textiles
From bedding, tea towels, bags and apron, to cushions, oven mitts and pot stands, Finlayson had it all
This then lead us to a shop that was top of my list of places to visit in the Design District: Artek. Founded in 1935 by four young idealists, Alvar and Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl, Artek is today renowned for being one of the most innovative contributors to modern design. Based on the principles of functionality and timeless aesthetics, the furniture produced by Artek creates a new kind of environment for everyday life. Having seen many of the products online and in magazines over the years it was a real treat to be able to experience it firsthand.
The iconic chairs by Charles & Ray Eames and Verner Panton
The Artek store in Helsinki
Artek Miniatures Collection
Not only am I unable to afford any of the furniture in the Artek store, but I can’t even afford the little models that make up the Miniature Collection. On a high from seeing all these iconic pieces we headed off to our next location which we almost missed as it is not the easiest place to find. Tucked away in the basement of a bed shop called Unikulma, is a new showroom dedicated to the designs of Finnish Designer and Professor Eero Aarnio. The very friendly Personal Manager, Antti J. Kallio, took time out of his day to accompany us downstairs and tell us all about the new showroom and the designs. He even let us sit in the amazing hanging chairs, which I have decided make great reading chairs, like a rocking chair only better.
The amazing Ring Chairs by Eero Aarnio
After a very pleasant experience in the showroom we said farewell to Mr Kallio and headed off towards Design Forum Finland, another must visit destination for design lovers in Helsinki. Design Forum Finland is the organisation responsible for promoting Finnish design to the world. It can also be described as an information centre that provides a wide range of news and materials on the achievements and strengths of Finnish design both within the country and abroad. We discovered that there are quite a few interesting books and leaflets available there that you can take away free of charge. The Design Forum Shop is also worth exploring and offers a selection of Finnish design, from new releases to classics and from industrial design to unique, one-off products.
A display of products by Muuto at Design Forum Finland
Whilst it is not a Finnish company, we did make a quick stop in Kartell, just to see what was new. But we had plenty more on the agenda so we didn’t hang around too long. We popped into Adessin/Private Case, Isabel B, Everyday Design and Eiring. We than skipped a few shops that didn’t look quite as interesting as we had hoped and we then stumbled unexpectedly across Armas Design in a quiet little street. Featuring the works of Tom Dixon and Hay this little shop was a real treasure trove of design goodies. Put this to the top of your list if you ever make it to the Design District.
Armas Design in Helsinki is definitely worth a visit
We skipped a couple more places and made a quick dash towards Formverk, an intriguing shop that features a carefully edited range of furniture, lighting, kitchenware and accessories by some of the most interesting design names and brands. Again, this shop went straight on to the must visit list as it was jam packed full of designer brands.
Formverk is a great shop packed full of designer brands for the home
Designer products in an array of colours caught our attention in Formverk
Our next port of call was Aero Design Furniture, but there was unfortunately a private event on here so we weren’t allowed in. Undeterred, we continued on to Nounou Design, a great little shop selling colourful glass artwork and objects. The last few stops on our tour weren’t really that interesting to be honest. Or it could just be that we were exhausted by this time and running low on energy, so we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel, happy in the knowledge that we explored pretty much most of the interiors shops in the Design District.
Have any of you been to Helsinki and explored the Design District before? I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have! What was your favourite store? Did you come across any great places you want to share with us?
As you may or may not know, I’m heading out to Helsinki Design Week in September and I’m already finding it hard to contain my excitement. I’ve never been to Finland before and I can’t wait to see what the city has in store for us design geeks as it prepares to take on the title of World Design Capital 2012.
In this short film directed by Joel Hypén for Wallpaper*, some of Helsinki’s most prominent designers give us an insight into their city and the relationship it has with their own practice.
Below is the text that accompanies the video clip on DETNK TV:
Helsinki will be the third World Design Capital, the first was Turin, Italy in 2008, and last year South Korean capital Seoul held the award.
Discussing the place of design in Helsinki, the organisers say:
“Design is a factor deep-rooted in the urban lifestyle of Helsinki. Design is manifest in the everyday lives of Helsinki citizens in many ways, ranging from home furniture and items that represent old Finnish design traditions to modern urban solutions in the city and contemporary interior design…The creative sector is re-shaping Helsinki’s economy and enhancing the citizens’ quality of life. Design seen from a broad perspective – in city planning, architecture, industrial design and service design – plays an integral role in the development of Helsinki”
The idea of design as something integrated in Helsinki culture, mentioned here has clearly inspired the mission statement of the organisers which they have entitled ‘Open Helsinki – embedding design in life’.
If you would like to find out more about Helsinki and its design culture you can read the article I wrote on the topic in the August 2010 issue of Designer magazine by clicking on the cover below: