Quality Finnish: Finland's remarkable design heritage – and thriving contemporary scene

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Helsinki has been named World Design Capital of 2012.

Everyone knows about Scandinavian design – whether it's drooling over high-end interiors blogs, wishing your home looked a bit more like those in the hit Danish drama Borgen, or just acknowledging that, despite the trials of self-assembly, Ikea is still really on to something with that cheap but cheerful, not to mention functional aesthetic.

But maybe it should be referred to as Nordic design, instead – for one of the biggest hitters when it comes to mid-century classics is Finland. Design was a crucial part of the country's rebuilding efforts as well as its sense of identity in the post-war years, and for an economically troubled little land, it punched seriously above its weight, with companies such as Artek, Iitala and Arabia producing rock-solid products that were not only a hit at the time, but are still produced and popular today.

Even if you think you aren't familiar with Finnish design, a glimpse at the Artek curved wooden stool, or the Marimekko poppy print, or Alvar Aalto's swirled glass vase will convince of the enduring appeal of the Finnish look. And from the first, the Finnish design community was happy to be bracketed with its Swedish and Danish neighbours.

The international breakthrough came with the touring Design in Scandinavia exhibition of 1954, which travelled around north America and Canada for three-and-a-half years. Hugely influential, this exhibition initiated the popular conception of the "Scandinavian look", which endures today: bright, bold designs, clean minimalist lines, highly functional, and affordable to all. And it was a look Finland was very much part of.

This year sees Finland really celebrating its rich design heritage, beginning with the award of World Design Capital to Helsinki. The venture aims to promote grass-roots interest in design, from consumers and tourists up to policy-makers and city planners, to raise awareness of how clever (and beautiful) design can improve quality of life. The capital – and four neighbouring cities – have certainly taken the idea to heart; in January, a new initiative was launched every other day.

This might sound a little high-minded, but then, as Jukka Savolainen, director of Helsinki's Design Museum explains to me, the post-war reconstruction period was not only the "golden age for Finnish design", it also began the trend for fairly lofty ideals of design's nation-rebuilding potentials. Finns are proud of their design industry's democratic nature, too – it was about good design for all, affordable prices for all.

But for all those ideals, the city still has a good grasp of the commercial potentials of design: Helsinki now has a designated Design District, a manageable but densely packed grid of streets stuffed with cool interiors and fashion shops, plus small independent art galleries.

For the serious fan, the fact that it is the World Design Capital is the perfect excuse for a visit – there are plenty of events being held throughout the year, and even if you miss out on those, you can pick up the coolest interiors pieces rather cheaply. But many are available here, too, not least the pick of the mid-century classics (see box overleaf) – though the "affordable design for everyone" maxim must have either slipped in recent years, or the Finns are just more willing to spend a higher proportion of their income on nice things.

Those golden-age designers clearly got something right – when visiting Helsinki, the pieces I admired in the Design Museum, by the likes of Aalto, k Kaj Franck and Timo Sarpaneva were also the items I saw at the breakfast table, in restaurants, in shops. They really are still being used today – and still looking fresh. Arguably such a strong and ever-present heritage could be a little suffocating for new, young designers – the hope is the Design Capital status should help raise the profile of emerging talent, too.

The aim of producing an attractive object with a practical use still informs contemporary designers, however. Chatting to Ville Kokkonen, a current design director for Artek (the company founded by Aalto in 1953), he reveals that they still go for that timeless look, explaining that the design process is "not trend-led" and that they only, oh-so-carefully, produce one or two new items each year.

While another young designer, Tatu Ahlroos, seems wearied at always talking about the old masters instead of fresh visions, for him, Finnish design is "bold but minimalist, but with a sense of humour" – and certainly, both classic and more contemporary creations support that, from the brilliant blooms of the patterned Marimekko prints to Harri Koskinen's famous lamp, which appears to encase a bulb in ice. We've picked a few favourite contemporary pieces, too. Think fun, think functional... think Finnish.

Scandi savvy: The best of Finnish design

Classics

60 Stool, Alvar Aalto, 1933

A genuine design classic. Simple but pleasing, the 60 Stool is made of bent birch wood, is stackable and makes a handy little table, too. It has been popular since its first incarnation, and Artek still makes them in various colours; in the UK, the Aram Store sells them in plain wood or lacquered black, white, red, navy and two-tone; we like the spring-time yellow best.

£155, Aram Store, London WC2, aram.co.uk

Marimekko Unikko print, Maija Isola, 1964

The print is an instantly recognisable pattern, and a signature for Marimekko – yet it came about when the designer Maija Isola defied her boss, the company founder Armi Ratia, who had banned floral prints. Yet this flagrant rule-breaking happily proved the making of Marimekko; the poppy now adorns clothes, cushions, teapots, socks... youname it, they sell it.

Cushions from £55, Marimekko, London W1, marimekko.com

The Ball Chair, Eero Aarnio, 1966

It might look as though it hails from Swinging London, but this space-age swivelling white-and-orange chair was actually made by the Finn Eero Aarnio. He came up with the idea in 1962, but it took four years to perfect the fibreglass structure. Today, the famous retro pod-like chairs are still being made, although be warned: they don't come cheap...

£6,900, from DesignShop, Edinburgh, designshopuk.com

Sarpaneva cast-iron pot, Timo Sarpaneva, 1960

This cosy, curvy and extremely solid cast-iron pot is back in production thanks to the Finnish design company Iittala, and we can't think of anything better in which to slow-cook a warming bowl of porridge. The wooden handle serves multiple functions – it makes it easy to lift and carry a heavy hot pot; but you can also slide it out and it becomes a lever to lift the lid.

£169, from Innes, Hessle, East Yorkshire, ivor-innes.co.uk

Savoy Vase, Alvar Aalto, 1936

It was originally designed for the classy Savoy restaurant in Helsinki, and shaped so that flowers would splay out towards diners rather than standing rigidly tall. But soon everyone wanted one and it became a bestseller for Iittala. The swirly vase is now available in all sorts of sizes and colours; in the UK alone, the retailer Skandium shifts more than 500 a year.

From £43, from Skandium, London SW3, skandium.com

New school

Ego, Stefan Lindfors, 1998

An accessible range by Lindfors, one of the stars of the Finnish design scene of the 1990s (an industrial designer, he also makes furniture, pop videos, sculptures and some slightly alarming sex toys). These pure-white cups, made by Iittala, are simple, clean but pleasingly functional, too, with that angular handle giving a nice sense of balance and slotting smoothly into the saucer.

From £7 a saucer and £13 a cup, from Skandium, London SW3, skandium.com

Block Lamp, Harri Koskinen, 1996

Made by Koskinen for Design House Stockholm, this striking glass block lamp gives the impression of a lightbulb frozen in a lump of ice. It continues to be one of DHS's most popular products and, in 2000, was added to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, cementing its status as an important design.

£158.20, from Heal's, London W1, heals.co.uk

Upside, Tapio Anttila, 2009

He may not be stocked in Ikea yet, but Tapio Anttila is one to watch – he's just won Furniture Designer of the Year at the Finnish Designer Awards 2012. While his rustic, stumpy wooden stools for the traditional craft collective Woodism are adorable, unless you live in a Scandinavian log cabin, you may find his Upside range more useful: as stools, trays or sideboards, these sleek pieces stack satisfyingly, and won an international Good Design award in 2010.

£225, puulon.fi; tapioanttila.com

Feed Me!, Vesa Kattelus, 2011

Kattelus is one of a group of young Finnish designers operating as the Kaamos group (Kaamos is Finnish for "polar night"). He may be at the very beginning of his career, but his comically cute white porcelain pots, which seem to have their "mouths" wide open, are worth snapping up now.

From £29, email vesa@kaamosgroup.fi; kaamosgroup.fi

Soihtu Table, Jukka Korpihete, 2006

Korpihete specialises in lighting design – we like the almost surreally over-sized lampshades he's created for Finnish company LND Design, which turn traditional shapes on their head, and create unusual angles of light and shadow. The large floor lamp would be quite a statement, but you can just imagine the smaller table version hopping around like a Pixar Anglepoise gone Nordic. Available in a variety of colours; order directly from LND Design for door-to-door delivery.

From £319, email info@lnd-design.com; lnd-design.com

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