Of the four cities thus far designated World Design Capitals—Torino in 2008, Seoul in 2010, and Johannesburg in 2014—this year’s choice, Helsinki, is far and away the most obvious selection. There is, simply put, no way to overstate the contribution of Nordic designers and architects, whose singularly pure esthetic has given us countless products of lasting power and uncommon grace.
Finland’s place, specifically, is worth noting. How, one wonders, has a country of just 5.5 million citizens managed to carve out such an admirable niche in the global design landscape? One answer may lie in the philosophy of major Finnish product companies, whose respect for craftsmanship, coupled with lofty manufacturing standards, have helped ensure the longevity of their products—and, thereby, the enduring cache of their brands.
Founded in 1935 by a team that included the husband-and-wife team of Alvar and Aino Aalto, Artek’s commitment to sustainable design predates, by half a century, the phrase itself. The core of Artek’s product line continues to be Aalto’s many furniture and lighting designs—still made to his exacting standards of high quality, locally sourced materials, and disdain for waste—and are manufactured in the same factory, using the same process. This production system ingeniously makes parts from vintage Artek pieces interchangeable with those manufactured today.
In 2007, Artek launched 2nd Cycle, a program for sourcing and reselling used Artek pieces. Proud of the grace with which their products age and weather, Artek”s 2nd Cycle is a way of connecting consumers beguiled by vintage products with a seminal piece of design history.
In some ways, Marimekko’s big, exuberantly colored textile motifs seem contrary to the muted hues and pared down elegance of traditional Scandinavian design sensibilities. But the emphasis on quality, simplicity and originality are all hallmarks of the company founded in 1951 by Armi Ratia, whose vision was for bold, fresh patterns created by young graphic designers.
A haven for noted female designers, like Maija Isola, whose Unikko pattern is a company icon, Marimekko’s optimistic, unpretentious clothes and household products dovetailed with the dawning informality of the 1960’s and 70’s—reaching a crescendo of sorts when the fashion savy Jacqueline Kennedy was photographed wearing a Marimekko dress. A half century later, most of those early Marimekko’s prints remain in production, a vivid reminder of something we may have seen before, but are happy to be seeing again.
The glass company iittala is committed to “creating objects that will never be thrown away.” Objects like, for instance, the series of undulating vases designed by Alvar Aalto, which iittala has been manufacturing since 1936—and which no consumer would dream of throwing away.
With timelessness and durability as major objectives, iittala’s long-standing collaboration with the best Scandinavian industrial designers—Timo Sarpaneva, Kaj Franck, Tapio Wirkkala, in additon to Aalto—has produced everyday objects of streamlined simplicity, at once functional and beautiful, versatile and distinctive.
In an age of disposable, poorly constructed products, “people value well-designed things that are made to endure time and changing trends.” Who could argue?