Before traveling to Finland, I would have first thought of Denmark or Sweden first as a destination for design in the Nordic countries but a trip earlier this season changed my thinking. Finland is an incredible place to discover design of new and old (though you might have already known this from checking out our Helsinki travel guide). This year is an extra special year for Finland as it marks the country’s 100 years of independence. The country secured its independence on December 6, 1917 and, since then, has flourished as a country of architectural, cultural and design significance.
With our friends at Artek and Vitra, I explored some of the best sights to see and visit to learn more about Finnish design and discover what makes it unique from other places in the world.
1. The Aalto House: It was surreal, to say the least, to see the desk where Alvar Aalto himself drew his sketches and drafted his designs. The home now serves as a museum that stays as close as possible to the original design and layout that Alvar and his wife Aino created.
2. Studio Aalto: Aalto created a separate studio for his architect bureau due to a rising request for commissioned work. The studio itself is a work of architecture and is just a short walk away from his home.
2. Savoy Restaurant: Designed by Alvar and Aino, this restaurant exemplifies timeless design and cozy minimalism. If you’re playing a game of Where’s Aalto?, you’ll find his club chairs and Golden Bell pendants in every view.
3. Artek 2nd Cycle: As the official manufacturer of Alvar Aalto designs, Artek opened up a secondhand store where well-loved or unwanted Aalto designs are rescued, restored and resold. If you’re looking for unique or limited editions, this shop should be the first place you look.
4. The A-Factory: This is the original factory where Alvar Aalto first developed his signature bent wooden furniture and is now owned by Artek. A guided tour showed each and every step in the manufacturing process of an Aalto Stool 60. While photography isn’t allowed to respect the privacy of the workers, our tour guide assured us that the company wants to share the process so that people can see what goes into the making of this iconic stool.
5. St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel: Even if you’re not religious, this remarkable architecture is worth the drive from Helsinki to Turku to visit. It was designed by Sanaksenaho Architects to resemble the shape of a fish, a symbol of Christianity. Constructed entirely of pinewood, the chapel is in constant play with light and sound.
6. The Resurrection Chapel: While this chapel is very different from the previous one, it shows how good design can transcend time. It was designed by Erik Bryggman during the years of World War II but looks like it was designed yesterday with its clean lines and sense of minimalism.
7. The Sibelius Museum: This is Finland’s only museum dedicated to music. The museum was designed by Woldemar Baeckman in the 1960s and has a unique, sculptural structure that’s meant to facilitate optimal acoustics.
8. Paimio Sanatorium: A stop at the slightly eerie but completely intriguing Paimio Sanatorium is a must. Aalto was commissioned to design and furnish the tuberculosis sanatorium and, like his own home, implemented thoughtful design from room to chair to provide comfort to the ailing patients. For example, his signature Paimio chair was designed to allow the user to breathe easier as tuberculosis patients often had trouble breathing. Color was purposefully used: reds for heating elements, greens for bedroom rest, yellows to further brighten up areas with natural incoming sunlight, etc.
Fun fact: Above is the last original Paimio chair left from the Paimio Sanatorium. After the sanatorium turned into a hospital, these chairs were either sold off for 10 euros or destroyed (*cue internal anguish*).
9. Artek Flagship Store: Finally, a trip to Helsinki would not be complete without a visit to the Artek Flagship store. You’ll find Bell Pendants that were used in the Savoy Restaurant and Aalto stools that are used, well… just about everywhere else. After learning all about Finnish design and Aalto history, don’t be surprise if you enter the store with a newfound appreciation for timeless, original design.