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Raija Hilska’s Finnish Design Favourites

Temppelinaukinon kirkko

What is it about Finnish design that is so appealing? And what is it that gives it that look that is somehow unique? Nordic design in general is known for its simplicity, functionality, and minimalism, but there is something about Finnish design that sets it apart from the others. I wondered if Raija Hilska would be able to put her finger on that something in her February 16 talk to the CNS.

Raija Hilska is well qualified to speak on the subject. Born and raised in Finland, she has studied architecture and interior design and spent thirty years in the design business. Her passion and knowledge about art and design certainly came through in a quiet, understated way during her presentation. Her presentation was, of course, very visual. She had prepared a beautiful set of slides which required very little commentary on her part. The designs spoke for themselves.

Raija chose her first slides to show us what Finland is to her. The images included simple, but carefully arranged coffee cups and pastries, the blue and white Finnish flag on a red table setting, and a solid, practical wooden box full of potatoes. Good Finnish design is easy to maintain, she noted.

Finn’s have the legal “right to roam,” which nurtures their love of nature. We saw scenes of Finland in winter and in spring, of a simple weathered wooden cabin, and of the seaside, which is an important part of the Finnish natural world. These are things that rest your mind, she said.

So the stage was set to talk about Raija’s favourite Finnish designs. She started with Temppelinaukinon kirkko. It is an extraordinary church in Helsinki that is built into solid rock. A nondescript entrance leads into a beautiful space where rough, natural rock form the walls. Light enters through windows set below an immense copper dome. The church feels very close to nature.

Raija then showed us slides of Lapponia jewellery, which is designed by Björn Weckström. Weckström is also a sculptor and his jewellery pieces are sculptural in form. They are inspired by nature and the Finnish landscape.

Most Nordics are familiar with Raija’s next choice of favourites, Marimekko! (I personally love Marimekko and a couple of years ago bought one of their coffee mugs for myself and a couple of beautiful tea towels for my mother, all of which are in regular use.) Marimekko started out as a textile company but now produces clothing and home furnishings. Raija had a slide of Marimekko’s founder, Armi Ratia, with a strong, no-nonsense expression and wearing an iconic Marimekko black and white striped shirt. Raija was herself wearing a Marimekko black and white striped t-shirt. The stripes, she noted, are said to represent equality. Many of their patterns are bright, bold colours printed on white cloth. Their unikko pattern is instantly recognizable. Raija had an image of a Helsinki bus “decked out” in unikko and I could only agree with her that Ottawa buses would certainly look very attractive if they all sported that cheerful design!

The Arabia ceramics company was next. They are well known as the manufacturer of the beloved “muumi” dishes. “Muumis” (or Moomins in their English translation) are characters created from a children’s book series created by Tove Jansson, beginning in 1945.

Arabia ad for Moomin crockery

Raija’s most functional favourite Finnish design is Fiskars scissors. They are known by many as the best scissors in the world and come in many sizes, styles, and designs.

Another practical Finnish design favourite of Raija’s are LifeSaver reflectors. These light-reflective little tags are used by pedestrians and cyclists for safety in Finland’s long winter nights. Simple and effective!

Tunto lighting was next in Raija’s presentation. Simply beautiful!

And of course, no presentation on Finnish design would be complete without mention of Alvar Aalto, Finland’s famous architect and designer. He lived from 1898 to 1976, but his design, Raija noted, is timeless. Her photos of the Villa Maeria house, built in 1938, certainly illustrated that timeless quality (see below.)

Aalto also designed furniture, lighting, and other everyday items that were affordable at that time. His famous Savoy vase, inspired by the dress of a Sami woman, was displayed at the 1937 World Fair in Paris and can be seen in many, if not most, Finnish homes. Raija showed us a short film depicting how the vase is made today.

There was quite an outpouring of enthusiasm and appreciation for Raija’s presentation. Members shared memories, showed their own Finnish design objects, and expressed their interest in exploring Finnish design further. Raija offered to provide a list of helpful websites which is now available on our padlet. One person wondered what factors led to the uniqueness of Finnish design. Raija thoughtfully answered that she believed that the Finnish people’s history, their feeling of freedom and sharing, and their enjoyment of the outdoors all had something to do with it. “The Finns are a very practical people who appreciate nice things,” she said. As good an answer as any, I think, to what it is about Finnish design that gives it that uniquely Finnish look.

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