That Year of Design
Helsinki 2012: To remember or to forget...?
Looking back on the year of design in Helsinki, there is little on the surface to indicate that the occasion was exploited to the full. On a more generous note, however, it is not always apparent what seeps through into the public conscious and what aftereffects might be generated. To analyse that, several more years must pass. Still, we now freshly reflect on the year that was, attempting to eke out any obvious notable benefits.
In 2012, Helsinki had the honour of being the design capital of the world. The title caused a rumble of expectation, but after the year passed, many were left confused. Where exactly was the design? Or can almost anything be called design? In retrospect, the debate concerned the very concept of design and the role of designers. In the organisers’ view, it’s time to re-invent the whole field. Inarguably, the fact that Helsinki was the World Design Capital of 2012 didn’t go unnoticed in the city. At a minimum, a passer-by would notice the blue and- white posters or the new style of trash bins. There also seemed to be an increase in public discussion about design, if not an overdose. The word was mentioned so often that it turned into a joke: “This meatball here, it’s Finnish design.” This is significant. For many, the design year only meant that the ‘design’ label was applied to numerous things that we already had or were going to have anyway, such as the construction of a new bicycle path. At the same time, if you actually sought-out contemporary Finnish design, products and innovations, you were left confused. Where was it?
NOT A JUBILEE
The WDC Helsinki office is rather hard to find. One needs to enter an inner courtyard and climb the stairs to the third floor, guided by a modest sign. The executive director, Pekka Timonen himself, opens the door. The office is already being stripped-down and getting quiet. By the end of March, the board will have wrapped-up the results. Then the job is done. I tell Timonen that I’ve been talking to several design professionals and would like him to reflect on the critique. He seems pleased. “I enjoy criticism, it’s part of the process. The only thing that is hard to bear is if it is based on the wrong premise, the wrong facts regarding goals, time and resources.” Let’s establish the premise, then. The WDC year was the third one in history: Helsinki and its neighbouring towns followed Torino in 2008 and Seoul in 2010. The budget for the year was E16-million, derived from the five cities, ministries and sponsors. The programme was put together from initiatives by municipalities, governments, companies and designers, all chosen from an open call. What was the goal? “The WDC year is not a curated festival or a design jubilee. Our aim was not to celebrate the past but to reach for the future”, Timonen replies. However, he soon realised that the public image of design is based strongly on the past. “When Finnish people talk about designers, they think of national heroes creating beautiful artefacts for exhibitions. But we wanted to stress the meaning of design for society, for improving services.”
NO MORE BEAUTIFUL CHAIRS
As the Finnish audience is expecting ‘the next Kaj Franck or Tapio Wirkkala’, this service-oriented reading of design is hard to apprehend. Indeed, it was one of the main points of criticism. According to Timo Salli, professor of Applied Art and Design at Aalto University, there is a confrontation between the two schools of thought about design in Finland. On one side, there’s strategic, immaterial design; and on the other, artistic product design, those exhibition artefacts. The latter sort, once so glorified, has become undermined. “Product designers are blamed for being un-ecological; but no one would blame artists and sculptors for that, right? Product design is currently seen as outdated”, Salli says. Pekka Timonen nods approvingly. “The world doesn’t need anymore beautiful chairs. If we’ve got a thousand designers, it’s enough that one of them is thinking about chairs. The rest can focus on more important questions.” He points out that the WDC year facilitated dozens of exhibitions featuring Finnish design and art. One of the most praised presentations was ‘Everyday discoveries’, an international exhibition showcasing design from 20 countries. Sadly, it only ran for ten days. “It was a logistical challenge to bring everybody into one place at the same time”, Timonen explains. He’s more proud of other projects, such as improving school meals and the security checks at the airport, or getting a designer employed in the social services office in Helsinki. These kinds of things are what designers should do, he states. “A lot of graduates consider themselves artists. But there doesn’t seem to be a big demand for them.” According to Katja Rensujeff, researcher in the Arts Promotion Centre, there are about 3300 design professionals in Finland. Sixteen percent of them have experienced unemployment in the past year. “Designers are needed in companies and in the public service sector”, Timonen says. “A good design may include beauty, but the best design is something we don’t notice at all.”
Well, let’s get back to street level. According to a poll by the leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, most citizens didn’t visit a single WDC year event. The greater public didn’t notice what was happening, or didn’t care. “I don’t buy it”, Timonen says. “We need to remember that the topic is design. Design is not an event. But if even a fifth of the citizens attended, it’s an excellent result.” He admits that there should have been one popular, permanent event, like a design street. “Surely we could have a had a big fair with music and dance. But once you take down the flags and turn off the music, what are you left with? To me, the WDC year is the start of something, not an outcome.”
THERE'S ALWAYS THE SAUNA
About 1.5 kilometres from the WDC office, something really concrete is about to be finalised. Kulttuurisauna / Culture Sauna is a project by architect Tuomas Toivonen and his wife, designer Nene Tsuboi. The building stands on the shore: whitewashed walls fall straight into the sea, now frozen and snowcapped. People are enjoying a walk in the sun, but the architect himself is inside, working. This is a bona fide hands-on project. The couple also own the building, and once it’s ready they will be welcoming in the public for a sauna, coffee, and meetings. “We where thinking of a public building that we still lack in Helsinki, of such a size that we could control”, Toivonen says. Even as a construction site, the place looks beautiful. It’s ‘primitively’ made of wood and stone, left simple and harmonic. From the sauna benches there’s a gorgeous view across the sea and to the old part of town. However, for Toivonen, architecture doesn’t mean giving a pretty form to something. Architecture enables the form. What he’s proud of is the extreme eco-efficiency of the sauna. Its carbon footprint will be close to zero. “Our project was included in the WDC programme for two reasons: firstly, it fits the theme ‘Open Helsinki’, because any citizen can walk in. Secondly, we see design as purpose oriented: for this project, design primarily means designing the energy system.” The sauna furnace, weighing nearly eight tons, was designed together with one of the WDC sponsors. “On top of the collaboration itself, WDC brought us publicity”, Toivonen says, smiling uneasily. “We’ve had hundreds of journalists here, before the building is even finished.” That’s easy to understand – a sauna is something visible, meaningful, and certainly Finnish. It’s a design attraction. ‹