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Helsinki Design Week 2019

Helsinki, Finland

Highlights from Finnish design fair, Habitare, and Fiskars Village Design and Art Biennale

Audible Furniture by Hemmo Honkonen

Every year, Habitare — a design fair held at Helsinki’s Messukeskus fairground during Helsinki Design Week (HDW) — appoints an ‘International Friend’, who makes a selection of the most interesting products on display. This year, Alberto Alessi, president of Alessi, performed that role. Habitare mainly showcases products from Finnish and other Nordic countries, so his presence gave it a more international feel.

Of course, Finland has a rich design heritage — think such titans of 20th-century design as husband and wife Alvar and Aino Alto — but foreign visitors might be forgiven for not knowing much about contemporary Finnish design and for wanting to describe it pithily, even at the risk of stereotyping it. Alessi himself wryly commented during his speech on the opening day: ‘Finnish designers emphasise functionalism. Italians are
the opposite, giving too much attention to self-expression.’ He reminisced about his first visit to Finland in 1970, the year Habitare was founded, incidentally: ‘Finland was a mecca for Italian designers — it was very exciting. We went to the factories of Arabia and Iittala.’

Korvaa, the first microbe-grown headset by Aivan. Photo: Aleksi Poutanen
Insulae, Aalto + Aalto. Photo: Aino Huhtaniemi
Ryijy, ceramic tiles by Laura Itkonen

One of his favourite products at Habitare — which took place this year from 5 to 15 September — was Finnish designer Hemmo Honkonen’s idiosyncratic Audible Furniture collection. This includes a chair with an accordion-like element under its seat that, rather comically, emits a musical sound when you sit on it. Honkonen has made musical instruments in the past and wanted to incorporate a sonic element in his work.

Such whimsy shows that it’s possible to overstate the Finnish concern for functionality. Indeed, today many designers also embrace whimsy and eclecticism. Honkonen’s pieces could be seen in a section called Talentshop that showcased work by four promising Finnish designers. Another, Laura Itkonen, showed her handcrafted or 3D-printed, largely flesh-pink ceramic tiles. Some were coated with platinum, gold or copper glazes or had pitted surfaces evoking rocks eroded by the sea.

Such whimsy shows that it’s possible to overstate the Finnish concern for functionality
Alberto Alessi. Photo: Maija Astikainen

Finnish designers have long been inspired by nature and today they are, logically enough, also deeply concerned about sustainability: this year, HDW’s overarching, environmentalist theme was Learning Climate — perhaps a necessity given Helsinki’s ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2035.

In another section, Protoshop, which displays innovative prototypes, Laura Meriluoto showed her floor lamp Varpu, meaning branch in Finnish, which features a magnifying glass that intensifies the light source or, when repositioned, casts a more ambient light. At another HDW venue, the Erottaja 2 building, a former palace, eco designs ranged from Aivan’s biodegradable headphones made of materials such as fungus, to Respiration Field, a glass lamp, co-created by Artek and artist Teemu Lehmursruusu. The latter measures CO2 levels rising from the surrounding soil and photosynthesis
generated by plants, lighting up while doing so.

Keiji Takeuchi for Jasper Morrison's Social Seating project in Fiskars
Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale

This event, which also ended on September 15, took place in the verdant village of Fiskars — about one hour’s drive from Helsinki and home to a cooperative of craftspeople. There you could not fail to encounter British designer Jasper Morrison’s enchanting outdoor project, Social Seating. This saw him invite designers to create benches, which had been arranged along a meandering river. These encapsulated many qualities found in the work on show at HDW, too: simplicity, functionality, democratic values and a desire to commune with nature.