Fine Finnish

Designs by Eero Aarnio

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Helsinki is the fastest growing capital in the EU, and Finland’s cool capital is a hot destination for visitors, with enough art attractions to pack a city break.

Most of Helsinki dates from the 1850s (the oldest stone building was erected in 1857), when an extensive construction programme was undertaken to celebrate the new capital after it assumed the role from Turku.
Sitting on a compact peninsula jutting into the Baltic and laid out in a classic grid system, much of the city is designed in low rise, Russian Imperial style (Finland was formerly under Russian rule) with the later addition of neo-Renaissance architecture and a dollop of Art Nouveau.
The art on show ranges from iconic examples of the ‘golden age’ of Finnish art in the late 19th/early 20th century to the most recent international contemporary art.


First stop on any art tour of Helsinki has to be the Ateneum Art Museum. Home to the country’s most extensive collection, it tells the story of Finnish art from the 1750s to the early 1960s. (Later works are on display at the nearby Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.) Opened in 1888, the Ateneum’s grand entrance hall and stairway hark back to the days when an art gallery was a place of reverence. The Ateneum is unsurpassed in showcasing the golden age of Finnish art (roughly, from the 1880s to 1910), with many national treasures on view by beloved national names such as Albert Edelfeld, Pekka Halonen, Helene Schjerfbeck and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, many inspired by Finnish folklore and mythology. The works are displayed in themed rooms such as Landscape, Portraits, Symbolism and Echoes of War (when artists reflected the threats and anxieties in society generated by conflict). As well as some of the most loved classic Finnish artworks, the Ateneum has a small selection of international art from the late 19th century to the 1950s, including works by Gaugin, van Gogh, Cezanne and Chagall, and a gallery dedicated to special exhibitions.

Ateneum Art Museum
Ateneum Art Museum

Continuing the story of Finnish art from the 1960s onwards is the nearby Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. (On the short walk over from the Ateneum pop into the Central Railway Station, where four granite, torch-bearing giants guard the main entrance to the Art Nouveau building. The interior walls feature beautiful murals and there are many elegant touches in the facings and fixtures.) Opened in 1998, Kiasma is designed in a sleek, white, minimalist style to maximise the light entering the building, its five levels connected by a curved ramp. Taking its name from the Greek word for ‘crossing point’ and also a term for the intersection of optic nerves, the museum focuses on Nordic, Baltic and international contemporary art, including installations, paintings, film and photography.


On the upper floor of a former tennis centre which has been renovated as a retail, restaurant and cinema complex, the Helsinki Art Museum, or HAM (motto: ‘popcorn for the brain’), shows a terrific collection of Finnish and international 20th century art under a sweeping, curved roof in a light, airy, hangar-like space ideal for viewing large scale works. The 9,000-piece collection includes some of the top names in modern art, such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Roy Lichtenstein and Louise Bourgeois. Most public artworks and statues dotted all over the city all over the city on streets and in parks also belong to the HAM collection.

Helsinki Art Museum
Helsinki Art Museum

Opened in 1928, the Kunsthalle champions contemporary art and design, including fine art, architecture, photography and applied art, in a building which is one the finest examples of Finnish Neoclassical design with soaring gallery ceilings.

House museums

Two popular collections are shown in ‘house museums’, where as well as appreciating the art, you can get an insight into stylish 19th and early 20th century living.

One of the largest private art collections in Finland can be found at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in the former private home of the newspaper publisher Amos Anderson (1878-1961), an avid collector of 20th century Finnish art. These works are shown alongside European art from the 15th to 18th century as well as some modern art from the collection of the architect Sigurd Frosterus. In its present location since 1965, the museum is preparing to move into a spectacular, new underground complex in the city centre, where skylights will flood the lower level.

In 1921 the brewing magnate Paul Sinebrychoff bequeathed his private art collection, the largest in the Nordic countries at the time, to the state. His home now hosts the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, where the sumptuous interiors, including antique furniture, silverware, porcelain and other exquisite objets d’art, seem frozen in time. Surrounding them is Finland’s most significant collection of paintings by foreign old masters, ranging from the 14th century to the 1850s and including works by Flemish, Dutch, Italian, English and French artists such as Cranach, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Daubigny and many others. The lower floor, with its vaulted brick ceiling, is an atmospheric setting for displaying religious icons.


The Finns talk about design like other nationalities talk about food or sex. (Google “Finnish design” and you’ll come up with nearly five million search results.) So what is it with the Scandinavian obsession with design?

One explanation is the harsh climate, the theory being that people are forced to spend so much time indoors during the long, dark winters that they surround themselves with style and beauty. Today’s contemporary designers feed a global demand for things Finnish. From forklift trucks to watches, crash helmets to bicycles, trains to running shoes, the Finns seem compelled to design the world in their image.

Alvar Aalto’s wave design for Iittala

The top Finnish design brands include: Artek, the furniture and furnishings company with a new superstore in the city centre; Marimekko, known for its bold and colourful designs in textiles and homeware (they also designed the amenity kits aircraft livery for Finnair); Kalevala and Lapponia, iconic names in Finnish jewellery design; and Iittala, the tableware and cookware specialists whose legendary designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is revered in Finland, especially for his timeless wave design for vases. Revolutionary compared to the decorative objects of the time (it first appeared in 1936), the undulating shape has become an emblem of Finnish design. Whereas elsewhere in Europe Iittala is sold in specialty stores, in Finland you can pick up a piece in your local supermarket.

Helsinki is a UNESCO City of Design, and a whole area has been designated the Design District, a cluster of 25 streets and 200 trend-setting shops, showrooms, galleries, vintage and antiques stores, jewellers and other creative businesses. The local merchants’ association oversees the area, including street lighting and signage. Pick up a map at any outlet and explore for yourself or join a guided tour.

Behind the grand, red brick facade of the Design Museum, Finnish Form is a permanent exhibition of design objects from the second half of the 19th century to the present, exploring the role that design plays in society in line with legendary designer Eero Aarnio’s credo that ‘the ultimate purpose of design is to make our lives easier and function better’. The museum also hosts touring exhibitions.

In September the annual Helsinki Design Week, the biggest design event in Northern Europe, practically takes over the city centre.

A 20-minute tram ride from the city centre, the Arabia district grew up around the ceramics factory of the same name, which dates back to 1873. While factory operations are winding down, the brand is still very much alive. The modern Arabia Centre has outlets for famous Finnish design brands, including beautiful wooden products for the home by Pentik, Finlayson textiles (founded by the Scottish mill owner James Finlayson), Iittala glass and Hackman ceramics. Behind the Arabia complex is a new residential area which has been developed over the last 15 years or so where the design ethic continues. Developers are required by law to devote a portion of their costs to art and design, with the result that the area boasts creative architecture and public artworks.


A couple of areas show off Helsinki’s Art Nouveau heritage best. In the Katajanokka district, Luotsikatu (‘katu’ is Finnish for street) is arguably the city’s best preserved street, while Huvilakatu in the Ullanlinna district has some of the city’s most attractive houses of their kind.


Finnair flies direct from Edinburgh to Helsinki from March 26 to October 26, 2017 on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays with additional services on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the peak summer period.


A block from the elegant Esplanadi, where locals and visitors promenade between Helsinki’s main thoroughfare, Mannerheimintie street, and the harbour, the GLO Hotel Kluuvi received the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice 2017 Award. Its recently opened sister property, GLO Hotel Art, occupies a spectacular Art Nouveau building in the Design District.

GLO Hotel Kluuvi
GLO Hotel Kluuvi


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