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Design in Helsinki

When I started Make-Modern, I pledged to take regular breaks from teaching to travel and learn about far-flung -- but then again local -- approaches to handwork. After all, an instrumental part of the M-M curriculum is how we incorporate traditional handwork from around the world. So, when we wrapped up our nine weeks of summer camp, I packed-off to Helsinki, Finland.


Why Finland? Well, textile company Marimekko is headquartered in Helsinki. We regularly teach about their prints, and I was heading to their offices to investigate deepening our relationship. Artech is also from Finland, and I was interested in learning more about how this housewares design house operates and what it offers. And more generally, I wanted to think through at a deeper, and in an unhurried way, where high design fits into what we are doing in the studio. No better place than the home of Alvar Alto, Amos Rex, and the Oodi Library.

Throughout the week, I jotted notes about how what I was learning should impact Make-Modern. I generated the list below to guide the projects at our studio, but the principles likely inform beautiful making and beautiful spaces anywhere.


Make design an explicit component of class-work. The first day of my trip I learned that Helsinki has a Chief Design Officer for the city. Chief. Design. Officer. That is a city taking seriously its commitment to design, not just hoping it gets integrated into the other city works. At our studio, we need to be explicit about what principles of design influence our projects. Say it to students. Tell them how we see these principles at work in their projects and show them other pieces that follow the same.


When creating projects, ask what is timeless? I purchased a set of dolls for the studio from Artek. The dolls are a reissue of a set made by Kaj Franck in 1945. They are turned wood and hand-painted to be dressed in traditional Finnish clothing. What makes the dolls timeless? The combination of modern and traditional craft so as not tied to one particular moment.

Employ iconic design whenever possible. Icons are well-known representations of something.

Converse is an iconic sneaker; Coke is an iconic drink. There are iconic textiles – Marimekko’s

poppies come to mind – as well as iconic projects/products. In some ways this is tied to the

point about timelessness above, but it also fuels familiarity and importance.

Tight look is a product of close control. I can’t help but think that much of the reason that

Helsinki is such a design Mecca is that it is a relatively small city in a relatively small country.

Moreover, there are just a few significant commercial outlets for design. Frankly, if designers

aren’t impressing Artech or Marimekko, access to an international market is tough to come by.

The result is a certain consistency or purity of look.

Where things are created is as important as how they are created. Beautiful spaces inspire

beautiful work. Beautiful spaces encourage working more, working longer. Beautiful spaces are works themselves. It would be difficult to sit in the Oodi Library and not consider aesthetic

influences. It would difficult to visit the Tourism Building on the waterfront and not put

architecture and art onto your itinerary. At Make-Modern, we are always thinking about how

we can refine our space to inspire good design.
















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