City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

‘Designing Finnishness’

Written in


An opening essay for the book ‘Out of the Blue: The Essence and Ambition of Finnish Design’ (Gestalten, 2014)

Towards the end of 2013, my friend Marko Ahtisaari kindly asked me to write an essay on Finnish design. This was a little daunting, as it was a) for Marko, who I respect greatly, b) about Finnish design, which I can really only claim a kind of foreigner’s passing understanding of, and c) to open a major book about the same, produced by Nokia and published by Gestalten (‘Out of the Blue: The Essence and Ambition of Finnish Design’, edited by Marko Ahtisaari and Laura Housely, Gestalten 2014)

Moreover, although Marko had been working on the book for a while, its final stages of development would end up coinciding with the sale of Nokia’s devices and services division to Microsoft. So the book would also be destined to serve as a kind of informal footnote to a defining modern era — the first wave of mainstream mobile phones, led by Nokia, which has left a mark on pretty much all of us.

So it was not an easy essay to write. But it did give me a chance to draw together the few other things I’ve written about Helsinki, and Finland, and stitch their fragments together into something a little broader, more ambitious. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own time there, as part of the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra which, of all the things I’ve done, is a body of work I am perhaps most proud of being part of, despite its relative brevity. And finally, as it was written in Treviso and then London, to look back on our time as residents of Helsinki with a little distance.

Though my family and I are delighted to be back in London again, looking back on our six years overseas living and working in Australia, Finland and Italy, we miss Finland most of all. Despite its occasionally unappealing, sometimes unpalatable quirks, it was the place we felt most at home, the place we simply enjoyed the most, the place we felt most naturally in tune with. And the place I believe in the most, if that makes sense.

It’s not a place to simply visit — it clearly does not have the obvious, sometimes too obvious, appeal of Australia or Italy — but instead somewhere to live, to work in, to set roots down, to cultivate friendships with, and within. As a result, it’s endlessly rewarding to think about, to write about, and the essay below is the outcome of all that.

And design, as one of the few practices that alloys active cultural imagination with a pragmatic engagement in everyday life, is a useful prism with which to think through a country’s values, history and possibilities; and, for what it’s worth, the values that I personally find so attractive about the place.

Below, a slightly different edit of the essay that opens ‘Out of the Blue’; a touch longer, with a few extra paragraphs that we omitted from the published version. Thanks again to Marko and Nokia for the opportunity, to Laura for the edits, and to Gestalten. Do pick up the book; it’s beautiful, and a lovely bit of work— kiitos.

Designing Finnishness

The Essential

“Finland is what remains of something else: take away the Slavs, the Scandinavians, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the sea salt, the birch forests, scrape away a few hundred thousand tonnes of granite and what you are left with is Finland.” (‘New Finnish Grammar’, Diego Marani, 2011)

The essence of Finnishness sometimes appears to be essence itself, to be about the essential, as if wrought from the granite and gneiss that make up its huge landmass. Hard, opaque, taciturn, stubborn, resilient.

Stepping out of the central railway station in Helsinki one is confronted by a largely barren, windswept square, unforgivably exposing the stooped overcoat-clad figures scurrying across it. The heavy station building, by Eliel Saarinen, is ugly-beautiful, any delicacy weighed down by its solid mass of granite cladding. Its jugendstijl architecture feels like it was an attempt to work at the scale of machine-driven modernism but had to be hewn by frozen hands instead. Overhead, the impassive features of the iconic Emil Wikström-designed stone statues, their blank eyes staring into the middle distance — the future or the past, the city or the forest, who knows? Each holds a giant glowing globe in arms outstretched, wanly lit as an attempt to puncture the creeping darkness shrouding the scene for much of the year.

Welcome to Finland.

It is often like this. The conditions and the people, and ultimately your own stance, as foreigner, tourist or local, must be locked together at times, just to get by. It’s a naturally unforgiving environment, beautiful in its own way but hardly blessed.

In ‘This Is Finland’, one of the popular Finnish childrens’ books featuring the maniacal characters Tatu and Patu, our heroes ‘bake Finland’ in a Finland-shaped baking tray full of bedrock, clay, peat, moraine, pine, spruce and birch, with lakes poured on top. The elements feature so strongly in Finland that elemental is all it is at times.

Dealing with the essential

Necessity does not breed frippery, skittishness or carelessness. It breeds purpose, momentum, independence and a belief in technical strength — the art of know-how, nous, savoir-faire. Building on the pragmatic foundations required to survive, the formalisation of this techné via the technocratic, engineered, managerial framework of modernity leads to the production of Finland, and Finnishness.

Rem Koolhaas said recently that “national identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity”, Finland is one of the few countries whose national identity is a form of modernity — Finland was born alongside the beginnings of design itself, in the contemporary sense. Its timing was impeccable, in terms of a national culture being expressed in industrially-designed objects (rather than crafted objects. Hence the potency of Marimekko, Iittala, Kone, Fiskars, Artek, Nokia.). Both Finland and Modernism are formally born and develop concurrently after the First World War.

We admire fortitude in the face of such harsh environmental conditions and the ability to create global commercial empires and world-leading education systems in a country of “only” 5.5m people, located at the chilly peripheries of traditional power structures. Fortitude is emerging with strength from centuries spent under the thumb of empires to the West and to the East, having urbanised late with a culture attuned to living apart in wilderness rather than together in cities.

Second and Third Glances

We often in some way elide the story of Finnishness with the clichéd national personality traits of sisu, silence, solitude or insobriety, as I just have.

But for each cliché there is a counterpoint, and Finnishness possesses a far richer and more fluid set of dynamics. Yet these cannot be detected immediately, at first glance.

Indeed, it’s not immediately obvious why Helsinki is increasingly seen as such a good city by global taste-makers. Save for a few gems, the architecture is not particularly appealing. The buildings are often massive hulking megastructures covering entire blocks. The shops shut early, the food is highly variable, and it certainly isn’t the weather.

Yet Helsinki is a city of second glances. It is a city that must be worked at. Its delights can be found in unlikely courtyards hidden behind dog-leg entrances; in cosy cafes and nurseries secreted behind nondescript even foreboding entrances; in patterns of geometric brick motifs and expressive typography tucked under oxidised copper awnings above your head, at vibrant pop-up events in what is usually an empty park or disused kioski. Its grandeur is not in the typical urban set-pieces of rivers, harbours or grand squares, but instead in the small everyday details, revealed slowly.

Imagine you are asked to design a city from scratch. Perhaps you might start with the small things — say, the doorhandles of Helsinki, which Pallasmaa describes as the handshake of the building — and work your way up from there. Creating a city that looks after the small, quiet and mundane things would mean starting with people in mind — which is why we make cities in the first place, after all. It is at this discreet level that Helsinki begins to come alive — at the second and third glances — and that holds for Finnishness in general.

Finnishness is a culture that rewards and resides in the oblique, the buried, the peripheral. To some extent it must be unpeeled like the layers of an onion, its beauty is to be found in hidden juxtapositions, like a pearl, grit and briny water within the rough exterior of the oyster.

When you look again, the first realisation is that Finnishness is entirely designed, an ersatz creation that substitutes for a much deeper, far more varied slew of cultures across the country, and the region. Martti Kalliala writes of the “kansallinen projekti”, essentially a continual process of designing Finland that started around 1917.

“(T)he idea of Finland becomes the vessel for fabricating a new cultural and linguistic identity. Led by a handful of artists, writers, poets, composers, architects, and journalists, the group puts its skills to use: an immaterial country built of language, voice and image … nation-crafting through creative work leads to virgin territory: write the first play, paint the first national landscapes; compose the first symphony, hymn, anthem; publish the first newspaper; etc … The cultural project transforms into a political one.” (Kalliala, ibid.)

So Finnishness is a confection of real folk tales and folk tales invented for the purpose of creating a particular folk. Yet almost all nation states are designed: flags, anthems, borders, laws, songs, events, governments — all are prototypes at some point, and become a form of reality only in time. But if we understand Finnishness as a design, it means it might be redesigned. Moreover, Design itself is also an important key component — albeit a particularly 20th century kind of design.

If Finnishness was rapidly prototyped a century ago, what were the qualities that resulted from this combination of active nation-crafting and existing essential conditions? We might find a few core characteristics, that are both true and untrue. And in the spirit of the third glance, what if each provided a clue as to where Finnishness might evolve next? Not as a prediction, and certainly not as a direction, but as a possible future, drawing insight from the shifts in 21st century design away from simple objects, products and services and towards contexts, conditions, interactions and frameworks. What questions should we ask of Finnishness now? For perhaps design is really about framing the right questions, as much as anything else.

From hard to soft

While we can say Finnishness was in a sense designed along with Finland, it is also, at the same time, much older than Finland.

The Finnish language is signifcantly older. And of course the one thing non-Finns know about the Finnish language is that it is impenetrable, legendarily obscure, emblematic of an apparent hardness, or flintiness.

Perhaps as a result, Diego Marani’s idiosyncratic novel ‘New Finnish Grammar’ gives us the best contemporary insight into Finnishness. In Marani’s book, Finnishness is articulated for the reader by a frequently drunk pastor, who filters every aspect of his culture through the prism of the Finnish language as well as through copious amounts of koskenkorva. While Finnishness may be invented, he states that the language itself was not.

“(O)ther languages are merely temporary scaffolding for meaning. Not so for Finnish: Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and bend them to our needs.” (in Marani, ibid.)

At its core there are a group of ancient words — some think a few words are over 6000 years old. Small, soft words describing the body, the landscape, the weather, the world:

kuu (moon/month), suu (mouth), puu (tree), sää (weather), jää (ice), pää (head), kivi (stone), mäki (hill), joki (river), lahti (bay), järvi (lake), saari (island) …

This emphasis on the physical, the body, objects within a landscape, and their various conditions is an interesting starting point for a culture. Is this why Finnishness also focuses on objects and their material qualities, the body and the landscape? In what Marani describes as “chipped sounds, words eaten away by ice and silence” we might find the origins of a later facility with objects, with architecture, and in particular with a purist form of both, a design oriented around authenticity and the qualities of natural materials. Equally, the emphasis on the body would generate the form of humanist modernism associated with brands like Artek, who aimed to “support and nourish human beings’ physical and psychological wellbeing … blending functionalism with form and sculptural simplicity with the emotional warmth of wood.”

So hard conditions begat a hard language and a facility with hard materials. Yet those soft words also begat softness, through a comfort with the body and the ephemeral conditions of weather, flora and fauna.

Hardness also applies to the environmental conditions Finland enjoys. It is, of course, insanely cold. Yet everything is built to withstand it, from clothing to transport to the urban plan to the buildings — I have been colder in Australian or Italian houses than I ever was in our Helsinki apartment. Equally, the delights of the Finnish summer, which can be perfectly warm, if a little brief, means it is entirely possible to witness a 60-degree centigrade temperature swing across the year. Yet thanks to engineering that swing in conditions is not a problem. Conquering such conditions means that engineering itself has been elevated to exalted status within Finnishness.

Yet the next challenge is beyond engineering, beyond dealing with the hardness and difficulty of Finnish conditions, and instead dealing with soft systems, social systems.

“The idea of Helsinki is radical: a new capital for a new nation; an ideal city built from tabula rasa; an orthogonal grid laid over the topographic granite of an irregular peninsular; a window to the West and the East; a showcase and platform for a political, social, cultural, and architectural experiment on a grand scale.” (Kalliala ibid.)

Tsar Alexander I had designated, and in effect created, Helsinki as a kind of Special Political Zone (just as Shenzhen would be a Special Economic Zone for China almost two centuries later.) He designed it to be an autonomous Grand Duchy, a merging of Russian order with liberal European values picked up during his schooling in Switzerland. It was a prototype for politics.

While hard boundaries changed in largely obvious ways, the soft system of politics draped over what would become the Republic Of Finland suggested a design of decision-making itself.

Scroll forward many decades to the recent years and a practice of “strategic design” — the design of decision-making cultures — would emerge in Finland, partly courtesy of Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. The concern here is not with the production of objects, services, buildings and cities, but with the conditions that would enable those things, in order to address new kinds of highly complex and interdependent problems. Part of a growing international movement often looking at the design of the public sector, it feels like a different form of design, focused not only on those “hard” outcomes but on the soft systems of culture, management, services, and the organisation that enables them. It is a clear departure from the obvious tangibility of what people recognise as Finnish design.

Is it possible to connect the institutions that have nurtured Finnish design to the nation’s history of designing cultures, which is barely recognised as design at all? How to train a generation capable of articulating the architecture of “wicked problems”, and not simply the architecture of buildings?

This is the first step in evolving Finnishness — dealing with soft systems as well as hard outcomes.

From silent to social

That those Finnish words are “eaten away by silence” is also important. The ‘Finnish silence’ is an essential component of Finnishness, perhaps derived from the solitude that marks much of the Finns’ existence — the giant land mass, the small population, the late urbanisation: all conspire to creating an everyday life that, only a few generations ago, was based on not seeing many other people at all, for days on end.

Daniel Dennett suggests that “talking, and not talking, is what makes us human.” Dennett means “not talking” in order to deliberately conceal or obscure. But in Finnishness it is often simply … not talking. Foreigners are often thrown by the Finn’s ability to deploy a gaping silence into the middle of a conversation — like the old theatre joke when the narrator utters “night falls” being underlined by a sudden curtain drop. This comfort with silence is appealing, in the context of cultures that revel in small-talk instead, in filling each moment with something, anything, essentially with the chaff of shallowness. Yet equally, it can reinforce the idea that Finnishness is socially awkward. Though it should be noted that this taciturn characteristic to Finnish communication is most frequently associated with the male of the species.

Juhani Pallasmaa, who has perhaps written more influentially than any other Finnish architect, recalls of his childhood that:

“Tapio Wirkkala, the legendary designer was an elder brother for me, and he taught me the importance of craft. As I had spent the decisive years of my childhood at my farmer grandfather’s humble farm, I shared a love of nature, solitude and silence with Tapio.”

This is just about the most Finnish paragraph one could imagine. Craft, nature, solitude, silence.

Yet at second glance or third glance, as it were, Finnishness is noisy. The roar of rally cars in a forest; ice hockey fans stumbling around raucously in a freezing fountain after any win over Sweden; the thunderous volume of its numerous variants on death metal, pagan metal, doom metal; Pan Sonic playing a gig from an armoured car, over a 5000 watt sound system. In terms of contemporary music at least, Finland is primarily associated with Especially Loud. And those same Finnish men who carpet-bomb conversations with the Finnish silence may suddenly and unselfconsciously break into a sonorous rich baritone.

From the most prevalent cultural export of recent years, the soundscape of Angry Birds is anything but silent, the unhinged genius of its orchestral score leaps maniacally around, sometimes merged with franchise space-operatic themes, whereas in-game a frenzied backdrop of crazed grunts, snarls, yelps, battle-cries and screams provide no respite at all.

No, Finnishness need not even be quiet, never mind silent.

Objects are no longer silent either. As Kazys Varnelis says, “technology is our modernity now” and for Finnishness, defined around a previous form of modernity, this is a step-change, beyond engineering and into an understanding of interactive objects that have emotional expressiveness and responsiveness, variable character and identity. Objects and spaces will soon be social, as well as people. This is no longer the solid simply melting into air, but a fusion of both in which the traditional Finnish expertise with texture, material and physical form will need to be extended to understand interactive objects as active partners of people, spaces and other objects.

Sociable objects could be a challenge, given that the sense of sociality in Finnishness is quite different to that of most other European cultures, which tend to have resulted from crowding, propinquity and being marinated for millennia in a sauce of impossibly rich history.

With Finnishness, sociality is generally rather more humble, quieter, a more delicate skein of connection which is nonetheless strong yet not obvious. The calmness of the päiväkoti nursery on a dark afternoon, the hiss and sigh of the sauna, the coffee shop that sounds more like a library than its chattering and clattering Italian counterpart. This low intensity hum of connection is then punctuated raucously through a shameless inability to drink alcohol properly, seen most clearly in the wild partying of the Vappu celebrations.

That existing pattern — low intensity connectivity to the point of barely there, with occasional explosions — might need a broader range in order to work with social objects. The Finnish silence is an intriguing, and not obvious, starting point for thinking about objects no longer being silent — yet that is where the opportunity is.

The challenge with crafting Finnishness as a highly social culture, designing social objects, is that it the nation is a late-developer. The peak migration from countryside to cities only really happened in the 1970s, and even then resulted in a kind of gently sprawling Nordic surburbanism rather than urbanism. Within that traditional notion of Finnishness, despite its modern roots, the idealized association with nature, purity, silence and darkness means a rejection of cities, of urbanism, perhaps betrayed when Aalto talked of “the inhuman dandy-purism of the big cities.”

Yet as Finland continues to diversify, Finnishness itself will develop a broader social range, and a great “natural” comfort with urbanisation, a richer variety of urban living. There is plenty of evidence — the extraordinary Ravintolapäivä ‘popup restaurant day’, for one example — of weak signals in this direction. Would this more diverse, more richly social sense of Finnishness enable a unique facility with social object-making? Equally, in a near-future domestic landscape crowded with the boundless digital chatter of newly garrulous objects, perhaps a facility with creating the humble, glanceable, quiet pieces might become highly valued.

From flat to flexible

With a few exceptions, Finland’s terrain is flat as a berry-strewn pancake, an enormous landmass patterned mainly with forest, lake and mosquito-rich swamps but little in the way of mountains. The vocal patterns within Finnish, despite the extravagant rolling Rs and the propensity for sudden robust singing, are largely flat. The Baltic, at the coastline anyway, is not exactly a sea marked by rollers and breakers. City skylines, save for the odd spire, are also a carefully regulated flat envelope, around six storeys tall. Architectural quality is also very even — in general, save a few gems, buildings are rarely great but also rarely bad. The structure of society is flat, with relatively high levels of income equality and mobility within a non-stratafied culture. This latter is often described as the Nordic Model, from whose wellsprings a pleasing flatness emerges, a so-called “spirit-level” culture.

Yet that flatness can also work against a richer sense of Finnishness. Innovation is difficult in a culture so attuned to everyone getting the same experience. This may or may not be a problem; but it is a fact. And it manifests itself in some odd ways. For instance in the city.

Finnish city planning culture often remains in a dark ages of post-war planning. It builds efficiently, effectively but largely without pleasure, without diversity and without adventure. Finland can build sustainable buildings as well as anybody — at least as sustainable buildings are usually framed, which is largely unsustainable of course — but its towns and cities are largely full of stolidly “efficient” glass and steel boxes, punctured only by the occasional jewel such as Temppeliaukio, Finlandiatalo, Rovaniemi Library, or Lahti City Hall. There’s a suffocating flatness to the imagination of most of those who control the making of the city, reinforced by homogeneity amongst those designers who get to design and build it. The number of foreign firms or designers who might enrich the country’s architectural DNA is generally far too low (only a couple of significant Finnish buildings have been designed by non-Finns) just as the insularity and politics of some public and private sector cultures have meant a look inwards rather than outwards. In Helsinki, which was essentially created and reinforced as an emblem of the broader national project and so works as a kind of sign and signifier of Finnishness, the population has been relatively homogenous Finnish for most of its existence.

Yet in recent years, Helsinki’s population has begun to diversify rapidly. And this is a good thing, as encouraging diversity may be a key strategy for developing a resilient culture, generating a richer decision-making platform, as well as flushing out the very essence of the city itself. Richard Sennett describes how Aristotle thought of the city as a “synoikismos”, a coming together of people from diverse family tribes, each oikos having its own history, allegiances, property. For Aristotle, the definition of a city is a place “composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring a city into existence.” Similarly, an economic diversity is beginning to emerge, via a concerted push towards developing a ‘startup culture’ alongside numerous social innovation ventures.

So just as the ongoing success of Helsinki will be predicated on how it genuinely absorbs diversity whilst retaining a sense of provenance, given that Helsinki is a form of prototyping ground and testbed for what Finnishness can be, we might speculate that challenging flatness will be central to Finland’s ongoing success too.

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” (‘Antifragile’, Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2012)

The flatness of Finnishness, as with its hardness, tends to a rigidity, constancy and lack of elasticity that will not prepare it well for an age requiring the kind of resilience Taleb suggests. So that flatness has positive and negative sides, and will be one of the most complex aspects to recalibrate via design. The spirit level might well be applied to mass provision of public services in an equitable fashion, but how to enable the spikes of innovation that might design tomorrow’s better public services as the Finnishness evolves? How to create a culture of openness to new ideas, to entrepreneurs, to side-bets, to the unknown, to ambiguity rather than certainty? And how to absorb the best of this into a new strain of Finnishness?

From pure to rough

Finnishness, with its emphasis on humbleness, simplicity, authenticity, natural processes and materials is oriented towards an idea of purity.

At first glance, even Finnish objects themselves seem to be about a purity of form and colour. Kaj Franck’s classic crockery set, Teema, is essentially defined by pure colour, with the form pared back to its essential ur- possibility. The ur-cup. The ur-bowl.

Yet at that second or third glance, it is through Teema’s form that meaning is generated. By backgrounding formal expression, it foregrounds its use, its context, its part in a social ritual. Pallasmaa thought the same of homes: “The experience of a home is structured by distinct activities — cooking, eating, socialising, reading, storing, sleeping, intimate acts — not by visual elements.” Its purity of form and colour is a red herring, instead enabling a rich variety of activities.

Yet a form of purity, albeit somewhat warped, is also behind the populist politics of The Finns. It speaks of a desire for authenticity, which may be in part due to its relatively short existence as a national culture, and in part due to the belief that Finnishness is unique and fundamentally close to nature — as Timo Salli says of his countrymen, “we’re isolated, we have a strange language and we still have one foot in the forest”.

The latter appears extremely strong at first glance. An afternoon spent on the islands just off Helsinki can feel entirely remote. In winter it feels like endless white snow, with boundary of land and sea entirely blurred by ice, patterned with scrawny sketches of black trees as depth markers, and topped with perfect blue sky. Summer feels fecund in response. Juhani Pallasmaa notes:

“the forest condition, the rich spaces, forms, sounds and smells of the forest are a kind of a mental massage and therapy for me.”

The archetypal Finnish dwelling — the summer cottage, or mökki — exemplifes this purity through nature. The condition of the mökki is that it must be difficult to get there and that you are hidden when you do. It cannot be obvious on the shoreline, with only its small satellite of a lake- or sea-side sauna betraying its existence. The mökki itself should be shrouded in trees, perhaps glimpsed only at night in fleeting flickers of light through dense thickets of pine. Whatever the rural equivalent of urban myths might be, one of them — heard numerous times — is of so and so’s father buying the pockets of land or houses adjacent to his mökki in order that they remain unoccupied.

Then there is the purity of the darkness.

“But he could no longer forget the one terrible thing — that the sun didn’t rise any longer. Yes, it’s true; morning after morning broke in a kind of grey twilight and melted back again into the long, winter night — but the sun never showed himself. He was lost, simply lost; perhaps he had rolled out into space. At first Moomintroll refused to believe it. He waited a long time.” (‘Mooninland Midwinter’, Tove Jansson 1957)

The darkness that pervades Finland describes an almost primal, pure relationship with nature, related to the forest. The notion of the dark forest was reinforced by “discovered” national epic Kalevala, and further through Jean Sibelius’s readings of its core characters like Tapio, the forest spirit, in his tone poem Tapiola, which he described in a quatrain thus:

Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

With half the year spent in that velvety gloom and dusk, even if no longer in the forest for most Finns, the darkness is an utterly defining characteristic. Pallasmaa suggests some connection between darkness and community, noting how “the dark womb” of some buildings may create a “mystical and mythological sense of community … a sense of solidarity.”

As a European, or other Westerner, there are many occasions in Finland when you feel that you are clearly in the East, at one extremity of The West. And so it is not that unlikely to find shared fondness for darkness, as well as steam, solitude and silence, in Finnish and Eastern bathing cultures.

Junichiro Tanizaki describes the perfect and purposeful gloom of the traditional Japanese toilet thus: “surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out onto blue skies and green leaves … a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito.” (‘In Praise of Shadows’, Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933)

Purity of nature, of experience and physical purity all convene when described by Leonard Koren in ‘Undesigning the Bath’:

“In the Finnish sauna, for example, “rules” are passed down from father to son about the proper sauna atmosphere (the quiet inside; maintain the sauna as you would a pure and holy place), the essential purpose of the sauna (purification of body and soul), and so on.” (‘Undesigning the Bath’, Leonard Koren, 1996)

Tanizaki also notes how the beauty of a Japanese room is not immediately perceptible, at first glance, to Westerners: “It betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.” At second and third glance, the darkness of Japanese rooms, and perhaps the darkness of Finnishness, reveal a different, arguably deeper form of beauty.

The low, dim light for half the year leaves a cityscape of enigmatic forms, flickering indistinct shapes and shadows, with the snow lit by neon and sodium vapour shrouding and blurring forms. Tanizaki would revel in this ambiguity defined through darkness.

“The ‘mysterious Orient’ of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places … Where lies the key to this mystery? Ultimately it is the magic of shadows.” (Tanizaki, ibid.)

Of course, the corollary of Finland’s position on Earth is the endless sunlight of summer. Again, each note of Finnishness has, if not its opposite, its “adjacent possible”. These coveted elemental conditions are all part of the myth of Finnish purity and deep harmony with nature.

And myth it is, as Finland must also deal with the paradox that it possesses one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in Europe. And near that ‘pure’ mökki, the Baltic Sea is in a state of near-collapse, as polluted as anywhere. While Finns may blame this on industry and agricultural runoff elsewhere (to the East, usually), their industry and agriculture is also complicit in this.

On a more positive note, to counter all the purported quiet, austere purity of much Finnish modernism, there is also the explosion of colour in Marimekko, the wit and warmth of Eero Aarnio’s and Oiva Toikka’s work.

Moreover, there is a genuine wildness and weirdness at the core of Finnishness, which sets it apart from other Nordic cultures that are essentially far “safer”. It’s not simply the ancient bear-worshipping, forest-dwelling pagan traditions that comprise the footnotes for the Kalevala, but also the gothic HEL Yes! food-meets-pagan cabaret shows; of shock rock band Lordi winning the Eurovision song contest; of their expertise in anything involving a helmet; of Paavoharju’s filtered forest disco; of SantaPark built in what seems like a vast nuclear bunker under Rovaniemi; of the game mechanics and environment that underpins Angry Birds; of the unlikely fondness for tango. Most of these images are well-known, and sometimes a little over-played. Yet they are also all true.

So that purity is often delightfully offset by roughness and eccentricity, the unpredictable. Given the occasional ambiguity to daily existence in Finland, despite the striving for clarity and purity, might the culture develop an equal and explicit comfort in inefficiency as well as efficiency, with the unplanned as well as the planned?

Knowing what to do when there is nothing to do

“The press conference is over, and in comes Jari Litmanen, from behind the door. And I looked at his face and I looked at his eyes, and I recognised something in those eyes. And I thought, this is a man with a great willpower. Because he was not shy, not timid, but he was modest. He is not a man who will raise his voice, or bang with his fist on the table and say, ‘We do it this way.’ No, he was more of a diplomat, not wanting to be a leader, but being a leader.” [Former AFC Ajax team manager David Endt, on legendary Finnish footballer Jari Litmanen]

Finland has proven that it can take care of itself locally and globally. At home, its sheer existence is a tribute to fortitude, guile and determination, never mind the extent to which it has lately thrived. Globally, through Nokia, Kone, Rovio and others, through its diplomatic and political leadership, and through its design scene in general, it has punched well above its weight. Having been a reluctant leader, like Litmanen, will Finland once again step up to help define a new age, a post-industrial or re-industrial age? Unlike 1917, there are few obvious external drivers to force Finns to define Finnishness. So where will the desire for change come from?

Finland, and Finnishness, is not immune to the problems facing other European countries; the Eurocrisis, domestic xenophobia, industrial strife. Challenging these is difficult for an engineering culture not yet used to working with uncertainty, and in collaboration.

That requires this sense of openness to ambiguity, to non-planning, which is quite unlike the traditional mode of Finnishness. And yet there are also valuable cues in Finnishness, such as in the design — or undesign, as Leonard Koren would have it — of Finnish sauna culture.

“Making nature really means letting nature happen, since nature, the ultimate master of interactive complexity, is organized along principles too inscrutable for us to make from scratch. … Extraordinary baths … are created by natural geologic processes or by composers of sensory stimulation working in an intuitive, poetic, open-minded — undesign — manner.” (Koren, ibid.)

Equally, the päiväkoti day-care system demonstrates a learning environment built with an agile structure that can follow where children wish to lead. The role of expertise — and every teacher in Finnish education is a highly-qualified expert — is not to control or enforce a national curriculum, but to react, shape, nurture and inspire. As such it could be a blueprint not only for education generally, but also for developing a culture comfortable with divergent learning, with exploration and experiment, with a broader social and emotional range, and with ambiguity.

Chess grandmaster Savielly Tartakower once said “Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do, strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.” Indeed, Finland’s early development was driven by tactics — survival, consolidation and then growth in the face of a clear set of “things to do”; defeat the conditions, resist the neighbours, rebuild after war.

With that, came success, comfort and then perhaps the inevitable lack of drive. The country is relatively well off and stable, and perhaps a little complacent given the recent accolades.

Design in recent years has seen a shift towards the ephemeral and social — interaction design, service design, user experience design, strategic design and so on. Conversely, there has been a return to the physical, albeit altered and transformed by that new modernity, with that possibility of newly hybrid “things”: digital/physical hybrids possessing a familiar materiality yet allied with responsiveness, awareness, and character by virtue of having the internet embedded within. With its strong technical research sector, and expertise in both materials and software, Finland is well-placed. Connect the power of its nascent nanotech research sector — interestingly, derived from its expertise with wood — to a richer Finnish design culture capable of sketching social objects, social services and social spaces and its potential becomes tangible, just as with the 1930s modernism that fused the science and engineering of the day with design in order to produce Artek.

Finnish design could be stretched to encompass these new directions, the aforementioned reversals towards openness, ambiguity, sociality, flexibility and softness. Given that unique DNA of Finnishness — both designed and undesigned, both old and young — Finland is at an interesting juncture.

The next phase, then, is knowing what to do, despite the appearance of not having anything to do.

Buckminster Fuller, a guest at Sitra’s first design-led event at Helsinki’s Suomenlinna island fortress in 1968, once said “the best way to predict the future is to design it.” Finland has done this once before; it may be that now is exactly the right time to do it again.

A version of this essay published in ‘Out of the Blue: The Essence and Ambition of Finnish Design’, edited by Marko Ahtisaari and Laura Housely, Gestalten 2014. The images above are from the book, and you can see more of these spreads from ‘Out of the Blue’ at Flickr

This version of the essay originally published at


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