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Finnishing Touches
by Stirred Up!
2007-06-25 07:43:51
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For many designers, sustainability is an afterthought and a recent fad. In contrast, Finnish design has emphasised sustainability for decades and continues to innovate.
Artek Bambu Chair
There is a lot of talk about environment-friendly design but most of this ‘going green’ facade sounds more like marketing soundbites than a real philosophy. It is hard to understand why so few companies are only starting now to take sustainability seriously. Walking around Milan Furniture Fair in April, the issue didn’t seem to be on many company agendas at all. The design superbrands took a big chunk of the Rho Fairground for their displays and the race for the next design superstar was on, taking precedence over sustainability issues. For all their grandness, most of the new ideas felt somehow disposable. I had forgotten most of them by the time the plane took off from Malpensa.

Finnish company Artek stood out. Their new furniture collection was presented in Milan Triennale Park in a remarkable yet modest pavilion designed by Architect Shigeru Ban (better known for applying ecological thinking to architecture). The pavilion was made of a wood-plastic composite manufactured by Finnish paper company UPM, using surpluses from its Raflatac label production. With such a bold statement, Artek continues to challenge the design world with its “Sustainability as Attitude” motto, a core foundation of most Finnish design.

Artek Bambu Chair To put things into context, Finnish (and for that matter Scandinavian) design took off in the 1950s. The ideology that furniture should not only be beautiful but, as importantly, functional and affordable can be attributed to post-war Scandinavian social democracy. Companies such as Artek, Iittala and Marimekko have been providing designs for the nation at a reasonable price. Design has always been democratic in Finland and the Finnish attachment to sustainability springs from this heritage.

Many design classics are still in everyday use in most Finnish households. The most notable is Kaj Franck’s Kilta (Teema from 1981) designed in 1953 for Arabia. This mix and match tableware was introduced as an alternative to the dated and often inefficient china sets that were standard at that time. Items could be bought individually to fit needs, took up less space and were easily replaceable. Franck also removed the wide, decorative rims that usually adorned plates, enlarging the centres and angling the sides to make the tableware easily stackable. Franck also made the pieces more versatile by removing traditional handles and other defining features. The sets are functional, durable and beautiful.

Teema Mug and Origo by Kaj Franck Following Franck’s philosophy, designer Harri Koskinen has created Oma, a multifunctional tableware range manufactured by Arabia, due to be launched this autumn. Aiming for a timeless collection, Koskinen hopes that people will form a personal relationship with his pieces.

Finns also have the same close relationship with Artek stools, which can be found everywhere, from hospitals to schools, museums to private homes. Few items have achieved such a long lifespan. As proof of authenticity, longevity and graceful ageing, Artek launched a “2nd Cycle” collection in Milan. Vintage chairs, which are now collectible items, have been embedded with RFID tags that provide their history. In true Finnish style, this information can be retrieved via mobile phone. The patina, sometimes dating as far back as the 1930’s and 1940’s, tells another story: it is the imperfection of these chairs that makes them unique.

Recycling old designs as part of a new design narratives reflects strongly on forward-thinking creativity romantically attached to nature and traditions. Finnish designer Alvar Aalto once said, “ Nothing old is ever reborn, but neither does it totally disappear. And that which has once been, will always reappear in a new form.” Thus the objects are not only rooted in the the past, but also visually timeless. It is ironic that we often refer to 20th century designers such as Aalto and Franck as contemporary when their designs were in fact created more than 60 years ago.

Harri Koskinen Oma tableware Investment in innovation and technology serves as a basis for sustainable design. At Artek. product development strategy is based on the environment, aesthetics and ethics. The new Bambu collection is the result of 3 years of product development. Seen as a weed in Japan, bamboo has been made malleable for the first time, following in the footsteps of Aalto’s earlier designs made of laminated bent plywood. This fast-growing renewable resource is twice as strong as concrete and only takes four years to mature. “With Bamboo we hope to demonstrate our commitment to innovation in natural materials, leading to superior furniture fit for the 21st century” states Tom Dixon, Artek’s Creative Director.

What is commonly referred to as Scandinavian minimalism is merely the design discipline that places quality and pragmatism as joint number one priorities. The social democratic ideals of an egalitarian society, which shaped earlier designs, are on a par with a genuine care for the environment. In light of growing concerns over diminishing natural resources, it is necessary for communities to commit to sustainability. Companies such as Artek and Iittala lead the way, making it is easier for individuals to follow the same path. Iittala objects are design essentials stripped to the core: a pure union of function, form and quality that emphasises core Finnish values, in stark contrast to throwaway consumerism. In the purest Nordic tradition, sustainability is viewed not as a political issue but as an attitude and as a way of life.

Text by Johannes Reponen
From Stirred Up

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Paparella2007-06-23 03:06:20
Thanks for sharing. I have been learning quite a bit on Finnish culture and way of life since joining the list of contributore to this amazing magazine willing to explore everything and for whom nothing human is alien.

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