A design-conscious journey to Finland

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Marius Benson prises himself out of his sleekly modern, moulded birchwood armchair to make a pilgrimage to the land that did much to define 20th century design.

A chair by designer Alvar Aalto

One definition of the word 'cozy' is provided on the 13th floor of the Wana Wiru Hotel in central Tallinn.

On a December Sunday morning it is possible to slide out from under a warm doona, look out at the clear sky, reflect on a temperature of ten below and look down to a building site where sheets of industrial plastic are flicking in a wind which chills the city down to an effective minus 24.

And down on that building site, at eight on Sunday morning, in those conditions, there are men working.

It's enough to make you even gladder of a warm shower and a hot breakfast buffet.

You can travel to Tallinn by boat from the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in about three-and-a-half hours.

We reached the mouth of Tallinn harbour, through a choppy gulf of Finland, on time — then we spent six more hours cruising back and forth across the mouth of the harbour, waiting for the weather to settle enough to allow us to dock.

When you do get there you find the Estonian capital is an interesting medieval town where restaurants serve inexpensive food that helps combat the cold, without making you want to rush out and buy an Estonian cook book.

But on the return journey across the Gulf of Finland you see the real appeal of the city across the water for many Finns.

Alcohol is somewhere between a quarter and half the price of Finland and on the ferry home everyone buys to the limit.

You wouldn't go to Helsinki if your only purpose was to have a drink. But for a city of only half a million people the Finnish capital offers a lot of reasons to justify a visit.

That is particularly true if you are a design enthusiast because, even by Scandinavian standards, Finns are uniquely skilled and enthusiastic about design.

Designs for life

Design junkies could start at the city's Art and Design Museum — although the best thing there is the shop, with the design displays not really telling the story of Finnish design.

Walk back into town from the design museum and you hit the Artek shop — the high church of classic, modern furniture design, both Finnish and international.

Artek was the brand created by Alvar Aalto, a pivotal figure in 20th century Finnish design — the man who took Finnish features from an arts and craft past and transformed them into the sleek, mass produced furniture of the machine age.

The city is studded with other design outlets — and a must for wise shoppers is the discount design centre a little out of the centre where brands like Arabia, iitalla and Hackmann can be bought at varying discounts.

Take a drive around Helsinki and you can take in such design sacred sites as Alvar Aalto's one-time home — and beyond the city the houses and studios of other designers are open to the public.

Fish pies and black bread

Design is central to the Finnish identity, but there are other attractions.

The central markets on the main harbour are a cornucopia of local produce and a very good lunch can be had by grazing on the snacks on sale there - cabbage pastries, fish pies, caviar on black bread.

Or if you're sick of eating Scandinavian there's a sushi bar too.

Helsinki is more than worth a visit — just make sure you take all the alcohol allowed. If you don't want it friends and hosts will certainly welcome it.

January 2003

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