Finnish design isn’t just something you see — it’s something you experience. It begins the moment you step off the plane at Helsinki’s Vantaa airport, follows you everywhere and stays with you long after you’ve gone.
Written by Karen MacKenna, a Canadian photographer-writer who lost her heart to Finnish design nearly two decades ago.
My love affair began in 1995. That first time I arrived by boat, sailing through the Finnish archipelago into Helsinki Harbour. It was late June and the stalls at the Market Square were an astonishing sea of colours with mountains of strawberries, tumbling into wild blueberries that spilled into chanterelles. It was a display that was not only a celebration of food but hinted at a people who saw beauty in nature’s bounty.
Contrasts are the main ingredient in Finnish cultural life – like running from a hot sauna to an icy lake, we embrace them to the fullest.
Every time I visit Finland I find something new. And often something old. This year I discovered Artek 2nd Cycle, a sister shop to the original Artek, the Finnish design company established in 1935 by Alvar and Aino Aalto. I came away with a vintage three-legged Aalto stool – like the one you can see in the picture.
Photo: Mikko Ryhänen
Finnish design is more than just a pretty object. It is a way of living. Design here is woven seamlessly into everyday life and surrounds you wherever you go. Good design is timeless. When you find something that works you keep it. Nothing is too old.
As the famous Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto once said:
– Nothing is ever reborn but neither does it totally disappear. And that which has once been born, will always reappear in a new form.
Photo: Mikko Ryhänen
The fresh, bold colours of Finnish textile design are perfect expressions for Finnish children who grow up with a strong sense of design.
Finnish design pays attention to detail. Everything is designed with care. The path you walk along, the way a chair feels when you sit in it, the particular way flowers are wrapped. And made beautiful just for you.
One day I found myself in a forest of birch trees and realized I was standing in the Marimekko Woods. I took a photo. Finnish design, like these birch trees, will always be reborn in another form.
Finns take inspiration from nature and spin it into beloved objects, architecture and a blueprint for a way to live. The very essence of Finnish design is in its ability to take the natural world and seamlessly weave it into everyday life.
Every day is special. Finns love to dress up in their own designs and to use their perfectly crafted objects in daily life. Which is part of what makes Finland such a beautiful place to live and visit! When you go to a cafe in Finland you will drink from Iittala glasses. You will sit on Alvar Aalto stools and stare out the window and see women walking by in Marimekko dresses.
Marimekko colours are perfect for summer and will remind you of a bright sunny day no matter what the season.
Finns of all ages love candy and one of their favourites is Salmiakki, the salty liquorice that is an acquired taste for most. If I have sometimes thought of myself as “almost Finnish”, I’m afraid I don’t share their love of this national sweet. But I do love the graphic packaging which has been ahead of its time since the candy debuted in the 1920s.
Jopo bikes have never gone out of fashion. For more than 50 years they have been an iconic fixture in Finland. “Jopo” means “everyone’s bicycle”. Their cool colours and “one size fits all” design make it the best selling bike in Scandinavia.
Carpet washing in the sea is a Finnish summer pastime with entire families participating in the ritual. The homespun Finnish rag rugs are a beautiful sight to behold as they hang out to dry along the water’s edge.
Some people dream in colour, others dream in black and white. The Finns take their fantastical dreams and turn them into designs we’ll fall in love with.
In a country where people move en masse to the countryside in the summer and where forest coverage is 75%, it's no wonder ecological tourism has taken off so rapidly and steadily. Old farms are opening their doors to visitors from all over the world and their organic food can be gobbled or just nibbled while watching sheep pasturing in a green meadow.