Helsinki, the design capital of the world for 2012

Finnish brands and products are still very much in demand across the globe. This is hardly surprising when Finland’s designers and artists continue to amaze and delight us with new and exciting designs. We therefore personally feel that Helsinki’s world recognition as a design capital is well deserved.

During a recent trip to Finland we decided to find out more about its contribution to the arena of art and design. We began by exploring the countryside of Rimmi, west of Hameenlinna, meeting a local artist along the way; then moving further North we explored local art galleries in Hameenlinna and museums in Iittala; and finally spent time in the capital of Helsinki, drinking in some of its amazing deco inspired buildings and talking with local crafts people.

Rimmi is famous for its forest and large lake. The fresh water accommodates a large variety of fish species where as the forest has become a weekend haven for Finns. Taisto, a retired Forester, one of the local people we spoke to during our brief sojourn, has lived there most of his life amongst the wolves, bears and a handful of human neighbours.

A self taught carpenter, artist and sculptor he spends most of his retirement days constructing something that is not only practical but also beautiful to look at. Where as Picasso may have had his blue period Taisto has developed his artistic work through a number of mediums, moving from oil painting to sculpting and in more recent times constructing wooden furniture. The oil paintings mostly feature his colleagues in natural poses, with their tools, wooden huts, the magical lake and giant trees as backdrops. He has used rich autumn colours to create warm natural landscapes and cosy domestic settings. Each painting appears to be a nostalgic snap shot of his past than simply being an interpretation of forestry life. As he moved towards retirement Toista began to sculpt life size models of animals and humans out of wood, and later casting them in bronze. They along with his paintings have been placed amongst work tools and work benches in a series of out buildings. This leaves the viewer with a thrill that the artist has only just left the room, leaving us behind to preview his latest masterpiece. We love the bronze series of athletes striking action poses, e.g. ‘The runner’ with arms bent at the elbows and legs at full stretch appears to be sprinting the 100 metres. Another favourite is a plaster female head that stares wistfully out of the window “who is she waiting for?” we wondered.

Prior to our departure we asked Toista what work we had interrupted. He smiled and replied that he had been watching the tennis finals on television. Of course, even Artists deserve a day off!

The Hameenlinna Art Museum was the next stop on our artistic tour. One of the major exhibitions that run there until January 2013 features the major and minor works of the Finnish artist, Egon Meuronen. Principally known as a water colourist he later developed his own recognisable style of light and delicate brush strokes that were as translucent as the water of the natural world he portrayed in his pictures. He comments on his own artistic process by saying “I’m a colour ascetic. I use colours sparingly [blue/grey/yellow], but with these few colours I seek to bring out the entire strength of the subject”.  We can certainly appreciate that despite the Meuronen minimalist colour pallet he beautifully captured the tones and movements of storms, the fading light of autumn, the sighing of reeds in the sea breeze, the construction of craggy rocks and the artistic display of birch branches.

The retrospective exhibition of a lesser known artist of the golden age of Finnish art, Hannah Ronnberg [1860-1946] is a real treat for the eyes. For a woman born in a period where it was the norm to marry and bring up children she pursued a very different path. She was very active in the Finnish artistic community, painting mostly in oils in the naturalistic style that she had studied in Paris. She also wrote detailed travelogues, her memoirs and art reviews. Her use of colour was in direct contrast to the aforementioned minimalist style of Egon Meuronen. For example in her work, ‘Onningebymuseet’ the pallet of rich mossy greens create the forms of fields and trees, where as burnt reds and browns construct windmills, barns and mountains.

Another exhibition worth mentioning features a very recently completed collection of garden paintings from female artist, Salla Laurinolli. They all have a dream like quality due to the way she has captured the natural environment in an out of focus style.

Leaving Hameenlinna behind we pursued our journey to the artistic village of Iitalla. The museum of iitalla takes the visitor on a journey to the beginnings of Scandinavian glass design in 1881, to the more recent design trends. One can see from the earliest period that the natural landscapes of Finland inspired iitalla’s designers, e.g. the frosted glass and the water line outlines of Alvar Aalto.

At the gallery, Lumottu Puutarha is a temporary exhibition, ‘Naivistit Littalassa’ that runs until the end of August. What a delightful and colourful

collection of both sculptures and paintings. There are too many artists to mention but the highlights for us were the sculptures of Kikka Nyren and the paintings of Seua Levanto and Petra Heikila.

When we arrived in Helsinki we felt we had totally immersed ourselves in the Finnish art scene. But not completely as on the public pier we discovered a handful of crafts people, from wood carvers to jewellery designers.  Many were willing to pose for photographs and talk about their craft work. They were very passionate and this in turn made visitors want to buy the finished product.

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