Late last year, my friend Marko Ahtisaari kindly asked me to write an essay on Finnish design. This was a little daunting, as it was a) for Marko, who I respect greatly, b) about Finnish design, which I can really only claim a kind of foreigner's passing understanding of, and c) to open a major book about the same, produced by Nokia and published by Gestalten ('Out of the Blue: The Essence and Ambition of Finnish Design', edited by Marko Ahtisaari and Laura Housely, Gestalten 2014)
Moreover, although Marko had been working on the book for a while, its final stages of development would end up coinciding with the sale of Nokia's devices and services division to Microsoft. So the book would also be destined to serve as a kind of informal footnote to a defining modern era—the first wave of mainstream mobile phones, led by Nokia, which has left a mark on pretty much all of us.
So it was not an easy essay to write. But it did give me a chance to draw together the few other things I've written about Helsinki, and Finland, and stitch their fragments together into something a little broader, more ambitious. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own time there, as part of the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra which, of all the things I've done, is a body of work I am perhaps most proud of being part of. And finally, as it was written in Treviso and then London, to look back on our time as residents of Helsinki with a little distance.
Though my family and I are delighted to be back in London again, looking back on our six years overseas living and working in Australia, Finland and Italy, we miss Finland most of all. Despite its occasionally unappealing, sometimes unpalatable quirks, it was the place we felt most at home, the place we simply enjoyed the most, the place we felt most naturally in tune with. And the place I believe in the most, if that makes sense.
It's not a place to simply visit—it clearly does not have the obvious (sometimes shallow) appeal of Australia or Italy—but instead somewhere to live, to work in, to set roots down, to cultivate friendships with, and within. As a result, it's endlessly rewarding to think about, to write about, and the essay below is the outcome of all that.
Design, as one of the few practices that alloys active cultural imagination with a pragmatic engagement in everyday life, is a useful prism with which to think through a country's values, history and possibilities; and, for what it's worth, the values that I personally find so attractive about the place.
In terms of the book, it's a very fine piece of work indeed. (Congrats to editor Laura Housely, who also edits the excellent new magazine 'Modern Design Review'; also well worth picking up.) It's beautifully designed, carefully composed and arranged into a series of concise pictorial essays. And the material within is effectively peerless.
As are the various personalities behind the design work:
Though it skews towards product and industrial design, the book also ensures it covers Finland's rich history in architecture, print and fashion design, finding numerous points of continuity across this spectrum of activity. Nokia's influence on the book is humble, restrained and not obviously self-promotional—in fact, after a few years of Nokia firing blanks, the Asha and Lumia phones featured here turned out to be an eminently worthy punctuation mark (related). Their formal invention and rich colours and textures, when seen on these pages, seem to fit alongside the works of Tapiovaara, Franck, Toikka et al, and there can be no higher compliment than that.
Yet the book also covers the cultural context of these objects, from talkoot to education systems to sauna. And it was that symbiotic interplay—between the objects and systems, and the culture that produces them—that became the focus of my essay, as well as a gently critical nudge for Finnish design to not rest on its laurels, but instead grasp the unique opportunity ahead of it.
Below, a slightly different edit of the essay that opens 'Out of the Blue'; a touch longer, with a few extra paragraphs that we omitted from the published version. Thanks again to Marko and Nokia for the opportunity, to Laura for the edits, and to Gestalten. Do pick up the book—kiitos.