Helsinki Design Week

As Finland’s capital city ramps up the preparations for its year-long reign as World Design Capital 2012, Stacey Sheppard jetted off to Helsinki Design Week to find out what all the fuss is about.

Design Weeks have become a very popular occurrence in recent years and there are now over 80 cities that host their own annual celebrations of design in all its guises. Providing the opportunity to showcase each city’s pivotal role in global design, Design Week allows the creative industries to prove their worth and show the world what they bring to the city from a cultural, social and economic point of view.

The London Design Festival coincided with Helsinki Design Week this year and anybody who was fortunate (and energetic) enough to have attended both would have been taken aback by the vast differences between the two. London’s nine-day Festival programme consisted of over 280 city-wide events and exhibitions staged by 200 partner organisations across the design spectrum and from around the world. The all-singing, all-dancing affair was an overwhelming display of London’s top dog status in the design world and left visitors in no doubt that the UK is a design force to be reckoned with.

Helsinki Design Week couldn’t have been more different. The scale was nowhere near that of the rather grandiose affairs that take place in some of Europe’s other design hotspots. Helsinki Design Week was far more subtle. Rather than being an overt show of accomplishments and achievements, it was an understated programme of events that the uninformed could have easily missed if they’d blinked too fast.

The main Helsinki Design Week events this year were the To Declare exhibition and Pop-Up Customs Shop, the Design Market, and Helsinki Design Week LIVE. However, other small-scale events, exhibitions, talks, and tours took place throughout the week in the city’s numerous museums, galleries and studios.

The To Declare exhibition was curated by design expert and journalist Kaj Kalin and took place at The Old Customs Warehouse in Katajanokka. Designed by Gustaf Nystrom, the 100-year-old industrial building had been abandoned and left to lay dormant for the past 40 years, until Design Week founder Kari Korkman saw the potential of this sleeping beauty and decided that the time had come to awaken her.

The ground floor was used to exhibit the works of a small selection of new and open-minded designers from around the world, whose work is relatively unknown in Finland. Flying the British flag were designers Benjamin Hubert and Samuel Wilkinson who were in good company with Kristine Bjaadal from Norway, and Frédérique Morrel from France amongst others. What made To Declare different was the fact that the exhibition was not about aesthetics, value or selling to the public. It had a more artistic feel to it and according to Kalin it was about introducing new designers who have something to say other than: “Buy it or it remains unsold”.

The Pop-Up Customs Shop, also housed in the Old Customs Warehouse, provided the opportunity for visitors to purchase the goods that were being exhibited. Kalin wanted to offer a selection of wisely chosen products that can be bought with a clear conscience and that will increase the quality of our everyday lives.

Now in its sixth year, the popular two-day Design Market took place over at the Cable Factory’s Merikaapelihalli and welcomed visitors looking to bag a bargain from amongst the sample products and prototypes on offer.

The often overlooked Finnish fashion industry was brought to the fore at Helsinki Design Week LIVE, which made its debut this year at the new Music Centre on Mannerheimintie.

Combining music with fashion, the event paid homage to the icon of Finnish fashion, designer Vuokko Nurmesniemi, whilst at the same time introducing the new stars of Finnish fashion design.

Coinciding with Helsinki Design Week was of course Finland’s largest furniture, interior decoration and design fair. Habitare took place at the Helsinki Exhibition and Convention Centre and welcomed some 70,000 visitors through its doors over four days.

The main theme this year was ‘Transformation’, which was very apparent from the objects featured in the international Ahead! design area. Changes in the global economy, climate, political landscape, as well as social and technological changes are forcing us to adapt and rethink the way we live. These changes pose new challenges to design and have forced manufacturers and product designers to be more aware of how design can give them a competitive edge over other players in the market.

Ecological, multifunctional furniture was prominent throughout the exhibition with many products displaying environmental friendliness, durability, maintainability, and recyclability. The designers had obviously given a lot of thought to the material choice, manufacturing process, packaging and logistics of their products.

Meanwhile, the new kid on the block, Trash Design, presented fresh designs created from rejected objects. Young Swedish and Finnish designers transformed worn-out materials into design furniture, everyday objects and mood-enhancers for spaces. Printed circuit boards, ventilation pipes, baby-food jars, venetian blinds, oil barrels and many other rejected items were given a new lease of life as they were upgraded to useful new objects.

Helsinki Design Week may not have been quite as full on as London Design Festival, but perhaps that is to be expected in a city where design is so much a part of everyday life and society that it almost goes unnoticed? After all, design is ingrained in the urban lifestyle of Helsinki and in recent years it has become one of the cornerstones of Helsinki’s competitiveness, helping to provide success and international recognition for Finnish businesses. For anyone who visits Helsinki it is clear to see that the city approaches design from a broad perspective, and design underlies all the processes that bring about social, economic and cultural improvement.

Helsinki is not only the Design Capital of Finland, but as of next year it will be World Design Capital. On November 25th last year, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) bestowed this prestigious accolade upon the city in recognition of its commitment to design as a primary developmental tool.

The preparations for the year-long reign as World Design Capital go some way to explaining the underwhelming number of events and launches organised for this year’s Design Week. However, Helsinki’s reputation as a design hub will be put to the ultimate test in 2012. Design Week this year has simply whetted the appetite of those waiting in anticipation for the year-long celebration that kicks off at Senate Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Helsinki Design Week

Helsinki’s World Design Capital