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GLOBAL – Whether you’re sitting on an Alvar Aalto stool, eating breakfast on a Marimekko table cloth – or using a Nokia phone – it’s likely that your life involves some aspect of great Finnish design. Helsinki is the World Design Capital in 2012, but you might be surprised to find out just how much Finnish art, architecture, engineering and fashion have influenced the world.


Style icon Jacqueline Kennedy introduced Marimekko dresses to an American audience when she wore them on the 1960 Presidential campaign trail with JFK.


Kennedy wearing Finnish design

And then Finland got hip again when Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw wore a Marimekko bikini, and a dress in the second series of the hit show (Sorry we could only find an image of the dress, not the bikini).


If dresses aren’t your thing, take a look at the Solifer. The company produced mopeds that were “sleek and trim enough to rank proudly among the best lookers on the market,” according to The Motor Cycle magazine. And they were the bike of choice for some of America’s toughest moped gangs.


Solifer moped


Great Finnish Designers



Marimekko was founded in 1951 by Viljo and Armi Ratia who wanted to apply their graphic designs to textiles. The company first designed and sold a line of simple dresses to show off how their fabrics could be used.  


Two pioneering designers set the tone for Marimekko: Vuokko Nurmesniemi in the 1950s, and Maija Isola in the 1960s.


Nurmesniemi designed the simply-striped red and white Jokapoika shirt in 1956; Isola designed the iconic Unikko (poppy) print pattern in 1964.


unikko duvet

You can still find many of those early Marimekko designs today – and you might be using the Unikko on everything from a cup and saucer to a shower curtain.




Timo Sarpaneva (1926-2006) was one of Finland’s greatest designers, and the Sarpaneva pot is often seen as the perfect example of combining beauty with function.



Timo Sarpaneva often worked in glass, but he was inspired by his blacksmith grandfather to create an iron pot that was artistic, functional and crafted from high quality material – and, he said, it made a “great reindeer stew.” 

sarpaneva pot


Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was an architect and designer whose career moved from Nordic classicism to modernisn –  but always encompassed the German idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.


Although Aalto’s glass work and furniture is very familiar to us, he was also an architect who designed not only buildings, but their interior surfaces, lamps, furnishings and glassware as well.

These are some of his drawings for a new town council building in Finland:  

Town council drawings


Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985) said:


”All materials have their own unwritten laws… You should never be violent with a material you’re working on, and the designer should aim at being in harmony with his material.”


Working away in his cellar, Wirkkala designed everything from plastic ketchup bottles to glass, but he’s best known for his 1950’s renditions of natural forms, like mushrooms and leaves.


iconic leaf design

This laminated birch dish, made in a technique called aeroplane veneer, is one of Wirkkala’s most iconic pieces – and proved that you did not have to use expensive materials to create beautiful design –  it’s made from plywood.   





Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) was a painter whose work was considered central to Finnish national identity.  He is bets known for illustrating the Kalevala  – a 19th century work of poetry considered to have played an instrumental role in the development of the Finnish national identity, language and Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.


Gallen-Kallela worked in Paris, Berlin, London and Kenya before he realised that Finland was his true inspiration. In 1918 both he, and his son Jorma, fought at the front in the Finnish Civil War, and, as a result, Gallen-Kallela was subsequently asked to design the flags, and uniforms for the newly independent Finnish nation.

Epic Finnish art

In the 1920s Gallen-Kallela lived and worked in the US, and took part in the Taos art colony in New Mexico. He died of pneumonia in Stockholm in 1931 with his illustrations for the ‘Great Kalevala’ still unfinished.